Can Dublin’s traffic control system handle the recovery?

The city’s traffic management system is geared towards public transport, but as the economy improves and more people go back to work, car drivers fear a return to gridlock and commuting hell


Dublin’s traffic control room is a place of quiet calm. Despite the apparent daily crawl and fuming motorists, there is an air of order at the Dublin City Council office with its multiple screens.

Those screens relay images from the roughly 750 junctions and traffic-light points around the city and the greater Dublin area, and the workers sit in front of them like Nasa flight controllers, attempting to keep the traffic flowing as cleanly as possible.

Yet, as I point out to the Brendan O’Brien, the technical services manager for DCC’s traffic office, if the system is so clever, why are drivers so often stuck for such long periods at red lights?

On my way into town, even with light traffic, I found myself spending ages at lights. Why can we not have something as simple as clear routes, where when you hit one green, you get the next several junctions green too? Sadly, the answer seems to be that we are stymied by a combination of geography and history.

“Technically, of course, we could do that,” says O’Brien. “The signals are all linked up but they’re there really more to assist public transport. But where it’s appropriate we do it, and I think the N11 would be the best example. On most other main roads, you’re quickly into major residential areas with big distributor roads on either side which makes it much more difficult. If you’re comparing us to other cities, they do tend to have bigger roads right up to the city centre, four and five lanes. We could build a five-lane motorway right through the city centre, but really, would most people want us to do that?”

The answer is certainly no, but there is a perception amongst motorists that their place in the nation’s firmament has been undermined and that for all the improvements in the public transport network, when demand rises again there will simply not be enough space to cope and that it’s the motorist that will get it in the neck when the squeeze comes.

O’Brien disagrees. “I don’t think it’s ever been our policy to actively frustrate people. I can understand that some people might think that it is. But if you look at our control centre, look at the systems we have in place here, they are for transportation – for cars, for information to motorists. There’s a lot of time and effort gone in to making sure that the traffic signals are set up right, that people are helped with their journey. If we really wanted to frustrate people we simply wouldn’t have bothered with all that effort.

“We wouldn’t have a dedicated radio station for assisting motorists with their journeys in and out. But it’s inevitable that if you’re taking out or moving lanes and making traffic redistribute, or making people find other modes of transport, that you will get accusations of being anti-car.

“We’re not anti-car, it’s just that you have to try and balance all the different modes. When you look at the city centre, where one journey in three is made by car, it doesn’t strike us that that one third should dominate.

“If you think about the city centre itself, things like the Dublin Bike scheme, the Luas cross-city extension, plans for other services like the new Bus Rapid Transit system, the way that we’re planning for the future and the increase in the number of trips into the city centre, we are planning for them to be on what we would call sustainable transport – bus, train, bike or walking.”

All of which seems right and proper: a transport network, private and/or public, which is not sustainable is useless to all. However, according to Patrick Mangan from the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, the problem isn’t sustainability, it’s simply a matter of not enough investment.

Sharp decline in investment
“We accept that there’s a very difficult position at the moment in terms of public finances, but we have to start thinking about the future when the economy starts to grow again and generate income,” says Mangan. “Our concern is that during the financial crisis, the level of investment in transport has declined very sharply. It’s only about a quarter now of what it was at the peak in 2008, and that’s just too steep a drop, and we need to start planning now before the economy improves. For instance, we’re spending about €800 million a year on capital investment at the moment, and we need to be spending that on just maintaining and renewing the existing network alone.

“The main reason for the recent improvements in urban traffic is that the traffic level has fallen very, very sharply. Fewer people are working, people are emigrating and so on. We saw this before, in the 1970s and 1980s. And then, as soon as the economy started to grow, the congestion grew very rapidly.

“The message we want to send out is that you need to start planning now, to get ahead of the next level of congestion because it’s too late to start planning once the next level of congestion arrives, and it will arrive very, very quickly once the economy grows, and people start getting back to work again.”

Dublin City Council remains sanguine about its ability to cope with a rise in demand, citing plenty of unused capacity in the bus network and on Dart services, but there also seems to be too much willingness to pin hopes on future major projects which have been shelved more than once.

Dart Underground, Metro North and the new Rapid Bus Transit were all mentioned more than once during our conversation, but right now they are political footballs rather than actual modes of transport.

For motorists, though, the message is clear. While there is no policy to actively discourage car use, the planning, the networks and the technology seem mostly aimed at easing the passage of public transport.

Use your car if you want, but, as the economy improves, don’t expect to be getting anywhere quickly.

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