Saturday 25 May 2019

We must not miss the bus over transport in a changing Dublin

Buses have a big role in getting people around a busy city - as long as they go to the right places, writes Eoin O'Malley

NETWORK: Buses are not sexy, but they do the job.
NETWORK: Buses are not sexy, but they do the job.

Eoin O'Malley

Expect howls of anger from the residents of certain parts of Dublin as the 46A bus will be consigned to history under a new bus plan for Dublin.

If BusConnects is adopted we'll see most of the existing route numbers changed and replaced with a letter and a number. Each letter, A to G, will represent one of seven ''spines'' running through the city where there will be very frequent buses. As they get further out of the city, each lettered bus will branch out depending on its number; so you might take the A3 to DCU or the A2 to the airport.

People are attached to the bus they know - because they know it. That shouldn't stop a rethink of the bus system. Dublin's bus routes developed incrementally. As new areas were built, buses were added to serve them. Almost every bus was radial, going like a spoke from the suburb to the city centre and back again. By the time all these buses converge in the city centre, especially around O'Connell Bridge and College Green, the buses are backed up in queues. The proposed system will have more people changing buses to get where they want, but it should expand the number of places they can get to quickly.

While all of us can quibble with aspects of the BusConnects plan, it's largely sensible, and could be a model for how we think about urban transport in Limerick, Cork and Galway. One of the big positives is it shows a willingness to invest in the bus network.

Trains and trams can move large numbers of people quickly and comfortably, but they are inflexible and horrendously expensive. A minor crash on a Luas line, and the entire system is backed up for a few hours. A bus crash, and the next bus just snakes around it. Buses are pretty cheap and very flexible.

Yet we are obsessed with the more expensive light rail. The Ireland 2040 plan suggests one for Cork. That would be a mistake. The recent Luas extension cost almost €400m, and rendered large parts of the city centre inaccessible for years. But it's the form of transport that ministers queue up to open. Buses just aren't sexy.

Buses may be boring - but they are the workhorse of urban transport. Even in London, with its extensive underground network, 180 million bus journeys were taken by bus this May, compared to 105 million Tube journeys. Of those who take public transport to commute in Dublin, buses account for almost twice the number that Dart and Luas serve.

Why buses have such a bad reputation is clear. Buses are slow and irregular. The old joke of waiting ages for a bus, and then three coming at the same time isn't a joke - it's often a reality. Buses get caught in traffic pinch-points, and are then pushed together. Boarding and disembarking buses in Ireland is slow, as almost everyone interacts with the driver. And because bus stops are positioned so close together journeys take much longer than light rail. Buses don't take many passengers, and double-decker buses are jerky, uncomfortable, and inaccessible for many.

The BusConnects plan doesn't really deal with these issues - it wasn't in its remit. But unless these issues are addressed, even a radical redesign of the bus routes won't work.

The Luas is popular because in most places it is given exclusive space to travel. Where it doesn't have exclusive access, it is given priority. You buy or validate tickets before you board, and the Luas also has lots of doors that make boarding quick, so less time is spent at stops. Trams are easier for people with disabilities or buggies. Luas stops have pleasant shelters, and are further apart than bus stops typically are, making the whole journey much quicker and more predictable.

We can deal with some of these problems easily by introducing longer, bendy buses, using less but better serviced stops, safe areas to interchange, and by creating bus lanes where the buses don't have to compete with private taxis and bikes.

There is still a problem with the BusConnects plan, however. It is not as radical as it makes out. It has taken a familiarly narrow view of what the city centre consists of.

In the past, Dublin city centre was an approximately 600m-wide rectangle going from St Stephen's Green to Parnell Square. The bus service was built around this.

But that's no longer the case. Like other cities, Dublin is developing several urban centres. To the east of the traditional city centre, Dublin now has a central business district on the south and north docklands. As well as housing lots of businesses, there are also thousands of apartments, with shops, bars, theatres, and restaurants to serve them. West of the old core centre, areas such as The Liberties and Stoneybatter have become urban centres that people from outside will go to work, study, eat, shop and play.

But you wouldn't know that from the BusConnects plan. Despite one frequent orbital route, it keeps almost everyone going through this narrowly defined city centre. It is understandable. If you asked most people where they wanted their bus to go, they would point to somewhere within 500m of O'Connell Bridge.

Even though fewer bus routes will go through the city centre, it seems we're still asking a hundred buses an hour to go through a couple of corridors. Especially if they're slow to pick up and drop off passengers, it may not alleviate the problem of bus congestion in that zone.

Though the plan assumes that a better bus system will induce demand for buses, BusConnects doesn't make the same assumption for the design of the city. Shops, bars and restaurants tend to converge and thrive around transport hubs, creating new urban centres.

Unless a new bus system uses the docklands and the bridges around them to make the whole city work for the bus system, the bus system won't work for the city.

Dr Eoin O'Malley is the Director of MSc in Public Policy at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University

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