Apps, grants, public transport: How to plug Ireland into electric revolution

Distance from public transport means many homes in rural areas have more than one vehicle

Fynn and Holly Hopper and their three children Kimball (7), Noomi (5) and Iduna (3) with the bike that Holly uses to transport the children to the school bus stop in Arigna, Co Roscommon. Photograph: James Connolly

Fynn and Holly Hopper and their three children Kimball (7), Noomi (5) and Iduna (3) with the bike that Holly uses to transport the children to the school bus stop in Arigna, Co Roscommon. Photograph: James Connolly

Your Web Browser may be out of date. If you are using Internet Explorer 9, 10 or 11 our Audio player will not work properly.
For a better experience use Google Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge.

 

Arigna resident Fynn Hopper is “doing exactly what the State wants us to do” by investing in an electric car, according to transport expert Brian Caulfield, who believes the Government must do more to encourage such dedication to decarbonisation among rural dwellers.

Dr Caulfield, an associate professor at Trinity College, says “transport poverty” is an issue in remote areas where people “have to own a car” because public transport options are so limited.

“The other thing is that these people tend to own older cars with higher emissions,” he said.

For that reason Dr Caulfield is urging the Government to initiate a pilot project where people in remote rural locations are prioritised in any grant programme for electric vehicles. “A pilot would provide the evidence to show that this could work. We have to throw the kitchen sink at finding ways to cut emissions”.

Martina Earley, CEO of Roscommon Leader, could not agree more. She says there is an appetite for reducing carbon emissions among rural communities which has been dealt a blow by the announcement this past week of a cut in Leader funding down from €400 million to €180 million under the CAP Strategic Plan, money which she says was already earmarked for a raft of environmentally-friendly measures.

“Community centres were planning to install charging points for electric vehicles,” she said. “Plans to turn community centres into remote working hubs will also be abandoned now because the money isn’t there.

“If the Government is serious about getting people out of congested cities and allowing them to work in rural Ireland this doesn’t make sense.”

And while Local Link bus services are meeting some needs, Ms Earley said it is long past time the Government embraced technology and created an app which would match potential passengers with transport providers and not just buses.

“People’s lives do not run according to bus timetables. Older people needing to go for a hospital appointment, for example, should be able to order a car locally”.

Intuitive

One such initiative, Clare Local Lift, which uses a specially designed app to connect drivers in rural Clare to people who need a lift, was described as a “simple and intuitive” way of meeting passengers’ transport needs in a recent Western Development Commission (WDC) report, Making the Transition to a Low Carbon Society in the Western Region.

The app, which was suspended during the pandemic, can be downloaded from the Google Play Store so that anyone needing a lift to a doctor’s surgery or a shop makes a request and is connected with a driver travelling in that direction. For safety reasons all drivers participating in the scheme must be registered with the taxi regulator.

Such tailored services are vital if people are to be encouraged out of their petrol and diesel cars, according to rural campaigners.

With train timetables and bus schedules failing to meet the needs of many workers, car pooling is a phenomenon evident from the number of cars parked all day outside many towns, adjacent to the main routes from the west to Dublin.

The early morning train from Sligo, for example, gets into Connolly Station at 8.49am, too late to clock in at most building sites. Co Roscommon-based trade union official and retired electrician Gerry Bambrick says he knows many in the construction sector – builders, plumbers and carpenters – who could not afford accommodation in Dublin and who are on the road at dawn.

“It’s like Spaghetti Junction at 5.30am or 6am at the new roundabout outside Longford, where the N5 meets up with the N4,” he said.

While workers in other sectors have reduced their commute thanks to remote working, he says since building sites opened up many employees are putting in gruelling hours partly because there are no public transport options to suit them.

Car pool

Former environment minister Denis Naughten has observed this trend, noting that cars are parked all day at particular locations on the outskirts of Athlone as friends car pool. Park-and-ride facilities for commuters should be a priority, he says.

“I have free parking in the city centre but I would use park-and-ride facilities if they were available,” he said. “What we should be doing is acquiring parcels of land in places like Kilcock for this purpose.”

The Roscommon-Galway TD also thinks co-operation between health and transport authorities could help minimise the need for car journeys, thus reducing emissions. If existing bus routes were extended to centres like Ballinasloe, Roscommon and Castlebar, facilitating outpatient clinics in local hospitals, this would ease pressure on hospitals and roads in Galway, he said.

Statistics in the WDC report by policy analyst Dr Helen McHenry show why providing public transport in rural areas is complex.

“When we look at the settlement pattern in the western region some of the challenges for rural transport are immediately brought into focus,” Dr McHenry said, pointing out that while just over a third (37 per cent) of the Irish population live in rural areas (outside towns of 1,500 or more) in the western region the proportion is 65 per cent. In Co Roscommon 73 per cent of the population are rural dwellers, second only to Leitrim at almost 90 per cent.

Not surprisingly this has implications for travel. “Rural locations are more reliant on car transport than the rest of the country, with more than eight in 10 trips involving a car,” she said. “This is likely to be for a combination of reasons, including the longer distances to be travelled, lack of public transport options and relatively uncongested roads.”

The WDC report says measures that could reduce reliance on cars include increased remote working and more delivery services from supermarket and other retailers.

Dr McHenry pointed out that distance from public transport creates reliance on cars to the extent that many households in rural areas have more than one vehicle. “With the exception of Galway city, all of the western region counties have higher levels of access to more than one car,” she said. In Roscommon 46.2 per cent of households have access to two or more cars compared to a national average of 42 per cent.

“Car-sharing may be a useful substitute for owning a second or third vehicle, though access to the car-share location may require a journey,” Dr McHenry said.

Greater uptake

Passengers numbers of the rural transport programme known as Local Link – which the Government plans to expand as part of an investment programme of €57 million over five years – increased from 1.76 million in 2015 to 2 million in 2018, but the WDC report echoes the views of many when it says “there is potential for even greater uptake, especially in the context of low-carbon transport”.

“They are definitely under-utilised,” says Martina Earley, who said the Government must be a bit more imaginative about rural transport and think beyond buses. “Can we not build an app so that people could order cars locally. This would meet the needs of those whose lives don’t run in tandem with bus schedules.”

An app to provide demand-based response, as well as subsidised hackney and community car services, are among the measures now being considered under the Government’s €57 million scheme, which launched for public consultation on Friday.

Brian Caulfield is aware there may be scepticism about prioritising remote rural dwellers for grants for electric cars.“We don’t want people staying in their granny’s and then going back to the city with an electric car,” he said.

But with a view among some outside the capital that “its okay for you guys in Dublin with buses and the Luas and Dart”, he said it was time to be innovative.