In 2000, facing a popular government in an economic boom, Fine Gael struggled to find an issue to gain traction with the public. They chose traffic.
Fine Gael’s “Celtic Snail” campaign was an unmitigated disaster, which was used against the party itself. It signalled the end of John Bruton’s leadership.
That memory might burn bright in the recollections of some TDs as this Government embarks upon a long-term plan to remove cars from cities through a variety of measures, such as increased parking charges, more car-free streets and congestion charges in city centres.
The initial reaction is negative. Many in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael pushed back against the idea, arguing that unless there are viable alternatives to the private car by way of more reliable, accessible and affordable public transport, congestion charges will be seen as a punitive measure to screw hard-pressed commuters.
Even the Taoiseach said Irish cities are not ready for imminent congestion charges. If we are to wait for a metro or the Dart Underground, we will be waiting decades.
If we wait for the expansion of the existing Dart lines to the west, we might be waiting a decade or so. All of which won’t solve the traffic problem that we’re experiencing now.
Bad traffic is often the downside of an economic boom in which there are more people at work and they can afford to buy cars. We’re in an economic boom now — though we aren’t supposed to admit it. Traffic levels are back to pre-pandemic levels and may have exceeded them. That is despite the fact many people are still working from home.
Any space available on the road for cars has now been taken. So how would an Irish government solve the traffic problem? The bad news is that it can’t. Traffic congestion is going to be a feature of any thriving economy. The last time we had relatively car-free roads was when we essentially closed down the economy and society because of Covid-19.
One can see Dublin’s rush hour is now starting earlier and ending later as people shift the time of their commute to avoid congestion. Few people seem willing to shift their mode of transport in spite of the traffic.
A Eurobarometer survey shows over three-quarters of Irish people use private cars for their daily commute — an eight-point increase on pre-pandemic figures. This is the second highest in Europe, after only Cyprus, a place that seems to have modelled its transport infrastructure on Los Angeles.
The EU average is 47pc. Just 7pc here say they mainly take public transport, down from 12pc before the pandemic.
With more people driving, and with more people in Ireland due to population growth, we see more and more cars on the road competing for the same amount of space. There are now 2.5 million private cars in the country.
As well as causing traffic congestion, air pollution and lost hours due to long commuting times, it is making it almost impossible for Ireland to hit its emission reduction targets.
Getting people out of their cars won’t happen easily. An OECD report from late last year observed the “Irish transport system fosters growing car use and emissions by design”. “Alternatives first” is the refrain.
But one of the reasons public transport is slow and unreliable is because it competes with cars for space. Making public transport free, as some are clamouring for, won’t increase capacity or reliability. You will need to get people out of cars before the public transport system can work.
The Luas is pretty useless at crossing Dublin city centre, where it is forced to share space, but where it is given its own space it works well.
So too with buses. Buses are cheap, flexible and fast to introduce. Hand over road space to buses and you can improve the transport system very quickly.
The easiest way might be to give space taken from on-street parking spaces, and to increase charges for all other parking. If people want to drive, let them at least pay the full economic and social cost to park their cars.
Although driving is already expensive, once you own, tax and insure a car, the cost of each extra trip is quite cheap. So it’s no surprise that 57pc of journeys of less than 2km are by private car.
The Green Party knows a congestion charge for urban centres will help. It changes the structure of the decision you make when you decide to drive rather than take a bus.
The mooted €10 charge would mean few would just pop into town in their car. It would have to be brought in with parking charges for out-of-town retail centres.
Congestion charges would be initially unpopular, but they work elsewhere. And a bit like with the smoking ban, you’ll find that once it is done, people will wonder what all the fuss was about.
Eoin O’Malley teaches politics and policy at Dublin City University