Today, the National Transport Authority publishes a 20-year strategy for the Greater Dublin Area (GDA). It is a significant document, setting out a plan for the capital and its surrounding counties Wicklow, Meath and Kildare.
We signed off on a similar plan for Limerick last year and Galway is up next for consideration, where we will have to review how that city and its surrounding counties can meet their climate targets. Over the past year, I have been going around the country visiting and listening to local councils on how they will deliver real climate action. In most of those discussions, the future of our transport system has been the most pressing issue.
We are lucky in Dublin because there is a broad political consensus that the way forward has to be one that prioritises active travel and public transport. This new GDA Strategy when delivered will bring back the sort of comprehensive rail network we had at the start of the last century – but it will be cleaner, faster and better value for money.
One of the projects that has been in planning for 25 years is the Metro, running from Lissenhall, outside Swords, to Charlemont Street, with all the evidence supporting a later extension to Terenure, Rathfarnham, Firhouse and Tallaght. This will give us a high-capacity central transport spine, not just providing a more reliable transport system, but also helping us to deliver the scale of housing, especially new cost rental housing, that we need all along the route.
The proposed doubling of Dart capacity will be equally important, including new battery electric trains to Maynooth, Navan, Sallins, Wicklow town and beyond. Even more important will be the massive expansion of the Luas network as the future transport workhorse for the city.
We have to progress all this rail infrastructure in a phased way, because at the same time we will be investing in our other cities and regions, building new metropolitan rail services in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford, transforming rail freight to and from our deep-water ports, developing a new Western Rail Corridor that connects to all those ports and exploring new rail lines to the northwest, which has been neglected for years.
The GDA Transport Strategy is costed at €25 billion, and we have €34 billion committed in the current National Development Plan. While many of these major rail projects will begin planning, development and construction in this decade the reality is that it will take a larger commitment in the next two decades to roll out all the projects currently in preparation.
In the interim, we face two massive challenges – climate and gridlock.
Under our Climate Law, we are bound to reduce our overall emissions by 51 per cent by 2030, moving to net zero by 2050. This is an enormous challenge, because it means we must reverse our car-based lifestyle patterns set over 50 or 60 years in less than a decade.
Despite the challenge, I think change is inevitable. More and more people already understand that the transition will be good for our health, it is vital for the success of our economy and it is critical if we are to have a just transition to a low-carbon future. Nobody wants to spend hours commuting, nobody wants to be stuck in traffic, nobody wants to see Dublin listed as the 12th most congested city in the world, as it was in the recent 2022 Global Traffic Scorecard.
This need for fast action is clear because after a fall in transport emissions as a consequence of Covid restrictions in 2020, they are starting to rise again. It may take a couple of years, but our job now is to turn this trend around. Counting ourselves out is not an option. We have to meet our commitments under national and international law; and we have to be able to look our children and grandchildren in the eye.
While the big infrastructural rail projects will be delivered over the coming decade, the really critical time now is the next three years, not just the next 30. That is why last November we launched 35 Pathfinder Projects right across the country, to show that active travel or public transport enhancements can and will be delivered by the end of 2025.
The first Pathfinder Project will be delivered next week when Bus Éireann commences the country’s first fully electric town bus service in Athlone. They tell me the next rollout of electric buses will follow soon in Limerick and Galway.
One of the most urgent Pathfinder Projects is the transformation of the Dublin city traffic management system to radically improve the pedestrian, cycling and bus passenger environment at while the bigger projects are being advanced through planning.
I read with interest the advice of Professor John FitzGerald in this paper two weeks ago that we should use pricing mechanisms – like congestion charges – to delver this modal shift. I fear such an approach would require such a high price it would not be accepted by the vast majority of people. Besides, in my view, it is much fairer to put the alternatives in place first. It is better to regulate traffic by the reallocation of road space rather than just hitting people with another tax.
Towards this, and because it takes some ten years to get a bus corridor through our policy, planning and construction process, we need to accelerate the introduction of bus-priority measures, including experimental bus gates, new one-way routes and using road space reallocation to make sure all our buses run on time and to ensure that we have safe, segregated space for walking and cycling.
John also suggests that the numbers of people who might cycle, even in such safe conditions, is limited. Again, I disagree. I see no reason why Dublin should not be like Copenhagen or Amsterdam. We are a flat, relatively dry city where most trips are still quite short, coupled with a real tradition of cycling.
There is no denying the challenges we face in making the transformation. However, with this new GDA Strategy, we have already done the crucial groundwork – the business cases are complete, planning applications are submitted, local authorities have been staffed up, Pathfinder Projects have been identified and accelerated. Now it’s all about delivery – every day, every month, every year – so that people have the real transport choices they need to consign congestion to our past. So that we cut our emissions and create a capital city we can all be proud of.
Eamon Ryan is Minister for Transport