Thursday, June 16, 2005

Why we need a reappraisal of public transport policy

Its desperately needed in Dublin where nowadays you cannot turn around a corner at any hour of the day, any day of the week, between 07:00 and 20:00 without hitting a 20 minute delay. Its turned extremely critical in the last couple of years, and yet incredibly, aside from the LUAS project, there has been little effort to improve the situation.First of all the councils and Dublin Bus executive need to be taken out and publicly horsewhipped from Bray to Balbriggan and back. 24hr bus lanes where the bus routes only run - at best - 18hrs a day. Bus lanes built but then extra services not added to use them. Dangerous and badly planned cycle lines that endanger cyclists using them. Rail services that shutdown at weekends for several months a year due to "improvements" that are basically only station extensions which could be done far quicker by simply suspending the entire route for a month or so, causing far less disruption. The absence of a Sunday service in most of the country in a country where nearly a quarter of all workers work regularly on Sundays. And the scandal of huge shopping centres and business parks built in out-of-town developments with massive free car parks that choke city trading and dsicriminate heavily against existing local traders and people without their own transport. And worst of all, seemingly deliberate running down of quality services making them highly unattractive to commuters (for example the 13/13A/13B scandal and the rapidly degrading 41/41B/C services). The list is not even complete. The lack of will and planning is obvious.Unlike some commentators I think that privatising the services would make the situation worse as the private companies would no longer be accountable as a public service. (The classic examples here are utilities and telephony where there are huge barriers to competition thus preventing any real svings, with a constant battle being fought between eircom and the regulators to stop prices from escalating to both potential competitors and consumers). If this were to happen the public transport market would probably look something like the motor insurance market a few years ago, where large numbers of the public were effectively excluded from getting any service at any price, and many others charged enormous premiums. I think the only answer is direct accountability such as has happened in London, where the transport for London has managed to hold prices at realistic levels, reverse a trend in declining bus use and force those who still insist on using private transport to pay for the congestion they contribute to. The London story has been an enormous success, but part of that success is ingoing planning and committment, such as the Crossrail and East London projects. Dublin and the rest of Ireland, on the other hand, has been extremely slow to try to respond to long term planning initiatives. (For example the scandal that is the opposition to a Metro link servicing heavily under-serviced Swords and Dublin Airport defies all logical belief). Only in Cork is there a realistic attitude - incredible though it seems, that a government can decide that it is economically feasible to reopen rail lines to Midleton and Blarney with less than one third of Swords's population (not even considering the intermediate stations to Swords with populations even larger again), whilst refusing to address the problem of commuting in much higher population density areas such as north Dublin. One cannot help but wonder why stations can be opened regionally for a potential user body of just a few thousand users, while links cannot be generated for tens, if not thousands of potential users hungry for alternatives.Ultimately it is about policy. Its about political will and initiative. Its about standing up to parish pump politicians with no vision outside their limited perspective. And its about solving problems that are most urgent and not the most politically expedient. Ironically, like the Thatcher government from 1979 to the late 1980s, support became increasingly dependent upon pacifying and looking after increasingly narrow self-interested lobby groups who continuously demanded more and more "special priveliges" (for example tax cuts for higher earners, rate cuts for business owners by restoring local tax bases for local authorities) whilst becoming increasingly "disloyal" and "biting the hand that feeds." For example the current government has hugely pursued policies that favour the older generation at the expense of the younger generation - for example creating an environment where land and therefore house prices escalate at several times the level of inflation whilst subsidising welathy investors with tax cuts for investment properties and holiday homes, forcing younger people to subsidise older members of public health insurance schemes whilst doing nothing to level out payments for other forms of insurance such as motor or home insurance, ignoring critical needs such as childcare for working parents, and significant increases to pensions and medical card entitlements for older citizens. The net result has been a huge and steady body of support -some would say the backbone - from the older generations. For example 90% of voting over 65s vote for FF. Thats a huge percentage when you consider that a lot of them would be amongst the generation who finished off FF's hopes of exclusive governments from 1977 to the late 1980s. The trouble is that this group are going to start dying out fast, and they will be replaced by embittered younger voters who will remember how they were denied decent housing, transport and insurance by FF. It won't happen a minute too soon either.

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