In 2030 there will be more cars on the road in Ireland than there are at present. As a direct result of current climate change policy, the private car will be more embedded in Irish society than ever before.
The current climate-change budget calls for a massive reduction in carbon emissions from the transport sector. The programme for government signed by the Coalition parties in 2020 commits to a 2:1 ratio of investment in public transport in relation to roads. To date, it is difficult to see if this has actually been implemented. Not a single rail project, whether heavy rail, Luas or MetroLink, is actually under construction.
Rather than improving public transport, current plans rely on the bicycle and electric vehicle (EV). There has been a substantial extension of cycling infrastructure. However desirable cycling may be, in terms of emissions, what matters is not the absolute growth in cycle journeys but the extent to which they replace car journeys. There is very little evidence that this is happening.
Cycling has ended up standing for sustainable mobility as a whole. Only a minority — if a growing one — of us cycle, but all of us walk. There is no commitment to upgrade and properly maintain urban pavements, while pedestrianisation is limited to a few much-needed public spaces. Significantly, there is still no enforcement of cycle regulations (above all lighting) and no awareness that in cities cyclists and other micro-mobility users constitute a major new hazard for pedestrians: cycles and scooters cluttering pavements, cyclists routinely jumping traffic lights especially those at pedestrian crossings.
The prospects for electric cars at first seem more positive. EV sales are increasing rapidly. The current target is for a million EVs on Irish roads by 2030. However, if the objective is to reduce emissions, what matters is not the absolute number of EVs but the extent to which internal combustion vehicles have been replaced. Given that the Irish car fleet is replaced over a nine-year period, the “million EVs” target is only possible as part of a substantial increase in the total number of cars and that in turn assumes that car ownership will continue to increase in line with population growth.
EVs will no doubt replace petrol and diesel vehicles. However, the environmental benefits of EVs seem to be rather exaggerated. The total emissions of each EV have to include embedded emissions from its manufacture and these are substantial. EVs may have zero emissions, but still produce other pollutants (brake linings, tyres …). There are also important equity issues involved. Given that purchasers of new cars are disproportionately in higher income brackets, any direct or indirect subsidy will benefit the better off.
More fundamentally, supporting EV purchase is to support private consumption which is possible only for the individual car owner. By contrast, investment in public transport is investment in a public good and a public service — anyone can get on the Luas, anyone can travel by train. Often public transport — especially heavy rail — is disproportionately used by the better off (think of the Dart), but this does not negate the fact that it remains transport for the public as a whole. However green EVs may be, they remain private.
The lack of urgency involved in rail projects is exemplified by the continued delays of the MetroLink project. First suggested in the Dublin Transportation Office’s Platform for Change in 2001, a proposal was finally submitted by the National Transport Authority (NTA) to An Bord Planeála on September 30th, 2022. Of the four plans to upgrade and extend the Dart system only Dart+ West has actually been submitted to the planning board and the various new Luas lines remain merely coloured lines on NTA maps.
All of this matters. A serious expansion of rail-based transport in the greater Dublin area is the single most realistic method of shifting journeys away from the private car. Precisely because this requires substantial investment, the obvious need is to make the investment immediately so the benefits materialise as early as possible. Instead, the upgrading of Dublin’s bus routes through the BusConnects project is presented by the NTA as obviating the need for other major rail investment for another decade. As so often in Ireland, investment is postponed — so that it can be cancelled when there is an economic downturn.
The negative effects of extensive car usage are now well established. When a society is car dependent participation is impossible without one: doing the shopping; travelling to school or work; visiting friends; and entertainment — all require that each individual has access to a car. Without adequate and extensive public transport, those who do not have a car risk being excluded from many social interactions. By promoting the “green” private car and continually postponing transport investment, current climate change policy ensures, as the recent Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development report on Ireland states, that Ireland will become an even more car-based society.
- James Wickham is Fellow Emeritus of TCD and author of European Societies Today: Inequality, Diversity, Divergence (Routledge 2020)