We Need a Radical Plan for Dublin's Commuter Belt

David O'Connor

David O’Connor lectures at DIT and co-runs the MSc in Transport and Mobility, a new multi-disciplinary programme in transport planning. Follow him on: www.twitter.com/doccer


Would it come as a surprise to learn that our strategy to deal with transport in the fastest-growing and most traffic-saturated parts of the country is based on outdated population data and assumptions around future settlement patterns that bear little if any resemblance to reality?

This shouldn’t come as good news for commuters in far-flung towns like Ashbourne, Balbriggan or Naas, where growth rates are accelerating and commuters are increasingly facing longer and more arduous journeys. But unfortunately it is the case.

In 2016, the National Transport Authority (NTA) scored a significant achievement in agreeing a statutory and binding Transport Strategy for the city and region. It is the first of its kind and, for the city, it includes much that is very good, such as a core bus strategy and commitments to deliver an integrated network for the metropolitan area.

The NTA is delivering on these with ambitious projects like BusConnects, and by pushing through the cycle network, however controversial, piece by piece. If successful, they will eventually help to future-proof the city and create a sustainable, healthy place for people to live.

But beyond the main city area there is little to be cheerful about. And what plans do exist look increasingly likely to be overtaken by events, to put it mildly.

At the time of its preparation, the Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area was required to be consistent with the current regional planning guidelines. But those guidelines were written in 2010 and based on population figures as old as 2006. Not only has our population profile significantly changed, so too have economic realities.

Dublin’s 30 or so outlying towns have doubled in population since the 1980s and are highly likely to double again in the next generation. The Eastern and Midlands Region is projected to grow by 425,000 people by 2031. At least half of this growth will be in the outlying towns, many of which are planned to double in size.

Recently published figures from the 2016 census tell us there are now 12 towns in Dublin’s commuter belt with a population of 20,000 or more. Drogheda, Swords and Dundalk have populations of 40,000, Bray and Navan up to 30,000.  All are set for continued rapid growth.

But the jobs are in Dublin and concentrated especially in a ribbon either side of the M50 orbital motorway. Maps provided by the All-Island Research Observatory show that this is not where the starter homes are located. Families with children under 14 are living increasingly in a great semicircle stretching from Louth through Cavan, Westmeath, south Kildare, Laois and on to north Wexford.

The traditional, arterial corridor approach, which the Transport Strategy bluntly follows, will do little to meet the future needs of these communities, which are already under immense pressure.


Instead a radical, new and updated regional plan for the East needs to be created, providing new communities with new jobs and new civic spaces. Each town needs to be connected to its region, to the capital city and to themselves.

This would fundamentally require the development of a rapid regional transport network to serve the huge growth happening in Dublin’s outlying towns. The problem with serving outlying towns is that they are not contiguous.

That causes problems for running a frequent, rapid urban transit service. Good regional transport networks cope with this problem by operating scheduled services with pulse and clock-face departures.

Access to high-quality transport hubs in each of the town centres is vital for this to be a success. Many of the towns will also require their own local transport networks as their growth surpasses that of some of our existing regional cities.

By far the best approach would be to develop a regional Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network. Why not rail? Simply because there is a wealth of international evidence  to demonstrate that what is achievable within urban and regional rail systems – in terms of capacity, service, branding, etc. – is at least as achievable within a BRT system, but at a fraction of the cost.


Many of these growth towns are also bereft of basic facilities – playgrounds, sports and recreation areas, decent shopping streets, community centres, public spaces – and incapable of serving their existing populations, never mind a 50 percent uplift or often more. Each of the major growth towns therefore has to develop social and civic amenities to support their forecasted growth.

As they all should have their own internal economies, they will each need a viable employment strategy. The local industrial estates, many developed by the IDA in the 1970s and ’80s, need to be updated or replaced.

No need to panic, because it’s been done before. Markelius’ General Plan achieved something of this level for the greater Stockholm region in the 1940s and 1950s.

Markelius, an architect and avowed modernist, proposed a system of “half-containment” (50 percent internal and 50 percent external trips). The success of this approach transformed Stockholm “from a pre-war mono-centric city to a post-war polycentric metropolis”, according to Robert Cervero in The Transit Metropolis.

Known as the “ABC” towns (because each contained a balance of housing, employment and amenities), places like Vällingby grew to be quite charming places. At the centre of each was a transport hub that also acted as a civic and commercial centre. Attractive public spaces were a priority so that people could become attached to such places.

The towns were a success and their growth relieved pressure on Stockholm, which retained its compact and entirely liveable character.


Provisions are in place to commence such a plan for the Eastern and Midlands Region, but it is being held up while the government deliberates over the National Planning Framework, which sets out a road map for future development and investment across the country.

First promised in 2013, its publication is supposedly imminent, though indications suggest it is a thinner, more indicative document than its predecessors. Regardless, its delay is holding up the delivery of a “Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy”, intended to be drawn up for Dublin and the East. The politicians need to get on with it.

They also need to commit the resources and backing to instigate a broad, inclusive debate about the future of the city and region. And there needs to be a provision to comprehensively review the Transport Strategy on its completion.

Simply, any future sustainable transport vision for Dublin has to be framed within the development of a democratically decided regional strategy for Greater Dublin and the East.

Its aim should be no less than to create a city-region with a low-carbon future delivering the highest quality of life to all citizens.

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David O'Connor: David O’Connor lectures at DIT and co-runs the MSc in Transport and Mobility, a new multi-disciplinary programme in transport planning. Follow him on: www.twitter.com/doccer

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