Congestion charge would provide necessary disincentive to driving
Published 28/04/2015 | 02:30
Nothing raises the public's ire like the prospect of an imminent strike, especially in the transport sector.
It's only when people face the loss of their bus or rail service do they become passionate about the need for a good public transport system, notwithstanding the fact that many never use it, instead preferring to travel to work in their cars.
There's been some good news on this front recently. Almost half of all commuters coming to Dublin city now use public transport, with more than 10,000 cycling.
But despite enormous investment in services, not enough people are choosing the bus, train or tram as there's no disincentive to leave the car at home.
Between 2010 and 2014, the State provided just over €1.25bn to the public transport companies. That excludes funding for new vehicles and maintenance.
That's a lot of money invested in a public service that so many refuse to use. The amount has steadily fallen over that period, as the companies were told to reduce costs in the face of enormous strains on the public purse. But why won't people use the network?
There's many reasons, fares being one. They have gone up, on average, by 14pc for Luas - which receives no public subsidy - by 22pc on Bus Éireann, by 33pc on Dublin Bus and by 34pc on Iarnród Éireann services.
In the same period, between 2010 and 2014, the level of service offered by Iarnród Éireann has remained largely the same, despite numbers falling; it has increased for Luas which has seen a growth in services but fallen in the bus companies. Despite this, passenger numbers are growing again.
The year-on-year fare increases have to end, and should be linked with inflation, and the subvention increased. But deeper and more meaningful reforms are also needed.
For one, there needs to be more consultation on the services being offered. Once a year, the National Transport Authority (NTA) should ask the public what they need, and attempt to cater for the same.
The lack of joined-up thinking also needs to be addressed. That includes using the bus network to take people to train stations.
Car parking at train stations should be free for those with monthly or annual tickets. There should be more focus on growing numbers on little-used services. If people refuse to use them, they should be axed and funding diverted to routes where there is demand.
The focus needs to be moved away from Dublin. The capital will likely get a new Metro North, Luas or DART extension over the coming years, but demand is growing in Cork, Limerick and Galway for services, and a long-term plan is needed in these cities.
Public transport demand is picking up significantly. Some eight million more passenger trips were taken in 2015 compared with 2013.
But cuts in fares are needed to encourage more travel and grow business. This should be particularly focused in the regions, many poorly served or left without any transport service.
The NTA is now carrying out an international comparison of fares, which when complete should at least give an idea of how we compare with our nearest neighbours.
But fares are only one stumbling block. The biggest barrier to growing public transport numbers is reluctance. Assuming you have the finances to pay for parking, it's too easy to travel using the car. There's no disincentive, like a congestion charge, and no politician will suggest such an unpopular measure.
Irish people have shown themselves to be capable of change. We successfully introduced a smoking ban and a plastic bag tax.
There is perhaps a case to be made for introducing a lower motor tax regime for those who only use the car at weekends, or on certain days of the week, to enter our major towns and cities.
There's certainly a case for introducing a congestion charge in the near future, if use of public transport doesn't increase.