So what’s the story with BusConnects? Who should we believe about it? Is it a ruse for privatisation and cutbacks or a panacea to the city’s ailing transport network?
For the benefit of anyone in any doubt, let’s clarify the situation quickly. The BusConnects project is essential. Dublin needs BusConnects, or something of its calibre, desperately.
Without the promised gains that BusConnects can deliver, the city’s economy will likely choke on growing traffic congestion. Without it the city will continue to fail, relative to its peers, in the quality of life it can offer to citizens.
Everyone, yes everyone, stands to lose out if the BusConnects project doesn’t make it out of the garage.
As a good example, from these very streets, the network of quality bus corridors that were put in place during the 1990s increased accessibility by over 25 percent and travel times were cut by up to 20 percent.
These quality bus corridors were unpopular at the time, but it is a racing certainty that the Celtic Tiger would not have roared as loud had they not been in place. They have, however, reached the limit of their usefulness and the city needs to reach for a new level of mobility.
BusConnects attempts to deliver just that in the form of a city-wide network of functioning and interlinked bus routes.
The stated benefits are many. Reduced journey times of up to 50 percent for many people. Access to, conservatively, 20 percent more jobs across the board. Orbital routes, so that everyone doesn’t have to go to O’Connell Street to get another bus. Free transfers across all services for up to 90 minutes (think about it … that’s quite a big one).
The list goes on. A frequent network operating from 7am to 7pm across the city and 25 percent more bus services in total. There is a budget of €2 billion to make it all happen, the first time any government has thrown anything more than spare change at the bus service.
If it all works out, life improves potentially for everyone – bus users or not – as streets become quieter and safer.
That is a pity and it seems harsh to lay the blame at the door of the National Transport Authority (NTA), the project’s sponsor. The public-consultation exercise they are conducting may possibly be the largest on record.
At least when it comes to built environment issues, no development plan or infrastructure project in the city to date has had anything like the number of consultation meetings held, possibly even in the entire country.
And, as an exercise in consulting with the wider community, it is clearly a genuine and sincere effort. Front-line staff, including from the bus companies, are on hand repeatedly to meet directly with local communities. It is certainly not window-dressing, as some would like to have people believe.
Up to 20,000 people may have been engaged with directly, according to NTA estimates. So why is their message not getting through?
The first problem could be that BusConnects is too complicated. It’s a big network for a big city, the refrain goes, of course it is complicated. Actually, no. The point of a transport network is that it has to be simple and legible to the everyday user, initiated or otherwise. Good networks possess this.
It remains a pity that a good-quality schematic transport map, exactly along the lines of the world famous, archetypal London tube map, has not been produced for the future Dublin network. It could get people talking and thinking about the big picture, where they can recognise their own city more easily.
The reality has been the opposite, with most people understandably focusing on what happens to their own local routes when assessing the proposed BusConnects scheme. That is not much different from the network we have today. Everyone is an expert on their own route but nobody really understands the rest of it, a symptom of the poor visualisation of the existing system.
The highly detailed, topologically accurate maps distributed with BusConnects, although informative, may be compounding this.
But selling a product isn’t usually about explaining the ingredients either. The NTA claims BusConnects will expand public-transport usage by up to 50 percent. What that actually means is less car traffic and safer, happier, healthier streets for everyone. There is a chance here to reimagine the city no less.
But we haven’t been given any idea of what those reimagined streets, (especially the places where people might transfer between bus services), could look like. It could help to do that.
A Community-Transport Service
Admittedly, selling transport projects on this scale has never been easy. But there could be a second big undermining factor. BusConnect’s biggest hook is a substantial net mobility gain for the vast majority of people. This implies that there is a probable loss for some people.
If those people happen to be disadvantaged or in some way marginalised from society, as they surely are, then that is not going to sit well with Irish people, who empathise with those whose circumstances are less fortunate.
That is a problem with projects like BusConnects. If a city wants to transition to a high-frequency, high-patronage network, like Dublin hopes to, it can only do so by leaving some people behind.
Now it might be okay for big retailers to drop small inconvenient segments in the hunt for bigger market share. But that doesn’t wash in the case of public transport. Most passenger transport authorities are mandated to increase mobility for everyone, and the NTA is no different.
There is only one way to square this circle and that is to introduce a community-transport service in tandem with BusConnects. As has been pointed out here before, a community-transport service in Dublin could act in the very same way that LocalLink does in rural areas, and cost-effectively too.
LocalLink operators provide bespoke services designed to provide for the most needy and fill social needs where access to private transport does not exist. We need this in urban areas too and it may be the only way to make BusConnects as inclusive as it needs to be.
There are myths being peddled about BusConnects, claims being made that it is a Trojan horse for deregulation, privatisation, and cutbacks.
This is irresponsible nonsense. BusConnects is nothing remotely to do with any alleged de-regulation.
Ireland is tending towards a public regulation model, along with most other European countries, where a public agency plans and regulates transport services in the public interest. This is enshrined in statutory legislation, is fully compliant with European regulations, and both private and public operators can and should be able to thrive in such an environment.
BusConnects is also nothing to do with cutbacks. In fact it is offering more services and more accessibility across the board.
BusConnects, if successful, offers an almost congestion-free network and a commitment to grow bus services for the foreseeable future and beyond.
That should mean less stress and more employment for the front-line staff, the bus-drivers whose work is so essential to make the city operate.
With local and possibly national elections looming, there is a worrying amount of negativity stirring up about BusConnects. That is a pity because this type of initiative is vital for Dublin, potentially transformative even.
Simple and clear messages will certainly help people to understand how change on this scale can favour them. The biggest message might be a chance for a brighter, healthier city to enjoy.
But to make BusConnects really viable, a community-transport service should be introduced as part of it. That way, the city can provide for the less well-off as well as those who need to get to work a bit quicker.