Opinion: We need to send the message that public transport really matters by making it safe, easy to use and part of the neighbourhood

By Sarah Rock and David O'Connor, TU Dublin

Who would argue that great public transport isn’t something every big town and city needs? Despite this, many cities are dogged by years of poor planning, low investment and lack of political will. The result? Car-choked cities, congestion and limited opportunities for people to live healthy and active lives.

People tend to look to the big-ticket items for the solution. While it's welcome that the planning application for Metrolink was finally submitted earlier this year, it is investments like BusConnects and in active travel, especially walkability, that hold out most hope for real change.

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From RTÉ News, report on the planning application for the long-delayed €9.5bn Metrolink

Across Irish towns and cities, the car is used for about 62% of journeys, public transport is a poorly 12%, and walking and cycling the rest. We should be aiming at minimum for an even split between these modes if we want to even start to be competitive with our more sustainable European neighbours, and to seriously tackle climate change.

Cities like Copenhagen, Singapore and Zurich show us how good public transport, walking and cycling can transform the potential and well-being of every-day citizens. While Dubliners sat in traffic jams for a wasted 131 hours last year, Copenhageners had an extra 43 hours to spend however they wished.

Such gains don’t come from building more roads. What is needed are public transport networks that work, and improved conditions for walking and cycling. The task might seem impossible - it’s not, but it does require some decision making. Here are four key things we need to focus on.

Getting the balance right between liveability and movement

Public space in cities is finite and often contested, as walkers, cyclists, and bus users struggle with the dominance private cars have enjoyed over most of the last century. The challenge is how to increase the liveability and quality of public spaces and to move away from mono-use places. Many local authorities are grappling with how to do this, but the recent OECD report on Ireland's transport system makes clear that reallocating space away from cars has transformative potential.

Some cities may have fine wide boulevards that make providing public transport, segregated cycle lanes and tree-lined footpaths relatively easy. But there are just as many with smaller streets that have taken bolder moves to keep liveability and good transport high on the agenda.

The Italians use Limited Access Zones whereby access by private vehicles are restricted to local residents and commercial vehicles via permit systems, with very little through traffic. Some towns in Belgium have people circulation systems that only give direct access to walkers, cyclists and public transport users ensuring the latter is reliable and competitive.

At a local scale, it’s common to see more agile single-decker (often electric) buses negotiating the medieval streets of French towns. Smaller and well branded electric buses have great potential in Irish towns, something that BusConnects is beginning to dip its toes into.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, Ella McSweeney is joined by geographer Olf Straumeyer from the University of Galway and planner David O'Connor from TU Dublin to talk about the prospect of removing cars from cities to combat environmental and commuter congestion.

While there are many different approaches, the key is to acknowledge there are parts of every town and city where place trumps movement, and where all modes need to slow down to allow our communities and villages to live.

We need affordable, legible and congestion-free networks

Reliability and relative speed of public transport will always remain key to getting people out of their cars, but cost is likely to be talking more too these days, especially for those who have longer commutes. The idea of 'fare free' public transport is a popular one with the public, but the evidence seldom supports its ability to get people out of their cars in significant numbers. When it comes to getting about, most people are more time- than price-sensitive, when they have the choice.

However, the Government's 20% reduction in fares earlier this year, the €1 student fare and the 90-minute fare have clearly made public transport more affordable and user friendly. We should keep it that way and continue to invest in improved services so that all users can benefit. Public transport had a difficult few years during Covid-19, but nationally we are now at passenger levels either consistent with and in some cases exceeding that of pre-Covid, and it's a welcome story.

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How car access to Zuruch city-centre is held back

To gain the mode shift we need to beat climate change and make our cities both liveable and competitive, we need to increase reliability even further and make services simple to use. That means eliminating congestion and providing easy-to-use networks that everyone can understand. In Zurich, car access to the city centre is held back so that more people can visit. Good public transport cities also have simple-to-understand transit network maps so that everywhere is accessible. In short, public transport networks need to work and make sense to people.

Eyes on the street

Transport is a gendered issue. While data on gender and transport use is very limited in Ireland, we know that safety is almost always one of the biggest issues for women. How women use or don't use transport, including at night compared to the day, is an ultimate indicator of the 'health’ of the system.

It is not acceptable for women, or any users, to feel unsafe whether walking to, waiting for or using public transport. The design of the built environment is a big part of this. To reverse the current trends of increasing numbers of women driving in Ireland, this needs to be taken seriously.

READ: More Irish women drive to work than men. Here's why

There is much talk about a transport police service – and of course, there should be one. But more so, the presence of staff, a 'go-to person' that has the power to intervene, can make all the difference, particularly at night, for when passengers might feel unsafe.

Bus interchanges and train stations should be activity hives, and an audit using a gender lens would help identify how this could be improved. We also know that attractive walking environments can potentially triple the amount of public transport users. This fact alone should provide a useful challenge for Active Travel Teams, recently resourced into every local authority by Minister for the Environment, Climate, Communications and Transport Eamon Ryan.

Stations and stops that inspire

The Victorians knew the importance of making beautiful train stations and the feeling that taking a train is something special. The passenger can feel that real sense of place as the train pulls into Dublin's Heuston and Connolly or Cork's Kent stations. The Luas tram service in Dublin passes by some great old stations but also benefits from good stop design and maintenance. But it can be a very different experience for multitudes of bus passengers, often squeezed onto sub-standard footpaths and exposed to the elements.

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From RTÉ News in 2019, vloggers and train enthusiasts Geoff Marshell and Vicki Pipe love rail travel so much they are visiting all 198 train stations in Ireland

While the art may have been largely forgotten in the somewhat soulless design of new Irish bus and train stops, this is not the case everywhere. Renowned architect Norman Foster was commissioned to design the new metro stations in Bilboa, including the strikingly beautiful glass entrances that pop-up into the street inviting passengers to enter.

Even buses can get the noble treatment. In the village of Krumbach in Austria, an international design competition saw architects from all over the world paired with local craftspeople to build bus stops that could only be described as inspirational. The public transport stop and its catchment deserve to be a distinct part of each neighbourhood.

Perhaps not every bus or tram stop needs a design competition. But maybe we'd be wise to ask the question: what can we do to send the message that public transport really matters?

Dr. Sarah Rock is a lecturer in urban design and transport planning and is the Programme Director for the MSc in Urban Regeneration and Development at TU Dublin. David O'Connor is Head of Environment and Planning at the School of Architecture, Building & Environment, and is Co-Chair of the MSc in Sustainable Transport & Mobility at TU Dublin. Both postgraduate programmes will commence in January 2023.


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