Tuesday 22 October 2019

Colm McCarthy: 'All aboard the anti-bus conspiracy'

Dublin is ill-suited to fixed-line trams and trains and yet no one will speak up for an improved bus service, writes Colm McCarthy

National Transport Authority CEO Anne Graham, Transport Minister Shane Ross and bus inspector Ciaran Keogh
National Transport Authority CEO Anne Graham, Transport Minister Shane Ross and bus inspector Ciaran Keogh
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

Dublin is a notably low-density city, unsuited to fixed-line public transport in trams or trains, a straightforward consequence of the dispersal of homes and jobs.

Despite heavy expenditure on the Dart and Luas rail systems, two-thirds of public transport users rely on buses. This is unlikely to change: there are 140 Dublin Bus routes, dozens more run by private operators, and they will never be replaced with trains or trams.

A single underground tram line from the city centre northwards to the airport and Swords, called Metro North, has been costed at €3bn - enough to build two National Children's hospitals (or four at the initial estimate).

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

This is a scary figure for a single tram route. Improving public transport for the entire city at affordable cost means improving the bus system and the proponents of pie-in-the-sky underground railways are engaged in displacement activity.

There is a live proposal, costing about one-third of the Metro North figure, to build 16 express bus corridors on the main radial routes serving all points around Dublin. It would reduce journey times, halving them in some cases, through creating exclusive rights-of-way at higher frequencies and would incorporate an extended network of cycle-ways.

The scheme, promoted by the National Transport Authority, would require extensive road-widening, including an end to some on-street parking, narrower footpaths in some places and the acquisition of extra space from front gardens. With local elections due on May 24, candidates have been locating issues on which to address what they presume to be an exclusively nimby electorate.

They have identified Bus Connects as a mortal threat, comparable to the horror of increased housing supply, and are opposing the bus improvement scheme with the ardour normally reserved for attempts by builders to construct more apartments.

If you live in Dublin and would like to see affordable housing and better public transport, there could be nobody to vote for on May 24. In a country where socialists are opposed to the taxation of property, it should come as no surprise that Green candidates are opposed to better bus transport.

There is something going on here that requires explanation. All candidates, of all parties, appear to have settled on the same idealisation of the representative voter, presumed to be a home-owner, anxious to keep housing affordability at bay, and never reliant on public transport. There are many such voters no doubt but the political parties of right, left and centre are choosing to ignore the remainder, including renters and bus-users.

Opposition to better buses by local politicians goes together with objections to planning permission for apartments of even four or five stories in the inner suburbs. Their vision for Dublin is a low-density sprawl, guaranteeing high reliance on cars and heavy congestion.

The American economist Harold Hotelling would have understood the apparent unity of the politicians. In a famous article in the Economic Journal in 1929, Hotelling observed that competitors in markets sometimes have incentives to avoid differentiation, to make themselves as similar as possible. Two ice-cream sellers on a beach will have half the market to themselves if they stand back-to-back half-way along its length, even though some of their customers will face an unnecessarily long walk.

Hotelling's observation has been used to explain the tendency of election candidates to cluster in what they perceive to be the political centre of gravity, neglecting substantial numbers of voters who locate themselves elsewhere.

One affable councillor in Dublin 4 has taken to wrapping red ribbons around trees believed to be threatened by the dastardly bus plan - and has succeeded in getting his photograph in the newspapers.

More importantly, not a single candidate in the Dublin 4 or Dublin 6 areas has to my knowledge endorsed the Bus Connects proposal. Instead, leaflets and online postings warn residents of the threatening scheme which is afoot. A letter-writer to the Irish Times, popular in these parts, attacked "...technocrats keen to bulldoze over the rate-paying citizens".

Bus Connects would require road-widening on the routes affected but not the bulldozing of actual live citizens. Some of the wastefully wide footpaths can painlessly be narrowed to the standard two metres and there would be an end to on-street parking. But householders along some routes would lose a portion of their front gardens, with compensation and restoration at the council's expense.

I own an apartment in Dublin 4, one of eight in a five-storey Georgian house, a protected structure completed in 1830. If a builder sought planning permission today for a similar apartment block on one of the many derelict sites in the inner suburbs, the councillors would object on the grounds of height. Happily, King George IV did not enjoy their advice - or Georgian Dublin would never have been built.

The house is located on Pembroke Road - you may have passed by en route from the city centre to the Aviva stadium. The road will host one of the proposed busways and the house would lose two metres off the front garden. The front 'garden', all paved over for parking, is no less than 32 metres deep, so it would be cut back to a mere 30 metres (of tarmacadam). Most of the front 'gardens' along this road, and many others affected, are not oases of floriculture, they are off-street car-parks.

Some of the residents along the road are up in arms and leaflets are circulating: "We are vehemently opposed to the plans for this historic road", according to one.

The road is old, but not historic, a common confusion. While the inflated language is an irritation, it is the blanket unwillingness to consider the Bus Connects scheme on its merits that offends.

Where is the lane capacity for bus improvements to be found, if not on the main radial routes into the city? What political philosophy confers on the owners of 30m tarmacadam 'gardens' a veto over the development of public transport for the entire city?

Attendees at a meeting in Terenure, convened by a Fianna Fail candidate, included residents with homes well removed from another proposed busway and not directly affected at all. They obligingly registered their 'anger' and the media duly reported.

The political technique is the reverse of that outlined by the American consumer champion and leftist campaigner Noam Chomsky.

He identified, in the late 1960s, a process he called 'manufacturing consent', in which the media helps the powers-that-be to build support for public policies. The postmodern version goes like this: in the absence of willingness to make political choices, each candidate competes by fanning public disquiet about the same threats, real, invented or imagined. The winner is the candidate or party promising to best defend the victimised citizens against the dastardly government, county council, EirGrid, the National Transport Authority or whoever, bodies alleged to be working, without motive, against the public. Forget Chomsky, avoid issues that might offend anyone, manufacture discontent.

Politicians from any ideological heritage can play this game, which is how you get Greens against bus transport, or socialists against taxing property.

A reflex populism becomes the universal default setting. This means two fingers, from all parties, to aspirant home-owners, public transport users and a city that works.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss