Opinion: there is no way the school run in its current car-dominated form can be part of a sustainable future

By Fionn Rogan, Vera O'Riordan, UCC MaREI, and Johnny Tobin Allen, TUS

Before the Celtic Tiger arrived in Ireland, most Irish children walked, cycled, or took the bus to school. Between 1990 and 2020, the numbers of private cars in Ireland increased by approximately 160% (from around 0.86 million to 2.2 million) while the population increased by just 40%. This dramatic increase in car ownership has led to big changes in how and why Irish people travel. It has contributed to the annual autumn phenomenon of the return of the school run.

During the 1980s, most Irish households were single car households. Often called "Dad's car", it was generally used by men to commute to work. Over the following decades, as many Irish households became two (or even three!) car households, there were big changes in the number and types of trips taken.

Levels of transport activity strongly correlate with levels of economic activity. During the recession years 2008-2012, both passenger and freight transport activity declined, but since the return of economic growth, transport activity has been steadily growing, except for the pandemic related restrictions in 2020-21.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One in June 2022, new car sales figures released for Ireland

Since 2009, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) has published a National Travel Survey, which details the transport trips Irish people take throughout the year. This large dataset includes details on the number of trips, the total distance travelled, the modes of travel (eg private car, public transport, walking, cycling, etc), and the purpose for each trip (eg work, shopping, companion/escort journeys, entertainment, education, etc). From this dataset we can see that in 2019, the majority of trips (74%) were by private car.

For many years, the commute to work has been the single biggest reason to make a trip, but it has declined in share from 25% of trips in 2009 to 23% of trips in 2019. Other reasons for travelling in 2019 were shopping (21%), companion/escort journeys (20%), socialising (10%), entertainment/sports (9%) and food/drink (5%). By far the biggest change over time has been in companion/escort journeys (which includes the school run): this category increased from 13% of trips in 2009 to 20% of trips in 2019.

Recently published analysis by researchers at UCC has looked at the travel trends within the trip purpose categories. We have analysed these trends in terms of total kilometre (KM) distance travelled. Unsurprisingly, the car accounts for the largest share of distance travelled for all trip purposes.

"40% of all trips taken in Ireland are less than 8KM" Photo: RollingNews

For work trips, 78% of the KM distance travelled was by car. For companion/escort journeys, a remarkable 95% of the KM distance travelled was by car. This complete dominance of companion/escort journeys by cars combined with their growing share of total trips is not good news for climate.

Using a new method developed at UCC we have linked this activity with the level of CO2 emissions. Remarkably in 2019, CO2 emissions from companion/escort journeys (1.47 million tonnes) nearly equalled CO2 emissions from work trips (1.54 million tonnes). If current trends continue, CO2 emissions from companion/escort journeys will soon exceed emissions from commuting to work.

Behind these statistics of increasing CO2 emissions from increased driving are people, and increasingly it's women. Data from the CSO shows that compared to the 1980s, women now drive more than men. This can be explained by the fact that in addition to driving to work, women make up a much larger share of companion/escort journeys than men. Interviews show that for many Irish women in the 1990s and 2000s, gaining access to a car meant new forms of freedom and mobility. It also correlated with many new practices and norms around transport, such as supermarket food shopping and driving the kids to school.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne, climate emissions deal reached

But for many the freedom to drive has become the opposite: not having access to alternative forms of transport has become a significant cause for being forced to drive. In many parts of Ireland, transport deprivation is correlated with forced car ownership and higher levels of car dependency. This is more bad news for climate.

What can be done?

40% of all trips taken in Ireland are less than 8KM. For companion/escort journeys (including the school run) 60% of trips are less than 8KM. This distance is very walkable or cyclable, but three quarters of primary school children are driven to school because the alternatives of walking and cycling are simply not safe. This needs to change.

Infrastructure is crucial. Rather than needing new technologies, we need new infrastructure to facilitate old practices - walking, cycling, and taking the bus - that used to be commonplace. We also need to engage with the way people travel and look beyond the commute to work as the only trip type when discussing mobility trends and how to decarbonise transport.

Ireland has changed dramatically in the 30 years since 1990. Over the next 30 years, achieving the government target of a net zero energy system (including transport) by 2050 could be even more transformative. But there is no way the school run – in its current car-dominated form – can be part of that climate neutral and sustainable future.

Dr Fionn Rogan is a research fellow in the MaREI Centre at the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) at UCC. Johnny Tobin Allen is studying Environmental Science and Climate at TUS. Vera O'Riordan is a PhD student in the MaREI Centre at the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) at UCC.


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