Photo by Lois Kapila

The bus strike grinds on. Traffic behaviour is getting erratic, to say the least, and we seem no nearer to a resolution than two weeks ago.

The dispute also threatens to escalate. Another month, another 13 days in October by the looks of it. If that happens businesses will suffer, jobs will be lost. Never mind the all-Ireland final replay.

Yet much sympathy abounds on the national airwaves. This is a city that says thank-you to its bus drivers.

Driving in traffic is stressful. In Dublin, traffic is exceptionally bad. The TomTom Traffic Index says that the Fair City has the second worst morning-peak congestion levels, on aggregate, across the planet. Only Mexico City scores higher on this impossible-to-quibble-with index.

Councillor William Lavelle, chairperson of the South Dublin County Council Land Use Planning and Transportation Strategic Policy Committee, pointed this out at a recent conference of the Regional Studies Association in Galway.

Dublin Bus will not negotiate further with its workforce, they state, except on the basis of productivity gains. But the bus company has yielded exceptional productivity gains over recent years.

A 2009 study has been much quoted, which states that 2007 subvention levels were very low when benchmarked against other cities. Some have contested that this is only a sample of five cities. But each of those cities – Amsterdam, Brussels, London, Lyon, and Zurich – is very emblematic of its respective national travel market.

While Dublin Bus received 29 percent of its operating costs from the government, the other cities receive from 38 to 79 percent. In the circumstances, and given the extreme traffic conditions of Dublin, this seems exceptionally efficient.

That was in 2007, and productivity has in all likelihood improved. Since then Dublin Bus completed a basic network review. It was called Network Direct, and it facilitated the culling of many overlapping, lightly used and wasteful routes.

The network went from 171 routes to 110 after Network Direct. The company carried 4 percent more passengers with 20 percent fewer buses. Staffing levels were also reduced by 17 percent.

In transport, there are factors in an operator’s control, and factors not in an operator’s control. The planning-speak for this is endogeneity and exogeneity. It is time for Dublin Bus to now start highlighting the exogenous factors.

The biggest culprit here is congestion. We’ve spoken about the congestion levels above. They need to be addressed and the City Centre Transport Strategy is a huge step in the right direction and needs to be pursued with urgency.

The second biggest culprit is an out-of-date network. Dublin’s transport network, no longer in the control of the operators, still makes no sense to most people. The National Transport Authority (NTA) is now solely responsible for network planning, while Dublin Bus (and other operators) must ply the routes daily.

Jarrett Walker, an eminent transport planner from Portland in the US, and author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transport Can Enrich Our Lives, Our Communities and Our Health, spoke at a recent transport conference in DIT. He called the Dublin network “incomprehensible”.

Fine if you are lucky to have a decent quality bus corridor (QBC) that happens to link where you live directly with where you work. Too bad for everything else.

None of this should be news to anyone. The 2009 report itself states as its number-one recommendation: “Redesign network based on most recent patterns of demand/demographics”.

Network Direct simplified some of the route duplications. But all bus routes of any frequency or quality still lead to “an Lár”, the city centre.

DIT research shows that 24 percent of bus users transfer as part of their journey. But the network is simply not designed to facilitate transfers, unlike in London where transfers are now wonderfully free-of-charge, thanks to Mayor Sadiq Khan.

But the bus company seems to have other priorities. Perhaps there is simply a lack of actual transport expertise on the board of Dublin Bus.

The worker representatives might be an exception here, but most of the board are made of financial, public relations, and legal minds. It is a board that might be good at cost-cutting and business remodelling, but not necessarily providing a 21st-century transport network to serve a city, its people and its economy.

The continuing strike is bad news for Dubliners and struggling businesses. But there is another twist in the tale.

On Prime Time recently, the National Transport Authority (NTA) revealed that the tendering of 10 percent of bus routes has been delayed, perhaps by up to two years. Reason given was that the process is “much more complex” than expected.

This is very worrying and one has to wonder at the real reasons. Did industrial action scare bidders away? Were the tendered routes of such poor quality that nobody had any interest in them?

Or is it the case that Dublin Bus are simply doing a very good job in the circumstances, and no competitive bidders were available? Only the active bidders and the tenderer, the NTA, know the answer to these questions.

Dublin Bus can rightly claim that it is dependent on the NTA for its subvention as well as the licences to operate its routes. But there is a real question for the company now: does it seek to be just a regular commercial operator, vying for tenders and operational efficiencies like any corporate transport utility? Or does it have a role as a social and community service serving the public transport needs of the city?

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:

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