The best time for radical and sweeping investments to a city’s infrastructure was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Following the adage’s logic to its conclusion, the worst thing you could do is kick your project’s can down the road in perpetuity. Unfortunately the long awaited Dublin MetroLink is suffering the latter fate.
In February it was announced the project will not be completed until 2035 at the earliest, a mere seven years on from its original suggested opening date. Dublin’s public transport is already paltry. This lack of vision and urgency is just one more kick to the teeth. And the contrast with nearby London could hardly be starker. It is a city that boasts one of the best public transport systems in the world.
This week Transport For London unveiled the new Elizabeth Line. Only recently it extended the iconic Northern Line. We might be tempted to think these were unnecessary, vain and expensive additions to the city's landscape. It is already profoundly well connected. Isn't there a housing crisis that could benefit from the billions of pounds pilfered on even more trains?
Sure. But that is exactly the mode of thinking that sees Dublin in its current position. And its inverse is exactly why London can claim this public transport supremacy: long-term investment, forward thinking, imagination. London and Dublin are vastly different cities. But that does not mean Dublin has no lessons to learn. In fact, there are several European cities closer in size it could aspire to.
Transit is not just something to aid the smooth operation of a city. It is the city
Dublin is image conscious. With its massive technology industry, a highly educated population, and genuinely world-beating soft power it has perfectly decent claim to be an important global capital. So why doesn’t it look like one? It is hard to get around if you live outside the centre. The train does not even take you to the airport. Apps such as Uber promised to reduce road traffic but several times they have been proven to increase it. This is a place for cars and cars alone.
The green case for the demise of cars is so obvious it hardly needs stating. They are also expensive to run and they kill people. They are inherently anti-social objects. And though the electric car revolution is important it is not a silver bullet. Lots of electric cars are still worse than no cars. And the only reason we see the car as so integral to our lives is because we haven’t been shown a better way. The American cultural obsession with the automobile does not help.
But there is an alternative. I live in London. Most of my friends are in their mid -20s. Hardly any of them can drive. Not a single one owns a car. This is not a failure nor is it a product of laziness or ineptitude. It is ultimate proof of a successful city. A car in London is not just unnecessary, for most young people it is a burden. Ireland is far from that point but radical aspirations are sometimes necessary for a small amount of change.
And we can make the boring but unassailable case for better public transport: it falls in line with our eco goals; it is convenient; it is better for our health; it makes for nicer streets. The Tube and the Dart are proof that it can be safe and clean too.
[Public transport] is democratising. There is perhaps no other place in London where the wealthiest sit beside the poorest
But the draw of public transport is more foundational. It is about what cities are and what they can be. The London underground is not just a convenience that ferries us from point A to point B. As much of the world happens on Tube platforms and in train carriages as anywhere else. Transit is not just something to aid the smooth operation of a city. It is the city.
And it is democratising. There is perhaps no other place in London where the wealthiest sit beside the poorest. But in Dublin it is so much less likely that our lawmakers would see the real-time benefits of public transport because they are so much less likely to use it. It is not their immediate fault: why use a service, and advocate for its improvement, if it’s not even that good in the first place?
Dublin has made steps to improve its offering in recent years but the MetroLink delay is just further evidence of a dearth of urgency. If Ireland wants to be considered as cosmopolitan as it presents itself it ought to start behaving like it. Public transport is not just useful (a true but ultimately uninspiring statement), it is essential to a decent city that wants its citizens to live good and more equitable lives.
How do we push ourselves in the right direction? The usual ideas are important and have been mooted several times: build more train lines, make cars inconvenient, prioritise pedestrians. But we should also consider the joy and energy public transport can give to a city. We need to think of it not just as a technical economic project but as an investment into the architecture of our lives.