What's Good, and Not Good, About Dublin's Draft Transport Strategy

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

Last Thursday, the National Transport Authority published its transport blueprint for the future of the city and its region, otherwise known as the Draft Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area 2016–2035.

Once agreed, the NTA is legally mandated to deliver the strategy. Could this be the first transport plan in decades that just might lead to a genuine improvement in quality of life for Dubliners? 

In 1994, the Dublin Transport Initiative (DTI) finally closed the door on decades of strategies seeking to plough sprawl-inducing highways through the historic centre of Dublin. The opposition to those schemes alone spawned a broad environmental and conservation movement in the city.  Some of the sustainable-planning principles in that DTI report were carried forward into a later report, the 2002 “Platform for Change” strategy. 

But since then, few plans have delivered any real improvement to the travelling public. The boom was brewing and megaprojects, costing megabucks, were being hatched. These billion-euro schemes, for which actual travel demand was largely absent, only distracted from the hope of anyone planning a mobile, congestion-free city that people can get around.

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With last week’s announcement, most mainstream media lazily focussed on the distant promise of such schemes. They also dwelt on four light-rail lines, part of the new strategy. Three of these are extensions of the existing Luas alignment and probably make sense. The fourth, a link to Lucan, was another scheme hatched during the boom era and may not stack up against better alternatives.

So what’s really good in the NTA’s new draft strategy? Well there is one big new idea. The strategy aims to build a “core bus network”. This is very good news, for everyone. 

Dublin is a dispersed, low-density city with multiple centres. It can be well served by bus. Moreover, huge advances in bus technology have been made in recent years, with cities all over the globe switching successfully to what industry people would call “bus with high level of service” (BHLS) systems.

Dublin has been well served by a series of “quality bus corridors” (such as those serving Blackrock, Finglas, Stillorgan and Malahide) up to now, but these have been limited and intermittent, only taking people from the outskirts to the edge of the city centre, where the congestion sets in.

The new strategy proposes to strengthen them, and to introduce high-quality orbital routes, which would mean that people could really start to get around their city.

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Dublin City Council recently also published a strategy for the city centre, and this must be delivered on too. The NTA draft strategy should emphasise this more than it does. 

Delivering it will be good for jobs, good for retail and good for the city in general. Facts support this.

Spurious surveys produced by vested interests such as the Irish Parking Association, in opposition to the council’s plans, need to be shown up for what they are: biased and bad for the city.  

What is needed most of all is an effective transport network for Dublin, one that is pro-mobility, pro-economy and leads to a resilient city in this dangerous era of climate change. The network needs to be there all the time, available to everyone. 

That is not an expensive or unrealistic pipe dream. Many of Dublin’s competitor cities are a long way down this road and going further.    

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While the idea of the core network is very good, it needs to be well communicated, visually and in human terms. Politicians, businesses and communities need to be convinced that it is to their collective benefit, and see how it will work for the economy. 

Imagine a tube-style map of Dublin, showing how the city can really be made accessible and connected. Just such a map was produced by NCAD student Aris Venetikidis, and it went viral on TED.

Although the articulate German/Greek designer’s plans are excellent, they are for a fantasy version of Dublin’s transport network. Now is the NTA’s chance to make it a reality. 

As important as communicating the vision is, the focus must be on delivering high levels of service to all travellers. The planners need to avoid confrontation wherever possible.  

This is about picking the low-hanging fruit first, and building public confidence. In this regard, an incremental, systems-based approach works best.

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The draft strategy is far from perfect. 

There isn’t much about walking and healthy neighbourhoods. Where other cities are transforming their suburbs into child-friendly, low-speed zones, Dublin has retrofitted scarcely a handful of neighbourhoods, and even then, to a limited degree. More investment, design and consultation with communities is needed.

The strategy-writers purport to be surprised by the growth in cycling, and it is unclear why. We are in the midst of a mini cycling revolution and this is a direct result of excellent recent policies.  These policies – the Dublin Bikes scheme, the bike-to-work tax-saver scheme, the NTA’s own cycling strategy for Dublin – all need to be acknowledged and continued.

Ultimately, as well, the overall targets are not ambitious enough. The eight-percentage-point shift towards sustainable transport by 2035, a generation away, will not be sufficient if we are to meet our climate responsibilities and be a competitive city within a globalised economy.

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The strategy has been produced in the absence of a relevant regional plan for the Greater Dublin Area. That is a real problem. 

Drogheda and Portlaoise are the two fastest growing towns in Ireland, yet it is unclear how they can be connected in any sustainable way. There is enough capacity in strategic development lands like Adamstown, Cherrywood, Docklands and Hansfield to wipe out the current housing shortfall in Dublin, but will they be given the resources and level of transport connectivity they need?  

Next year, the CSO will conduct a new census, and there will be a “Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy” drawn up for Dublin and the east. There should be a clear provision to comprehensively review the transport strategy to take account of these.

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Perhaps the biggest problem with the strategy, one which pervades too many of our statutory agencies, is the lack of openness with which decisions are made. It is likely that very few people aware that the process is taking place. 

And even then, the public are given just four weeks to review 19 technical documents. The main document refers to submissions from “single individuals” and “seasoned campaigners”, a disappointing way to acknowledge the breadth of non-government organisations, professionals, academics, industry- and community-stakeholders, as well as the many concerned citizens who have engaged with this process. 

A Dublin Transport Advisory Council, to be drawn from a wide range of community, business and representative backgrounds, is provided for in the NTA’s own legislation. But nobody has bothered to set it up. That would be a first good step in ensuring accountability and planning a city that works.

But if the NTA starts to build a core transport network, one that works for everyone, that would make a big difference. 

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