Call for cycling ‘superhighways’ and less car use to cut transport emissions

Oireachtas committee says costs of providing free public transport for all should be examined

The development of "cycle superhighways" in major cities where there is greatly-curtailed private car use, transport-led housing plans and increasing road charges are recommended in a new report by the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee.

Ireland should fundamentally redirect transport policy and apply the internationally recognised "avoid-shift-improve" approach to cutting emissions in the sector, according to its report issued on Thursday.

This approach sets the emphasis “on more radical and long-term policy changes” if the country is to achieve key 2050 targets to reduce damage to the environment. This entails reducing the need for travel and shifting to more environmentally-friendly/sustainable transport modes to reduce emissions, it says.

“Such an approach, if implemented effectively, would allow for the development of sustainable transport systems with limited environmental impacts and make a significant contribution to meeting the targets within the Climate Action Plan,” it concludes.


The avoid-shift-improve approach should be embedded in a revised national planning framework (NPF) and combined with “a stricter requirement for compact growth” in urban areas, it recommends.

The Government has committed to a 51 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2030 and to apply sectoral limits through two five-year carbon budgets but has not yet set how they will be achieved – In a series of public hearings the committee sought the views of experts on how best to cut transport CO2 which accounts for 20 per cent of Ireland’s emissions.

Electric Vehicles (EVs)

Ireland’s approach to reducing carbon emissions for 2030 is heavily reliant on the electrification of vehicles. While this will play a vital role in reducing transport emissions, the report underlines the expert view that “the shift from private car ownership – albeit electric private cars – to public transport must not be undermined by this”, particularly as it will not lead to less congestion, reduce car dependency or decrease road crashes.

It says the Government should use the vehicle registration tax system to promote the purchase of new electric cars with most supports for EVs rather than hybrids. While it was now being accepted EVs will not be the “silver-bullet” solution to Ireland’s transport emissions problem, particularly in relation to our 2030 targets, it highlights that in making cities more liveable, “a rapid shift to zero-emission vehicles – as opposed to low-emission vehicles – would certainly help to achieve this”.

“This is again linked to the need to move away from road construction and improve public transport and active modes [of cycling and walking],” it adds.

Road building

The Government should re-examine current and future road-building projects, especially in light of its national planning framework, “to assess if they should proceed or if their funding should be diverted to projects which promote less carbon-intensive transport” – but it accepts the need to re-direct heavy traffic volumes out of some congested urban areas.

Targets for new housing around cities, towns and villages, seem contrary to the objective of compact growth, it finds. “Such development will drive urban sprawl and dependency on private cars which is at its highest in towns and villages where there are limited public transport options,” the report warns.

Road/congestion charges

The committee advises the Government to examine road charges including congestion charges in urban areas, combined with targets for car-mileage reductions. But it underlines pubic buy-in will be critical and accepts the need for upfront improvements and decent alternatives at the same time as they are being introduced

Rail options

The report backs increased use of rail for passengers and freight, though resulting reduced emissions may not be achieved before 2030. In the meantime, it says, electrification of rail transport should be speeded up especially on commuter routes, backed by the opening of more stations.

It calls for greater integration between active travel modes and public transport including ensuring “easy pedestrian and cycle access to bus and railway stations and an increased capacity for the carrying of bicycles of both local and national public transport”.

Cycling infrastructure

To achieve "a major modal shift", the introduction of cycling superhighways such as those in Denmark and London should be developed as an alternative travel option for those living outside larger cities – this has been made possible by greater use of e-bikes with routes extending up to 40km.

Family friendly cycling infrastructure to achieve wider and more diverse uptake of cycling, as used in other countries, should be introduced. Incentives for uptake of e-bikes and bicycles should be reviewed beyond the Bike-to-Work scheme, it says.

Public transport

The report says a free public transport system should be costed as an option for encouraging public transport uptake, as has been successfully deployed in some European cites, but warns that services would need to be significantly improved to enable this to be pursued.

It would “encourage non-public transport users into the system, keep cars off the roads and allow for a more convenient multimode system”.

While stakeholders in submissions to the committee agreed, they cautioned “a high-quality bus network would be essential to ensure that once people use the service, they continue to do so”.

Remote working

The committee recommends a national target for remote working be introduced combined with more remote working hubs in towns and villages. “This should also consider sustainable transport links to these hubs, particularly in less densely populated areas.”

Green Party TD Brian Leddin, the committee chairman, said the report points the way on how to achieve the necessary reduction in transport emissions "through a fundamental change in how we plan and manage a quality and sustainable transport system in Ireland".

It seeks to embed the “avoid-shift-improve approach into our transport and mobility infrastructure planning”, he said.

“Reducing transport demand must be the first and key priority, followed by shifting carbon-intensive journeys to zero carbon modes such as walking and cycling, and by providing sustainable public transport in both rural and urban areas, he added. “Electrification of our public transport and freight fleet is the necessary third step, and finally, the electrification of private vehicles”.

This report challenges the conventional “predict and provide” approach which has left “a legacy of poor planning that has induced traffic and car dependency, driven road construction and high greenhouse gas emissions, with their resulting adverse consequences for our economy, our health, our society and our environment”.

The urgency of climate action is not clearly set out in bodies directing transport policy which were established when climate change was not a priority, the report finds.

The National Transport Authority’s remit is limited to a statutory transport strategy that is solely applicable to the greater Dublin area, and only works with local authorities on transport strategies on a non-statutory basis for regional cities. A national strategy for long-term planning is urgently needed, it adds.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times