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Back to the Future: Climate crisis might revive the car-pool, but will rural Ireland go for it?

 

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Rural life: Joseph Bingham-McAndrew and three other parents take turns to car-pool with their children, including Joseph’s daughter Ella, for the 60km round trip to school in Rossport every Friday. Photo by Paul Mealey

Rural life: Joseph Bingham-McAndrew and three other parents take turns to car-pool with their children, including Joseph’s daughter Ella, for the 60km round trip to school in Rossport every Friday. Photo by Paul Mealey

Much-needed lift: Social Spin, a new community transport initiative led by a group of Kerry publicans, got a boost when a video of Chris O’Dowd driving customers home from the pub went viral

Much-needed lift: Social Spin, a new community transport initiative led by a group of Kerry publicans, got a boost when a video of Chris O’Dowd driving customers home from the pub went viral

Keeping it local: GoCar has been in business in Ireland since 2008

Keeping it local: GoCar has been in business in Ireland since 2008

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Rural life: Joseph Bingham-McAndrew and three other parents take turns to car-pool with their children, including Joseph’s daughter Ella, for the 60km round trip to school in Rossport every Friday. Photo by Paul Mealey

At the turn of the 19th century, landlord Major Denis Bingham developed the small village of Binghamstown on the Mullet peninsula in northwest Mayo. These days, the village is still home to one of Bingham's descendants, Joseph Bingham-McAndrew, who fixes electronic appliances.

He and his ex-wife Lucy Weir were keen for their daughter Ella to be educated through Irish, but there was a hitch: the Irish-speaking secondary school in Rossport is more than 30km away from Binghamstown.

From Monday to Thursday, Bingham-McAndrew drives Ella, now aged 17, 5km to Belmullet so she can catch a bus to Rossport. However, the bus doesn't run on Fridays, so he and three other parents with children at the school take turns picking them up and dropping them off. They do the same for parent-teacher meetings and school shows. By car-pooling, the parents save themselves a 60km round-trip, reduce their carbon footprint, and save money on fuel.

"If I pass the school in Belmullet at three o'clock, it's chock-a-block with cars full of parents collecting their kids," Bingham McAndrew says. "I don't know why more parents don't pick up neighbours' kids. I like car-pooling; it's more sociable, even if the kids have their faces stuck in their phones half the time."

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Much-needed lift: Social Spin, a new community transport initiative led by a group of Kerry publicans, got a boost when a video of Chris O’Dowd driving customers home from the pub went viral

Much-needed lift: Social Spin, a new community transport initiative led by a group of Kerry publicans, got a boost when a video of Chris O’Dowd driving customers home from the pub went viral

As well as studying for the Leaving Cert, Ella has already sat her driver theory test and is eager to get her licence because "a car is essential here", he says.

"You can't depend on public transport because the buses are so irregular. There are no cycle lanes like there are in Westport and Mulranny and the road from Binghamstown to Belmullet has dangerous bends. At night, people are not going out because they could be waiting for ages for a taxi home."

Until the 1990s, car-pooling to school and work, and offering lifts to friends, neighbours and even hitch-hikers was run-of-the-mill in rural Ireland and regional towns, as cars and fuel were prohibitively expensive in a troubled economy. As the Celtic Tiger began to purr and households had more money in their pockets, car ownership surged: by 2018, there were almost 1.4 million more vehicles on the road compared to the period from 1985 to 1989, according to the Central Statistics Office.

The proposed Climate Action Bill, which aims to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 to encourage a switch to electric vehicles, may have to go on the long finger in the run-up to the General Election. But with transport accounting for some 20pc of Ireland's emissions, the next government will - like its predecessor - come under pressure to tackle the climate emergency by reducing car usage, in both rural and urban Ireland.

A public consultation has just closed for the Department of Transport's review of Ireland's sustainable mobility policy. Part of the review examined rural transport, pointing out that "in very isolated rural areas, the demand for travel may not support the provision of bus services but may have to be met by local hackney services or community car schemes". It highlighted a 2015 OECD report on rural transport in Finland, the UK, Norway, France, and Japan that found that thanks to technology, "car-pooling offers a real growth potential, as a form of mobility without significant cost to the public".

As result of the climate crisis, Irish rural dwellers may have to go back to the future - by using app-based car and lift-sharing services - if they can be persuaded. These services could ease rural isolation and decrease carbon emissions, according to Dr Brian Caulfield, associate professor at the Centre for Transport Research at Trinity College Dublin's department of civil, structural and environmental engineering.

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Keeping it local: GoCar has been in business in Ireland since 2008

Keeping it local: GoCar has been in business in Ireland since 2008

Environmental impacts

In 2017, Caulfield addressed the Citizens' Assembly on the environmental impacts of transport and methods to reduce the carbon impacts of transport. As well as car-pooling, these methods could include car-sharing, a service common in North America. Car-sharing clubs like GoCar, which started in Ireland in 2008, and its new rival in Dublin, Yuko, allow users to download an app and book a car by the hour or day.

Not-for-profit lift-sharing apps, which connect passengers who need a lift with drivers, are already starting to get off the ground in Ireland, despite the regulatory barrier to commercial lift-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. This model, where passengers pay fares to drivers of private cars, is not allowed to operate in Ireland. However, a UK not-for-profit social enterprise called Liftshare, which has some 700,000 members on its platform and enables both short commutes and cross-country trips, has mooted an entry to the Irish market.

Because Ireland has one of the most dispersed patterns of rural dwellings in Europe, investing in public transport to serve all of the population is unfeasible and electric cars still cost too much for the masses, Caulfield says.

"For mass public transport to work, you need a lot of people, and that's not economically viable in rural Ireland, so that car will provide a huge solution," he says.

Car-sharing, however, would require a shift in mindset, as evidenced by the Twitter backlash Green Party leader Eamon Ryan faced after suggesting in October that the government incentivise rural car-sharing. After saying a village of 300 inhabitants could need "just 30 cars" that people could "cycle down to", Ryan quickly back-pedalled on his remarks.

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The new Clare Local Lift app

The new Clare Local Lift app

"Eamon Ryan might just have been too far ahead in terms of public acceptance, but in the future, cars will be shared and there will only be a certain number of cars," Caulfield says. "The model we have for ownership of cars will have to change because at the moment, the average car sits idle for 95pc of the time.

"Technology will enable this sharing. It won't be just about me and you sharing a car to work. Car-sharing like GoCar is already happening all the time. Instead of owning a car, you'll have ownership of one for a certain amount of time and you won't have to incur the cost of purchasing a car.

"If you look at the data on the ages that people are taking out drivers' licences, the younger age groups are less likely to do so compared to older generations were when they were young. Plenty of 18-year-olds no longer see learning to drive as a rite of passage and look to the sharing economy instead. Often the reason people need a car, or feel they need a car, is the independence it gives them. That independence is something we should be questioning.

Unnecessary journeys

"This (questioning) is already happening with owners of electric cars. Because of range anxiety, where people worry the battery will run out of power on the way from Dublin to Galway, it makes them think beforehand about the trip and, sometimes, whether they need to take it in the first place.

"Rural transport will start to change when carbon tax increases change the behaviour of drivers, just like the plastic bag charge did.

"There is a huge problem around rural isolation and transport poverty, where people can't afford a car. We need to re-imagine how we provide transport, such as having a rural Uber in place, where people can earn some extra cash from driving their neighbours. Everything needs to be on the table - we need to think big and be ambitious."

There is a sharp disparity between car ownership in urban and rural areas, the 2016 Census showed, amid a dearth of regular public transport outside cities and large towns. Some 91pc of rural households own at least one car, compared to 76.6pc of urban households, with the CSO defining "rural" as areas with a population of fewer than 1,500 people.

In December 2018, a National Transport Authority survey showed that in 2017, rural dwellers used a car for eight out of 10 of their trips, with Dublin city residents using it for only four out of 10 trips. While 21pc of rural drivers used their car for distances of between 10km and 20km, the same proportion again used their vehicle to travel distances of between just 1km and 3km.

Some 53pc of rural households own two cars, but an estimated 18.7pc of households on the Loop Head Peninsula don't have a car at all. In mid-December, the Carrigaholt Development Association and Clare County Council began a three-month pilot of a free lift-sharing app in the region. Clare Local Lift connects locals who don't have transport with private drivers within the community who are willing to provide a lift, through an app developed by Arvoia, a Killarney-based intelligent mobility solutions company.

Lift-sharing platform

If the trial of the lift-sharing platform is successful, it could be rolled out across other parts of Clare and rural Ireland, according to Margaret Cotter, the rural and community development officer with Clare County Council.

"We selected that region because it's categorised as a deprived area and because it's a peninsula, it's quite a distance from a hospital and large towns," she says.

"We thought initially that it would be hard to get drivers to sign up, but I think once they know it's okay with their insurer, they get comfortable with it. We're requesting drivers inform their insurance companies beforehand that they will operate as a voluntary driver and we've only had one query back from an insurance company so far. And drivers don't have to be garda-vetted because the scheme isn't addressed at under-18s or vulnerable adults.

"The benefit of using an app, rather than Facebook or WhatsApp, is that it gives the driver privacy. On the app, the channels of communication are only open between the driver and the passenger once the driver agrees to a lift request. Once the lift is finished, the channels shut down, so, technically, a passenger can't contact the driver for a lift the following day.

Changing mindsets

"If we all changed our mindsets about sharing cars, we would see that it's not about cadging a lift, but about making sensible choices about sharing a car that's already on the road. I'm not saying it's a fix for rural transport but it could be one of the fixes."

Other communities across the county organise their own car-pooling and lift-sharing via WhatsApp and Facebook. On the Rideshare Ireland group on Facebook, which has 2,737 members, people can request lifts in exchange for contributing towards fuel and tolls, and drivers can offer lifts. The website Getthere.ie does the same, as well as displaying bus and train schedules.

The same week that Clare Local Lift launched, Social Spin, a new community transport initiative led by a group of publicans in Causeway and Faha in Co Kerry, got a boost when a marketing video that Guinness and the Vintners' Federation of Ireland made of Hollywood star and Roscommon native Chris O'Dowd driving customers home from the pub went viral.

The rural publicans set up a dedicated phone and text number for Social Spin and asked locals to take turns driving their friends and neighbours to and from the pub. There's no charge for the use of the service but users can offer a voluntary contribution of up to €5 to the driver, with an estimated 70 drivers across the two communities.

The introduction of stricter drink-driving laws accelerated a decline in customers to the pubs. But one publican, Sean O'Mahony from the Faha Court Pub, said Social Spin could get "rural Ireland back on its feet".

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