Sunday 18 March 2018

Big Snow highlights the lie we have been living for 30 years

People try to push a car that hadve become stuck in heavy snow during a blizzard in Dublin earlier this week. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne
People try to push a car that hadve become stuck in heavy snow during a blizzard in Dublin earlier this week. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne

The Ronan Lyons Column

The week just gone has given Ireland its biggest snowfall in over 35 years. The snow affected Ireland's cities and towns as well as its fields and mountains. And areas that have perhaps become a little bit inured to hearing about yellow and orange warnings got a reminder that we need to take our experts seriously.

This year, the Government is launching its 'Ireland 2040' strategy. This comprises two elements. The first is a planning framework out to 2040, setting out the contours of population growth over the next two decades. The second is an investment plan for the next few years, in particular around transportation infrastructure.

Does the snowstorm and how it affected daily life here tell our policymakers something important for those plans? This can be thought about in terms of both causes and effects. There will perhaps be some discussion in the aftermath about the causes of events like this.

Expect a row about whether events like this will become more common due to climate change, for example. One thing that is certainly relevant, however, is that the Gulf Stream is our protector. Ireland lies between 52 and 55 degrees north of the equator, in line with parts of Alaska and Siberia.

To our east, the city of Omsk in Central Russia, which is 55 degrees north, has 144 snowy days a year. Vancouver, on the west coast of Canada and only 49 degrees north, gets roughly 40cm of snow a year. Dublin, on the other hand, has only a handful of snow days a year on average.

Ireland is something of a weather freak. But this all depends on warm air blowing from the southeast. If that were to change, whether because of human activity or some other reason, we would need to be able to deal with more extreme weather - in particular colder winters - a lot more.

But the effects of the "Big Snow of 2018" are also relevant. As we take stock of the disruption caused by the snow, an obvious theme emerges. Where people have clustered together, the disruption was far less. Even last Friday morning, at the height of the snowstorm, life in Dublin went on despite the huge snow fall.

In the centre of the city, coffee shops served people on their way to work. The regular traffic - mostly pedestrian but some vehicular - meant that the main thoroughfares were navigable, if very snowy. An hour outside the city, however, and life had come to a complete standstill.

During the night, numerous vehicles got stuck on the country's main roads. This includes ambulances, with one seeing a baby born on the side of the road near Kilkenny.

In other words, the snow caused the most disruption where we have set up our lives in a way that makes us dependent on travel. The implications for housing are obvious.

As Edward Glaeser, the world's leading urban economist, has written, the research on density is clear. Cities make us not only richer - we can find jobs that match our skills better - they also make us happier and healthier. Services - including healthcare and education but also experiences like restaurants and sports events - are cheaper.

As a country, we have been living something of a lie the last 30 years. We have tried to convince ourselves we can have all the benefits of a modern, city-based, economy without actually having the density that cities require. We have spread out, rather than moved closer together.

And this is getting worse, not better. The number of people commuting more than an hour each way grew by a third between 2011 and 2016 alone. A quarter of the working population of Leinster outside of Dublin now commutes to Dublin every day. And the picture is similar in Cork and Galway.

The lie we have been living as a country is that we can live where our parents did but enjoy a standard of living such as we see on TV. One-off housing should not be banned - but the full cost of connecting the various utilities and services should be paid by those in one-off housing. Otherwise, we are punishing those who choose to live in the cities.

By 2040, based on what our peers have done, Ireland will probably be a country that is 75pc or perhaps 80pc urban. This week's snow confirms just how important it is for policy to facilitate that. Sprawl is certainly an option - but a very costly one.

  • Ronan Lyons is assistant professor of economics at Trinity College, Dublin, and author of the reports

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