Dublin Bus needs extra funding and more efficient routes to overhaul its image

Smiley political photoshoots won’t compensate for underfunding of public transport

Photograph: Alan Betson

Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Peak Silicon Valley arrived, on schedule, in 2017 when it was revealed that US ride-hailing company Lyft was testing a grand new project. The Lyft Shuttle, it explained, would not show up at your door and drop you off at an exact location. Instead, the driver would operate along a fixed route with pre-set pick-up and drop-off locations. The service would cost less than a regular “ride”, but might involve some walking at either end.

Lyft had “invented” a bus and was threatening to roll it out “in beta”. It was funny, but then again it wasn’t. Lyft and its rival Uber seemed all too keen to exploit political indifference to the maintenance of public bus networks in a country that fetishises and privileges private cars. Americans have a tendency not to get the bus, in both senses of “get”. Here, the Government is steadily adopting the same miserable attitude and forcing it upon Irish people.

It doesn’t help its case that public transport, as a category, can’t seem to compete with cycling campaigns for media enthusiasm

We should be on the cusp of a revolution in public transport infrastructure and services inspired by the example of other European countries, advances in electric vehicles and the urgent need to make our cities cleaner, greener and more liveable. Instead, the Covid-19 crisis is yielding extraordinary headlines. Monday came the morale-sinking news that Bus Éireann is to axe several of its inter-city routes owing to financial pressures that the Government will not alleviate.

This regression is consistent with the clear warning that lies within the National Transport Authority’s final summary report of the new Dublin Area bus network, aka the Dublin strand of the spacebar-eschewing BusConnects project. The report details what is on the whole an encouraging redesign of an often incoherent transport map, promising “next generation bus corridors” and teasing the introduction of cashless, properly integrated ticketing. But there is only really one phrase in it that matters: “subject to Government funding”.

It appears three times before the report gets down to the business of proposed bus frequencies, at which point a variant – “the full delivery of the new network is subject to additional funding from Government” – pops up as a footnote 16 times.

Even if the funding tap is turned and kept on, the BusConnects vision will take “a number of years” to achieve, involving no fewer than 11 phases. There’s absolutely no need to worry that the tagline for the project – “more people, to more places, more often” – sounds like an epidemiologists’ worst nightmare, as the elusive vaccine for Covid-19 will almost certainly trundle along first.

Amazingly, the whopping 72,000 submissions to three rounds of BusConnects consultations for Dublin alone has not guaranteed bus services a place on the political priority list.

Bus selfie

As a lifelong Dublin Bus user dating back to the era when they were a sickly orange colour, my faith in Irish governments becoming less American and more European about public bus services took a permanent knock the day former minister for transport Shane Ross tweeted a tourist-esque selfie of himself on the number 44, as if the journey was a wonderful and surprising novelty, deserving of special praise for resulting in “one less car on the road”. The reception from weary daily bus commuters to the blithe, off-peak experiment was not kind, though it was fair.

The current coalition had only just budged up and made room for public transport supporters in the Green Party when pandemic setbacks stalled any hint of momentum. Notwithstanding the move to expand some Bus Éireann city services in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, the cessation of inter-city routes meant Monday was a bad day for the bus.

It doesn’t help its case that public transport, as a category, can’t seem to compete with cycling campaigns for media enthusiasm, and by definition, it possesses none of the commercial clout of motoring either. Even compared to trains and trams, the bus is an uncool and lumbering cousin. There is no tech gloss, as things stand, to the bus. Travelling by one is regarded as the antithesis of excitement – though in fact there are few G-forces as strong as the ones encountered trying to descend a stairwell as a double-decker rounds a corner like it’s Gene Hackman in the French Connection.

Tolerance strain

Nobody wants or needs the bus equivalent of Iarnród Éireann’s pastoral “rediscover the joy of the train” advertising campaign, which oversold the prospect of a peaceful carriage and underplayed the chances of tedious claustrophobia in a portable Supermac’s. Nobody wants more politicians doing bus-selfies, nor should anyone have to listen to cart-before-the-horse appeals for people to submit to an underfunded, tolerance-straining public transport network in order to keep it running.

In Dublin, there is a brand refresh in the pipeline, with Dublin Bus apparently destined to be bestowed with a “new, fresh and modern look”, including “attractive” livery that “conveys the image of a modern, effective transit system”. This is a lot to ask of any colour combination. In reality, only a more efficient and pleasant network has any hope of overhauling the image of the bus.

Optimists will note that the latest report of the BusConnects project includes reprieves for some routes wiped off previous map proposals, as well as welcome extensions for certain terminus locations. There is plenty of logic in its approach, on paper.

But it is hard to fault any bus user who fears the only changes coming will be detrimental ones that leave passengers floundering at the side of the road.

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