This week’s report from the Central Statistics Office on commuting patterns in Ireland highlights the daunting challenge society faces as it attempts to transition to a post-carbon future. It also poses serious questions about whether the State’s institutions, which have performed so poorly in the provision of quality transport options in the past, are capable of meeting the much more stringent and legally binding targets which they now face.
From one perspective, the numbers tell a positive story of long-term economic growth and social progress over the course of more than three decades. The number of people employed has more than doubled since the 1980s, while there are almost five times more students in third-level education. These trends show no sign of slowing. The overall number commuting to work, school or college increased by 8 per cent between 2016 and 2022.
But data on how all these people actually get to their destinations every day lays bare the overreliance on the private car. It accounts for 63 per cent of all commutes, with the vast majority of these being single-person journeys. As a result, hundreds of thousands more single-vehicle trips are being undertaken now than in was the case in 2016. Not only does this have implications for the country’s overall emissions, its inevitable consequence is that road space is becoming more congested and journey times longer. It is beyond debate at this stage that the solution lies not in further road expansion but in improved public transport and facilitation of active travel in the form of walking and cycling.
A historic failure to build efficient, integrated transport systems – bus, rail and light rail – at sufficient scale for a growing population, along with badly planned development leading to widespread exurban sprawl, are the joint causes of the scale of the challenge that now confronts the country. Worryingly, the numbers have shown little sign of shifting in recent years and the average length of time spent commuting continues to rise, with negative consequences for health, wellbeing and family life. One in every five people resident in Dublin’s commuter belt spends an hour or more getting to work every day.
There are few winners in all of this but the greatest losers are the young. Schoolchildren who miss out on physical exercise because the walk or cycle to school is too long or too hazardous. Students whose experience of college is constrained by the long journeys they must make due to high rents in urban areas. Parents who don’t see their children in daylight hours for most of the year. Building transport infrastructure is difficult, expensive and time-consuming. It often faces local opposition, as current controversies over Dublin’s BusConnects project show. But it is absolutely essential for Ireland’s future.