Photo by Caroline Brady

What a pleasure it was during the historic COP21 climate summit in Paris to be able to use the city’s marvellous public-transport system. It is the best in Europe, eclipsing Berlin, London, Madrid, Rome or any other capital – including Dublin, of course.

At the heart of it all is the Paris Metro, inaugurated in 1900 with Line 1 running beneath the city’s central axis of the Champs-Elysées, which makes it the best-known of the metro’s 14 lines. My own favourite is Line 6, which runs largely overground, crossing the Seine near the Eiffel Tower.

Incredibly, nowhere in Paris is more than 500m from a metro station. There are more than 300 of them in the 214km network, which caters for a staggering 1.5 billion passenger rides per year, and plans for further extensions (for example, to serve Orly airport) as part of the Grand Paris project.

During the morning peak, 565 trains are in operation, at two-minute intervals, yet the RATP (which runs the metro) says it is “continuously working to enhance the quality of its services by offering its passengers greater comfort, better information, and a more attentive and considerate service”.

Then there’s the RER network of longer-distance lines, with bigger trains, including new double-deckers on the east-west Line A that can carry up to 2,600 passengers. At the main interchange of Chatelet-Les Halles, you only need to cross a platform to transfer to from Line A to the north-south Line B.

For those who would prefer to travel overground, there’s an extensive network of “bendy buses”, which also connect with Metro and RER stations. Fares are still incredibly low, with a carnet of 10 tickets costing €14.40 that can be used on all modes. No journey within the city costs more than €1.40.

Hector Guimard’s florid art nouveau metro station design still survives at several metro stations, especially in the city centre. The new standard bus stops also celebrate public transport by providing in-built seats, front and rear, real-time passenger information and a diagram of the bus routes.

The RATP is also, as it says, “leading the ecological migration of its bus fleet towards all-electric buses, after a transitional phase with hybrid engines”. Hybrid buses are already replacing older diesel models; not only are these better for air quality, they’re also quieter, with less vibration inside the bus.

By 2025, the aim is to have a “100% environmentally friendly bus fleet in the Ile-de-France region”, comprising all-electric buses or buses powered by compressed natural gas (CNG), to eliminate fine-particle pollution as well as reduce fuel consumption by 25 percent and greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent.

What has all of this got to do with Dublin? There is no obvious comparison between the two cities. Paris is very dense, with almost everyone in the city living in apartments; every kid with a schoolbag you see on the street or in the metro is going home to an apartment, not to a house with a garden.

That’s why the metro makes sense, whereas it simply wouldn’t in sprawling Dublin, where most people live in houses and still firmly believe that family life in an apartment would be impossible. Paris gives the lie to this notion, and the city also has numerous parks and local schools in every area.

We’ve also been slow to adapt the city’s transport fleet for a new era. Last September, as I’ve noted previously, Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe launched 90 new “high-tech” buses, describing them as “environmentally friendly additions to the fleet – even though they’re powered by diesel fuel.

The National Transport Authority said its focus has been to “maximise the number of passenger journeys” on public transport. “Within the limited funding available to us do this, we have learnt that continuing to use diesel buses, to the Euro 6 standard, represents the best return on this investment.”

However, a spokeswoman for the NTA noted that its draft transport strategy, if adopted, contains a commitment to “transition to low- or zero-emission vehicles for use in urban areas”. She also said that, “overall, hybrid buses are up to 50% more expensive than conventional buses”.

“While these remain so pricey, and while our funding remains limited, our view is that providing substantially fewer buses on the roads, albeit hybrid buses, would result in significantly more car journeys, to offset the lack of bus fleet on the streets, and that this would result in more environmental damage.”

But while the up-front cost of buying hybrid buses is greater, the NTA should factor in their lower running costs. It’s also hedging its bets, saying there is “a large degree of uncertainty over what vehicle propulsion systems might become the norm for large buses over the next few years”.

Rail investment in Dublin under the government’s capital programme is restricted to completing Luas Cross City and extending the DART line from Malahide to Balbriggan. After COP21 in Paris, and its adoption of a wide-ranging programme to tackle climate change, we’ll need to improve our game.

Frank McDonald is the former environment editor of the Irish Times, and the author of several books, including The Destruction of Dublin (1985), Saving the City (1989), and The Construction of Dublin (2000)....

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