Smart health and transport planning is key
OPINION:THE PRIORITIES set out in the Government’s Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2012 - 2016: Medium-Term Exchequer Frameworkreport of supporting enterprise, health and education are absolutely laudable. In a time when exchequer revenues are outstripped by expenditure, needs must.
But when one examines the transport stratagem against the three objectives it becomes clear the proposed investment does not deliver, nor on one other key criterion: maximising value for money. Most especially it will not promote public health, something that is increasingly linked to our level of active travel, to the best possible degree.
The irony is that we have adopted two transport strategies that have won wide acclaim. These are the Smarter Travel and National Cycle Policy Framework reports, that, if implemented, would substantially improve the health of society and economy. They would even improve our educational environment since children who are more active perform better in tests.
The Government, however, has reduced spending to €65 million to provide for all Smarter Travel and cycling investment over a five-year period. This level of investment is, in impact terms, negligible. And yet it is in this area we could get the greatest return on investment.
More cycling and walking means less car usage, less oil dependency, less carbon emissions and less congestion. There are huge knock-on effects in terms of public health.
The day before the launch, a group of Ministers plugged the Growing up in Irelandreport in which a looming obesity epidemic is revealed. Some 26 per cent of nine year olds are found to be overweight or obese and Ireland scores near lowest among its European neighbours.
Recent cycling investments – Dublinbike, the Newport Mulranny Greenway, the taxsaver cycle scheme, new urban cycle paths among them – are delivering mode transfer way beyond forecasted levels, and at relatively little cost. The An Taisce Green Schools programme has delivered mode shifts of more than 20 per cent away from car reliance. It is a world-class scheme and we need more of it. Cost-benefit studies suggest that a euro invested in such programmes will be several euro saved in future healthcare costs.
The people of Swords are no doubt aggrieved by the dumping of Metro North. We can all be irritated by the best part of €200 million invested in abandoned mega-schemes. The committed upgrade of three quality bus corridors (QBCs) is a fig leaf to these communities. They might rightly see it as such unless the Government and the National Transport Authority commit to delivering not a series of corridor improvements but a high-quality bus network.
The idea of a network is critical here. We are not alone in facing capital expenditure cuts. Cities worldwide are reverting to bus in preference to high-cost rail schemes. The ones that develop integrated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) networks – Bogota, Curitiba, Nantes and Zurich – are not looking back.
Already, on Dublin’s North Quays QBC, inbound capacities of 10,000 passengers an hour have been recorded; equal, in fact, to the forecasted year-open capacity of the ill-fated Metro North. This is without integrated ticketing, high-capacity service design and high-level priority, all part of successful BRT network design.
Yet there is no reference to building integrated BRT networks in the programme. Or to the Blue Line, a well-conceived BRT link from Sandymount to Sandyford proposed by Dún Laoghaire- Rathdown council. In fact there is a BRT revolution going on in many of the world’s highest-ranked cities. Ireland’s low-density, suburbanised cities can be ideal for such networks. Belfast is in the process of developing its own version.
We need an integrated, people-centred approach to planning. We need connected, healthy neighbourhoods where we can live creatively, actively and socially. More promotion of walking, cycling and high-quality bus networks can deliver this. The Government has a great opportunity to save money, boost our economic recovery and help to build the healthy neighbourhoods we deserve.
David O’Connor is a lecturer and practitioner in Transport Planning and Urban Design.