Believe it or not, we’re sitting on a traffic time bomb

Remember when the daily commute was plagued by gridlock and we all spent literally hours just getting to and from work, and even the weekends were a maelstrom of traffic and hassle?
Granted things have improved. Projects such as the M50 flyovers, the new M4, M6, M7 and M8 motorways have helped and traffic now flows easier than ever – still heavy enough at peak times of course, but certainly better than it was.
It won’t stay that way though. According to Pat Mangan, the policy committee chairman of the Chartered Institute of Transport and Logistics, it’s only a matter of time, and economic recovery, before we’re all sitting, staring and swearing at the back bumper in front of us.

Pat Mangan
Pat Mangan
We accept that there’s a very difficult position at the moment in terms of public finances, but we have to start thinking about the future when the economy starts to grow again and generate income. Our concern is that during the financial crisis, the level of investment in transport has declined very, very sharply. It’s only about a quarter now of what it was at the peak in 2008, and that’s just too steep a drop, and we need to start planning now before the economy improves. For instance, we’re spending about €800-million a year on capital investment at the moment, and we need to be spending that on just maintaining and renewing the existing network alone.

The main reason for the recent improvements in urban traffic is that the traffic level has fallen very very sharply. Fewer people are working, people are emigrating and so on. We saw this before, in the 1970s and 1980s. And then as soon as the economy started to grow, the congestion grew very rapidly. The message we want to send out is that you need to start planning now, to get ahead of the next level of congestion because it’s too late to start planning once the next level of congestion arrives, and it will arrive very, very quickly once the economy grows, and people start getting back to work again.

The jury's out on what the buyer mentality is in a post-scrappage market but we would remain hopeful for a good start to 2012. ”

Pat Mangan, Chartered Institute of Transport and Logistics

Continual Investment Required

It’s a worrying thought that aside from the new motorways there hasn’t really been a lot of investment in public transport in the past few years. Yes there is the work currently going on to connect the Luas light rail lines in Dublin city centre but look at the larger rail network – it’s still running on a largely Victorian layout. The fact that  there is only a single track for much of the way between major cities such as Dublin and Galway severely limits the amount of trains that can be run at any one time. Doesn't this tell us something about how restricted our public transport network is?
Dr Pauline Chan is something of a softly-spoken superstar in the public transport sphere. Largely credited with the successful shake of up Hong Kong’s transport network over the past decade, Dr Chan spoke to Motorcheck about her impressions of Dublin's infrastructure.

This is my first visit to Dublin and of course in comparison with Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s density of population is much higher. It’s a very small area of 200 square kilometers and a population of seven million. But every city should be looking to the future, and that means greening – how we should develop sustainable transport, and I think Dublin has the same challenge – and that is how we can make the best use of our space and our environment, and how we can put those two together so that mobility is maintained without too many cars on the road, so that the public transport system is strengthened and enhanced and so that more space is given to pedestrians. That was the challenge that we faced in Hong Kong and I think that also applies here.

A city like Dublin, which is growing and which has a port, this all means that you want to have an environment which merges with the human activity, rather than to be segregated. We don’t want, you know, bus; you do this, and rail; you do this. What we want is a whole city concept.

Hong Kong Bus
Hong Kong Bus

Every city, as it develops, will spread out. So, how do you bring people to work, how do you bring the economic activities together? The private car is simply not the solution. You build a new road and the next day, it will fill up. So you have to rely on the public transport system. I understand that to build a railway is very expensive and you need the volume to fill it. But in most cities where the volume is lower and the city is spread out, it’s better to develop the bus rapid transit system. So you’re just repurposing the existing road into a dedicated road for buses, so that they can make more trips, more reliably. And then of course on the fringes of the bus rapid transit system and the rail system, you need park and ride, so that people don’t have to take their car into town.

Of course people will say ‘oh, you’re penalizing the private car owner’ but the reason behind it is that our human activity creates social cost. To be able to use our road space efficiently is the message. In Hong Kong, we have double decker buses that can take about 120 passengers, yet it’s equivalent to a road space of two and a half private cars, so you have to think about how you can use your road space more efficiently. All human activities have a role to play, and therefore the city planning is the concept of mobility. How can I go from point A to point B at the cheapest cost in the quickest time.

Dr. Pauline Chan, Hong Kong Transport Expert

Utopian? Hardly. Hong Kong is a staggeringly hard-nosed, businesslike place and we would do well to pay attention to the lessons they have already learned. If Ireland wants to be seen as a world-class place in which to do business, then we can accept nothing less than the best for both our citizens and visitors. A duff public transport network sells us all short.
Imagine a world where public transport was quick, efficient, reliable and affordable. You would happily use it all week to get to and from work, and then at the weekend, you could just enjoy driving your own car. That’s a Utopia I think we could all sign up for.