Alex Mauricio leaves Cavan town at 5.15am each weekday morning to arrive at the Blanchardstown Centre around 8am. Then he walks the remaining 15-20 minutes to arrive at the Technological University of Dublin Blanchardstown Campus for his lectures in mechatronic engineering.
Each evening, he leaves college at 6pm and walks back alongside a busy two-lane, two-way road which crosses the motorway to his bus stop, sometimes having to wait another hour for a bus as packed buses from the city centre pass without stopping. He arrives back in Cavan anytime between 9pm and 11pm.
“It’s stressful and I feel tired but there is no alternative for me. I live on my own in Cavan. I do my assignments on the bus and when I get home, I cook and I go to bed. I work in a sports shop in Cavan at the weekends.”
His friend and classmate, Wahid Iqbal, leaves his rented accommodation near Dublin city centre around 6.30am each morning and gets to TU Dublin in Blanchardstown about two hours later having taken two different buses. His return journey takes a similar length of time.
Neither of these young men feel their long commutes to and from their third-level institution are that unusual. “I know others who take up to three hours to get here from Tipperary and Wicklow each day,” says Iqbal.
The “transport poverty” of students was one of the topics under discussion at an ideas forum in TU Dublin at Blanchardstown this week.
“We have seen the average commute distance go up as the numbers of students renting go down due to the lack of or unaffordability of accommodation,” says Dr Paul Horan, who is head of campus planning across the five campus sites of TU Dublin.
Students with long commutes are not spending time going to clubs and societies if they have to get a bus back to Navan, Drogheda, Dundalk or Kildare— Dr Paul Horan
Academics also speak about how students facing long commutes cannot attend evening talks as they rush to catch buses once their lectures are finished.
“The settlement patterns [ie where students live] is an enormous issue. A lot of students have long commutes – from as far as Monaghan and Wexford – to the city centre campuses too. It puts pressure on students and it’s a new challenge for lecturers delivering programmes,” says Dave O’Connor, head of environmental planning at the school of architecture, building and environment at TU Dublin. The TU Dublin Smarter Travel survey in 2022 found that more than one-quarter of students travelled more than 30km to college.
While some college campuses are already quieter in the afternoon, many are almost empty on Fridays as tired students opt to stay at home and take their lectures online on the last day of the week.
“Students with long commutes are not spending time going to clubs and societies if they have to get a bus back to Navan, Drogheda, Dundalk or Kildare,” says Horan.
It’s all very far from the ideal university experience where young minds are introduced to challenging ideas and fun activities that they will cherish for years to come.
While the high cost of student accommodation (much of it run by private operators) is one of the main reasons why many third-level students opt to commute from their homes to college, there is also arguably a residual effect from the Covid-19 pandemic which has resulted in students engaging less in on-campus extracurricular activities.
Technological universities have faced a particular barrier in that they haven’t been allowed to borrow to build student accommodation on their campuses. “Minister [for Further and Higher Education] Simon Harris has just announced a new initiative to look at developing accommodation on the campuses of technological universities but this will take a few years,” explains Horan.
Meanwhile, many of the students with long commutes will have completed their college education by then. So, what else can be done to ease the burden of travel for students right now?
Students who have to travel so far to college and who are working too aren’t getting the best out of their education— Louise Gallagher, TU Dublin deputy student president
Improving the transport links to suburban campuses would help. Shuttle buses to and from close-by train stations and new orbital and cross-city routes are some solutions already offered in the planning stages.
Louise Gallagher, deputy president of the students union at TU Dublin says that student representatives have been campaigning for a better bus service to TU Dublin at Blanchardstown for years. Currently, the Dublin Bus number 38 and 38A don’t come on to the TU Dublin Blanchardstown campus, leaving students a 20-minute walk from the nearest bus stop.
“I even found it difficult to get to college as I had one hour’s walk from Corduff or an hour’s wait for a bus sometimes. It impacted on my study and my grades,” explains Gallagher. “Students who have to travel so far to college and who are working too aren’t getting the best out of their education,” she adds.
Jack Chambers, Minister for State at the Department of Transport, who addressed the so-called World Café think-in (attended by planners, engineers, health promoters, policymakers and a small number of students) spoke about the positives of active travel for students. However he did acknowledge that more affordable student accommodation close to campuses is key to active travel, which includes public transport, walking and cycling.
“Students also need comfortable walking routes which are safe from traffic,” he told delegates. Chambers highlighted a new Smart Travel sustainability mark for third-level institutions but such rating scales won’t increase walking if footpaths are narrow, rutted and poorly lit running along busy roads with few safe crossing points. Antisocial behaviour on and near the Blanchardstown campus is another issue that needs to be addressed.
The TU Dublin campus in Blanchardstown is a particularly car-dominant environment. The campus buildings are ringed by a road and a large car park with footpaths running alongside these roads, rather than criss-crossing through the large green spaces.
Dr Lorraine D’Arcy, one of the founders of Campuses Role as Actors in Walkable and Livable Communities (CRAWL) that organised the think-in in TU Dublin at Blanchardstown says that public transport systems do not work without walking.
And if that last part of the journey is unattractive to walkers – and indeed cyclists, students and staff alike will opt to drive rather than take public transport.
The recent reduction in student public transport fares is however one step in the right direction. Mark Murphy, advocacy manager for environmental health at the Irish Heart Foundation says that the reduction in student fares has been a huge success.
“We have done work with students at Trinity College Dublin and many more students are taking public transport since the fares went down. Public transport needs to be laughably affordable. It needs to be the most cost-effective way to get around. The next government needs to maintain these fare reductions while also improving the number of buses and trains and adding more biking facilities to suburban campuses,” he says.