The Brainstorm Long Read: reversing the trend of people choosing their car will be key in the fight against climate change - and will require big decisions

More people than ever are opting for the convenience and flexibility of their own cars over overcrowded public transport in Ireland. This is especially true of women, who choose the car more than men do.

Data included by the Central Statistics Office in its Environmental Indicators Ireland report 2019, tell an interesting story about these social changes. Between 1986 and 2016, the amount of women traveling to work as a passenger in other people's cars dropped considerably from 16% in the 1980s to 5% today.

Simultaneously, the proportion of women working from home dropped and the amount of women driving to work began to soar, all the way from 27% three decades ago to 65% in 2016, representing a sixfold increase from 94,152 to 590,927. The proportion of men driving to work is 53% or 561,704. 

"Seeing more women traveling by car to work is typical of a changing economy"

When it comes to walking and public transport, the proportion of women walking to work or going by bus has halved. Only 3% of men and women opt for the train, DART or LUAS and only 2% of women and 4% of men cycle to work. 

Car ownership and usership in Ireland dramatically increased from the late 1990s and 2000s onwards, which is typical of countries that experience economic growth and rising individual income levels, says Dr Sarah Rock, Lecturer in the School of Transport Engineering, Environment and Planning at TU Dublin. It happened in countries like Australia and America, and to some degree in the UK, but not in a lot of northern, continental European countries, she says. 

"Not everywhere does car ownership equate to car usership. But it does in certain types of countries and they’re the kind of countries that make walking, cycling and public transport almost like second-class options. That’s where we are." By contrast, a country like Germany has higher rates of cars per capita, but also has more people walking, cycling or using public transport to school or work, she says. 

Rock explains that seeing more women traveling by car to work is also typical of a changing economy. Ireland’s economy was quite poor, with predominantly one-income households, where it was typically the man going off to work. But the boom in the 1990s saw more women entering the workforce and the number of women in employment in Ireland nearly tripled between 1986 and 2016. 

The number of women getting their driver's licences for the first time also increased. "Before that, there wouldn't have been as many women owning a drivers licence, who would have been able to afford a car", says Rock. "Then suddenly you get two-income households happening. That’s where you see women catching up and actually exceeding men in terms of car usership."

This is less of a surprise than some might think. "Women's journeys are much more complex", says Rock. To make it really generalised, a man gets up and goes to work in his car and comes back from work in his car. Women have to maybe drop a child off to school or to childcare, they've got to maybe go off to work then, maybe on the way back they might have to grab some grocery shopping or they may have to do some caring for their elderly parents, or something like that. That’s very generalised, but it’s a much more complex journey type.

"Then, when you couple that with a time where suddenly we have more money and suddenly we can afford two cars, then you get the situation that's happened in Ireland, where women are now overtaking men in terms of care usership, for I suppose, largely convenience. Because women tend to be much more time poor."

Additionally, when you have subpar public transport, walking and cycling infrastructures, cars can often be cheaper, or not as expensive as you might think. Once the tax and insurance is paid for, why not drive if you can afford it? "When your public transport is not good, when walking is dangerous, when cycling is dangerous", says Rock, "all of that leads to a situation where people choose a car."

Reversing the trend of people choosing their car, something which is key in the fight against climate change, will require really big decisions. Rock believes those big decisions are primarily about massively restricting or removing car access to key points that cause the problems at certain times of day, like schools and the majority of workplace locations. But then also substantially investing in public transport and completely transforming what it's like in the city to cycle and what it’s like to be a pedestrian.

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"I think it’s particularly important for women who have very complex journeys, who are going from thing to thing", she says. "We have to be careful of the equity of the situation, that we don’t make things worse for people. But walking should theoretically be the most equitable of all journeys. It’s the most affordable, it’s the healthiest for you, assuming that you don’t have a mobility issue. It’s the best for the environment."

"We're totally ignoring pedestrians and that comes across with our reducing numbers of those who are walking. But that’s also down to the fact that less and less people live within walking distance of their work. That’s quite common in an urban environment that has experienced sprawl, like Ireland has. You live much further away from your work than perhaps you used to. That’s a big one."

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At the moment we're "tinkering around the edges," Rock says. The big impact will come from restricting car access but "that’s politically really difficult. It can be done, but it requires vision and leadership and that's where it's needed particularly.

"Once you're in the car it’s very hard to get you out of the car," says Odran Reid, Assistant Lecturer in the School of Transport Engineering, Environment and Planning at TU Dublin. "In 1985 we had 736,000 cars, we now have over two million. That’s an enormous shift. We’re now getting closer to the European average for car ownership, but we drive our cars twice as much as the Europeans do. That’s a shock in some ways."

Reid says we have yet to provide the public transport that's needed to address overcrowding on commuter trains, which is a factor in people choosing their car. "I know that they NTA (National Transport Authority) are looking at that, but they’re not they’re yet, they really aren’t there yet".

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Cities in Ireland have seen massive changes in transport patterns and living patterns, with people moving out of cities and commuting in, but our current transport system doesn’t properly account for this. "In the past, people were moving vertically in to the city, now people are going horizontally", Reid says.

"They’re going east-west and they’re travelling on the M50, they’re moving in completely different directions. We now have a lot of employment at the edges of the city and transport patterns have changed considerably. I think that’s part of the problem as well."

Reid believes that the future of transport is intermodal. "You will be moving more than once, you could be on a train, a bus, and walking. It’s a mentality. It’s a thought process of where you are, your public transport, and where you’re going to get from A to B at a certain time is really, really critical." The design of the bus system is "critically important" to addressing this and Bus Connects plays a part in doing it, Reid believes, particularly the proposed "orbital routes."

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"The NTA have one thing that they could introduce and that’s the 90 minute fare. You get on one and you can interchange onto different modes without having to pay a second fare elsewhere. That would make a big difference for a lot of people."

European data also reveals that we travel by train a lot less than some of our neighbours, but this comes down to bad planning and fares. Other countries do it better, like the Netherlands, says Reid. "It’s so small, it’s the size of Munster, but their cities and their rail travel is phenomenal, so you can live in one city and work in the other, but you’re no more than 30 or 40 minutes on a train - and we do that on a bus here going in and out of town in bad traffic.

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"There’s a massive investment to take place. The big issue is whether they can land metro and whether they can improve the commuting rail, the buses. There’s going to be huge resistance to change and if the city resists that change, then we’ll be in gridlock for another 15 or 20 years. I think there will be problems with it, but I think most of them will be overcome. It’s an old city with an old centre, so it’s always going to be a little bit difficult."

Rock believes "something’s got to give" when it comes to the discussion around our finite street space. "The conversation has currently gone, is it the trees that or is it the vehicular space that gives? It’s the first time really that that conversation has made it out into the public domain in the way that it is. Maybe people are beginning to realise, hold on a second, we can’t have it all.

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"Because having it all, everything is a little bit rubbish and we'll never get the changes that are needed. We need a thirty or forty percent reduction in our uses of vehicles going to work than we currently have. So that’s massive, that’s big."

It would be easy to say that we’re just all attached to our cars, too fond of them to let go, but "we’re all human, we're no different to any other human on the planet," Rock says. "It’s easy to say, culturally we're used to our cars: We’re only used to our cars for one generation. If you look back at those figures, in 1986 there was 27% of women driving and now it's 65%. That's not a long time ago, in the bigger picture that’s nothing. OK, things have gone dramatically in one direction since that time, but there was other cities in the world where that happened, too."

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One example is Copenhagen. "That was a city that was a mess, too," says Rock. "That was a city that had really high car ownership, same with Amsterdam, same with a lot of Dutch cities. They just went down a different way before, I guess, cars became really affordable to lots of people. So it can change and we are no different to anyone else, it's just a matter of making sure that we provide those alternatives that are really good.

"Plus, we have to sell the message, we have to sell it right, we have to do it right, we have to involve people. We should take people along with us and thats something that we're currently not very good at. We're scared about this kind of public participation in decision-making, but we need to move beyond that."

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ