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Geraldine Herbert: 'Dublin is one of the worst cities in the world to be a driver... but congestion charges are not the solution'

Taking money from those who can least afford it is not the way to tackle carbon emissions, writes Contributing Editor Geraldine Herbert


A congestion charge is being proposed for Ireland’s cities and towns, but will it reduce emissions or just create more revenue for Government?

A congestion charge is being proposed for Ireland’s cities and towns, but will it reduce emissions or just create more revenue for Government?

A congestion charge is being proposed for Ireland’s cities and towns, but will it reduce emissions or just create more revenue for Government?

Carbon emissions could be reduced by introducing a congestion charge according to an ESRI report published this week, which looked at the impact of increasing carbon tax. The aim of a congestion charge is to reduce the number of private vehicles entering a city or town centre and in turn raise revenue that can be used to support public transport and cycling infrastructures.

In theory, any reduction of cars into congested central urban areas would be beneficial and would not only reduce emissions but it would improve air quality. In Ireland, four people die per day due to air pollution and yet most deaths linked to poor air quality are preventable. In addition, the latest figures by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland indicates that CO2 emissions fell by less than 2pc last year. It is clear that there is a significant need to cut emissions and improve air quality. But would a congestion charge be the solution?

Some cities, such as London, have introduced one. Covering a 21km² area, it costs £11.50 to enter the London zone between 7am and 6pm on a weekday. In April of this year, an additional charge was introduced for the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) and now those driving polluting vehicles into the city centre face a daily charge - £12.50 for cars, motorcycles and vans, and £100 for lorries, buses and coaches - on top of the existing congestion charge, so taking a car into the city centre of London can cost £24 daily.

There are some exceptions to the charges. Registered disabled people can travel for free and there is a 90pc discount for residents. Emergency services, motorcycles, taxis and minicabs are exempt, along with cars that emit 75g/km or less of CO2, which includes electric cars.

So, has the London congestion charge worked? Key measures show it has been a success and demonstrates that road pricing is an effective tool but it has succeeded for two key reasons: it had a clear objective from the outset and it was just one part of an integrated approach to improving public transport. Much of its success has been down to the parallel introduction of other transport improvements, including additional rail and bus capacity. An extra 300 buses were put into service on the day the charge was introduced.

However, despite the success, there is no denying that a congestion charge is regressive as it takes a higher percentage of income in tax from the poor. There are also other considerations and its effectiveness is directly related to how many alternative modes of transport are available.

Ultimately a congestion charge is a blunt instrument - technology allows for more flexible solutions and city authorities elsewhere are looking at alternatives.

In countries like the Netherlands and Sweden over the last few years, incentives have been used to encourage people to avoid certain roads during certain time periods rather than charging road users. In London, the congestion charge is likely to be abandoned in favour of a new per-mile road charging scheme. Called 'City Move', drivers could check the duration and cost of their journeys in comparison to other public transport options and it would show also the environmental impact of each choice. This would allow drivers to make informed choices - but, more crucially, it would be fairer as currently a driver who drives one kilometre is charged the same as one who drives 50km.

Dublin is one of the worst cities in the world to be a driver, according to new research. The TomTom Traffic Index revealed the Irish capital is now the 14th most congested city in the world - and the sixth worst in Europe. But to date, there has been no meaningful attempt to solve the issue. Instead, there is another plan for a Metro and an attempt to rationalise the Dublin bus system with Bus Connects, which plans to take portions of people's gardens away to facilitate cars despite the fact that traffic expands to fill the space available. In addition, the Bus Connects plan is intended to provide an effective alternative to cars rather than facilitate their use. After eight years of deliberation, Dublin City Council produced a proposal for dedicated cycling facilities on the north quays, which many cyclist activist groups deem as sub-standard and indeed potentially unsafe for both pedestrians and cyclists. The plans involve the destruction of trees on Bachelors Walk, challenging junction designs, reduced footpath widths in places and an additional €7.6m to be spent on Liffey boardwalks to make more space.

We need to radically rethink how urban centres should be used and address air pollution and congestion urgently. Transport strategies are all about managing limited space, trade-offs and conflicting demands. Priority must be given to promote walking, cycling, buses and, where feasible, trams and trains in our cities and town centres while ensuring that private and commercial vehicles are used efficiently and are as clean as possible. A congestion charge will not ensure this, it will simply collect additional revenue for the Government from the pockets of those who can least afford it.

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