Saturday 23 March 2019

Conor Skehan: 'Q: How do we fix Dublin's traffic problems? A: Start in Galway'

Congestion will never be fully solved, but it could be managed with a joined-up approach and political will, writes Conor Skehan

SNARL-UP: Traffic congestion is an inevitable cost of having a successful and attractive city. Stock picture
SNARL-UP: Traffic congestion is an inevitable cost of having a successful and attractive city. Stock picture

Conor Skehan

Traffic jams are like strokes and heart attacks - caused by blockages. When I was young, they seemed to be the most common reason for funerals. Mourners, back then, would dream that some day there would be a cure for heart attacks.

There was. Since the 1980s, deaths from cardiovascular diseases have fallen by two-thirds.

The cure was not some magic pill. It was a combination of changes of individual awareness and behaviour (exercise, diet, quitting smoking); legislation and budgeting (health specialists and education, smoking ban, food labels); as well as advances in surgery and pharmacology.

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This type of overall approach that combines many parts to achieve a single goal is called a "systemic" approach. It's very effective - but it can also be difficult to achieve, because it needs the cooperation of so many different players.

Success in tackling heart disease came by the combined efforts and shared insights of surgeons, dieticians, administrators, fitness instructors and researchers - to name but a few.

Reducing traffic congestion -like reducing heart disease deaths - will have many parts, including engineering projects (like heart surgery); speed limits (like diets); new transport technology (like pharmacy); and new mobility behaviour (like exercise).

The most important lesson to be learned from the fight against heart disease was the need to treat and cure society as a whole - not just the individual patient.

The 'solution' requires everything and everybody to change. Solving traffic congestion also needs to address a wide range of issues in a coordinated way.

Traffic congestion will never be entirely "solved" - our aim should be to make it less bad, more tolerable, at more acceptable levels, where costs and benefits are properly balanced.

It needs incentives, guidance and convenience to modify expectations and behaviour. It needs investment - huge investment - in public transport, junctions, parking, tunnels and signalling systems to accommodate and not eliminate traffic. Most of all, it needs good governance to coordinate the actions of the many and the few for the benefit of all.

Let's start by looking at what is needed to "solve" Dublin's traffic - before we explore why Galway has to be part of the solution, too.

"Dublin traffic" is a meaningless term. Our wonderful Central Statistics Office tell us that a total of 422,404 workers live in Dublin city and its suburbs. A further 130,447 workers travelled into the city area to work. Three-quarters of all these commuters come from the counties of Fingal, Kildare, Meath and Wicklow.

This tells us that to even begin to "solve" Dublin's traffic, we will need coordination between these other counties and Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, South Dublin and Fingal - eight county councils in total.

To "solve" congestion, these counties all have to report to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport as well as to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. They also need to cooperate with An Garda Siochana and CIE [Bus Eireann, Dublin Bus and Irish Rail], as well as Transport Infrastructure Ireland - who manage Ireland's national roads and light rail.

"Traffic" is moving people - by bus, rail, car, bike and walking -and increasingly by a combination of these modes of transport. This is complex, and requires high levels of coordination across the different agencies who manage each of these modes - as well as land-use planning.

In the Greater Dublin Region, this complexity is greatly magnified by the need to get agreement at every stage from at least two ministers, three State agencies and eight local authorities.

For the avoidance of doubt, Ireland is not asleep at the wheel. The National Transport Authority is doing an incredibly good job of trying to plan and deliver solutions across a wide range of sectors but, as the recent BusConnects debacle demonstrated, it lacks the support of politics at the highest level. A traffic agency on its own - no matter how intelligent, well-run or well-intentioned - will achieve very little without absolute political commitment and vigorous support.

This leadership and support must be accountable to, and rooted within, the affected community to gather support for the often painful decision-making required. It certainly cannot be subjected to cabinet horse-trading at national level, where the budgetary needs for transport of 30,000 people, say in Finglas, have to be "balanced" by the need to offer the equivalent to another less-strategic community elsewhere.

Notice that you, dear reader, are not mentioned anywhere in this list. You live in Naas, work in Fingal, shop in Tallaght and relax in Dundrum. Traffic affects you everywhere that you go - but you can only vote in one of the places where you are affected.

Effective traffic management is one of the main reasons that elected mayors and accountable assemblies emerge in growing city regions. This happens all over the world once there is a need for effective and coordinated management to manage congestion.

The absence of clear, visionary politicised leadership for transport at a regional level creates a vacuum that can quickly be filled by distorting populism and white elephant "cure-all" projects. The debate itself gets quickly clouded by "fake facts" that distort the debate.

For example, those wise old dogs in the street now know that "only drivers in Bogota and Rome spend more time stuck in cars", thanks to the unchallenged recent reporting that cherry-picked results of a Global Traffic Score Card. The reporting omitted to mention that the actual overall results place Dublin as a pretty normal city - ranked 52 - worse than Prague, Los Angeles and Birmingham, but better than Glasgow, Marseilles, Seattle, Stockholm, San Francisco, Cologne or Ottawa.

Readers will be even more surprised to learn that the actual results showed the "worst" 20 cities to include London, Boston, Rome, Sydney, Berlin, Paris, Melbourne and Toronto. The presence of such cities as being most impacted is itself proof that traffic congestion is an inevitable cost of having a successful and attractive city.

Why start to fix Dublin's traffic problems in Galway's Gort and Oranmore, or Cork's Dunkettle Interchange or Limerick's N21 at Adare? Notice that these are all at the outskirts, where the county commuting meets the city traffic. The same factors of a lack of 'joined-up' urban governance across traditional county boundaries affects all of our major urban centres. We need a comprehensive solution that addresses all of Ireland - not just Dublin.

Dublin's traffic problems are bigger and are happening faster - but they are just as serious in Galway, Cork and Limerick. The reforms that are required mean that all of these urban areas need to have regional mayors with power to coordinate, plan, spend, tax and build solutions that are appropriate to the unique needs of each unique place.

"There's no right answer to a wrong question," I was once taught, "How do you fix Dublin's traffic?" is a question that begs a wrong answer.

Congestion is a symptom of poor governance - it is not caused by too many cars, poor planning or bad engineers. It is an affliction of successful cities, once they grow over a certain size.

The solutions are much deeper than can be provided by traffic engineers working in isolation - nor can any single minister or government wave a wand and make it better.

The answer does not lie in the hands of traffic planners. Instead, it lies in the need to reform governance to provide a city-region level control - with high levels of autonomy and the power to raise and spend money and also by providing leadership and vision to make hard decisions.

We will have to fix our governance before we can fix our traffic.

Conor Skehan is a senior lecturer in TU Dublin's School of Spatial Planning and Transport Engineering

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