The new commuter hour: peak times increase with record traffic volumes
Ireland's road network is grinding to a halt at peak times of the day, with overcrowded public transport services unable to provide a viable alternative to the car.
The peak travel period on our busy national roads now spans six hours of the day, but much of the bus, rail and tram network is unable to provide an alternative service for motorists keen to ditch the car.
Not until 2020 will overcrowding issues on Irish Rail be addressed with the arrival of 28 refurbished carriages and it will be 2023 before 100 additional carriages enter service to cater for increased demand.
The expanded Luas Green line will remain under pressure at peak times until the end of next year, when all trams will be extended.
And while Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus passengers can expect to endure less overcrowding on busy services as new buses are delivered, the fleet needs to be rapidly expanded.
The lack of investment in public transport services over recent years and growing congestion levels are affecting the ability of workers, students, tourists and the general public to move freely around our major urban areas.
A report published by Transport Infrastructure Ireland shows how economic growth is affecting travel times for busy commuters, with Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus warning that congestion is limiting their ability to move people around.
The 'National Roads Network Indicators 2017' says that traffic volumes on national routes returned to pre-boom levels in 2015, but now stand at a record level.
Peak travel times are from 6.30am to 9.30am and between 3.30pm and 6.30pm. More people are leaving for work earlier than before to avoid traffic.
"This was a result of continued growth on the national roads network and traffic demand reaching previously unreached levels," it says.
Some 1.5 billion kilometres were travelled on the country's busiest road, Dublin's M50, last year. It carries up to 144,500 vehicles a day, but 170,711 were recorded between the N3/N4 on July 25 last.
Parts of the M50 and Cork's N40 experience "forced or breakdown flow" at busy times, where the road effectively comes to a standstill. Only in isolated parts of the day is the M50 entirely free-flowing, despite a €1bn expansion in 2010.
The report also says that over 15pc of the national primary road network is operating above capacity and around 30pc of national secondary roads.
Overall, volumes increased by 3pc in 2017 but "significant growth" is expected over the coming years, which will place further pressure on the road network.
"The unemployment rate of just over 6pc in early 2018 indicates there is still room for further growth in employment levels," it adds.
"Given these economic trends, the prospects are for continued significant growth in national roads traffic overall and HGV traffic in particular as building and the construction sector pick up."
While the National Development Plan commits to spending €8.6bn on public transport up to 2027, many projects in the high-pressure areas of Dublin, Cork and Galway - including the Metrolink, Bus Connects programmes for the three cities and expansion of the Dart network - are at an early stage of development.
The plan also commits to increased spending on new buses and trains, but overcrowding is routinely experienced at peak times on city bus, rail and tram services and will continue until additional fleet is delivered.
The National Transport Authority said 140 buses will be provided for Dublin city services this year, of which 61 were replacements. Bus Éireann will receive another 60, most of which will be replacements, but another 20 double-deckers are being sought.
This would help increase capacity, but a spokesman admitted the system is overcrowded at times and needs investment.
"Passenger numbers on public transport are continuing to increase. While it is an issue without doubt, it seems to indicate that a lot of people are choosing public transport as a default mode," he said.
"People who are trying to promote public transport would find it easier in a situation where capacity was greater than it is at the moment, which is why we're working to ensure that capacity is increased over the coming years."