It was quite a spectacular and welcome announcement in the National Development Plan that the government intends to invest €2 billion into the BusConnects project and develop a high-quality bus network for Dublin over the next 10 years.
“Project Ireland 2040” might be vague on specifics, but the essence of BusConnects is to develop an effective city-wide public transport network with a key focus on providing a reliable, frequent and quality service.
From the 1990s and for about a decade after, Dublin took several steps forward with the development of the Quality Bus Corridor (QBC) network. Large parts of the suburbs gained access to the city centre, along 16 corridors.
A dedicated division, the Quality Bus Network Project Office, was set up to deliver it. As good as these corridors were, they only ran for the most part as far as the edges of the city centre, where congestion set in. Promised orbital routes were never delivered.
Instead, the focus turned to light rail and metro. While the former delivered, it was costly, too slow to materialise, and the benefits were ultimately outstripped by the pace of growth of the city. The saga of the latter continues.
Now Dubliners need a city-wide network more than ever before, one that would access all of Dublin city and suburbs and including orbital links. It doesn’t even have to go through the heart of the city centre. Around it will do, as long as people can walk to the main places of work and shopping. And they will do, once there is a good quality and high-level service.
With the launch of the National Development Plan, most of the media focus was, predictably, on the revised plans for a metro for Dublin. This risky and over-hyped project has dominated and stifled debate about the future of the city for generations at this stage.
That is why it was refreshing to hear Professor of Economics Edgar Morgenroth remind us that there has never really existed a demonstrable, cut-and-dried business case for the Metro North scheme.
When Morgenroth and UCD economist Colm McCarthy, on the same radio spot, agree on something as fundamental as this, you can be sure something is up.
These big-dig projects are costly, risky, and generally yield at best marginal returns. They seldom carry more passengers than a well-designed bus corridor, the latter often being scrapped merely in order to make the expensive-to-deliver metro scheme appear to work.
But it is oddly possible that BusConnects, if delivered fully and properly, might change the fortunes for “Metro Link” as it is now called. Although plans for underground rail go at least as far back as the 1972 Dublin Transportation Study, the recently revealed plans are interesting, because for the first time they properly acknowledge the need to interchange with the rest of the network in order to succeed.
If an effective high-quality bus network is in place across the city, this can feed trips into the underground light rail corridor, which might act as a sort of north-south spine. But the high-quality, on-street network has to be in place first. Otherwise the projections for the metro may again be subject to fair challenge and fall short under scrutiny.
There were other conundrums in the government’s strategic plans, whose flashy launch is now regrettably making more airwaves than its contents. DART Underground, as good as Dublin’s “crossrail” project, seems to be long-fingered.
It is also dismaying how little political backing there is at this stage to develop a proper urban greenway network. The capital plan needs more than vague commitment to do this across all our cities.
A project office, staffed with experts across a range of disciplines, should be established to deliver the Dublin Greenway Network, as proposed by TD Eamon Ryan of the Green Party. It would transform the city.
But an essential tier to make all the above work is a community transport service for Dublin.
A flexible, “demand-responsive” community transport service would provide support to communities and deliver real mobility for all members of society, in particular marginalised and mobility-impaired groups.
This could be very similar to the Local Link service, also known as the Rural Transport Programme, but for urban areas. The rural transport sector has delivered huge efficiencies and maintained vital social services in marginalised locations through difficult times.
But no such service exists for urban areas. Sadly, beyond some references to a possible trial there is no mention of community transport in any of the government’s plans.
A flexible and local service model can also act as a feeder service into the main high-quality public transport network. It can provide door-to-door services for mobility-impaired and social needs. It can bring people to village and retail centres.
At the moment the HSE and other social services pay huge amounts for taxi services in urban areas because a community transport service does not exist. Huge numbers of people are either restricted in their mobility or dependent on family, friends and neighbours to access basic services.
Community transport is a vital component to support urban communities and which can hope to provide full mobility for all individuals. Most of all it can act as part of the fabric of communities connecting people, especially those in most need, who are largely excluded by the big-budget infrastructure schemes.
But we have an ideal investment model in this country. The rural transport schemes cost a tiny fraction of the national transport budget, but they deliver a huge return. The same is needed for urban areas.
BusConnects promises a brighter future for most Dubliners. But for social inclusivity the city also needs a community transport service. The Local Link model, which serves our rural communities so well, would be a good place to start.