Photo by Lois Kapila

A bit of good news to start off 2017? Well, the National Transport Authority (NTA) says it’s given us some, in that public-transport figures nationally have increased by 4.4 percent in the last year.

Best of all, within that growth, Dublin Bus added over 5 million new trips, a sizeable jump from 2015, when it carried 120 million passengers. Well, it certainly is good news, but not quite as good as it seems.

You see, traffic on the M50 also grew by precisely 4.4 percent between 2015 and 2016. So compared to growth in overall traffic figures, public transport barely kept pace last year (and fell behind the year before, when background traffic levels grew by 6.7 percent).

Dismaying as this may seem, at least public transport did keep apace for the year that was.

Some figures provided by the Department of Transport take a longer view on it. Since the 1990s the number of vehicles on our roads has roughly doubled. But over that period, the percentage of people walking, cycling and taking the bus or train fell dramatically.

To put these changes in context, 625,000 more people across Ireland drove to work in 2011 than in 1991, but there were only 4,300 additional bus commuters.

So mode share is king. Mode share is what we use to describe the percentage of all trips being taken by each mode of travel, be it by private car, public transport, cycling, or walking. And public transport has to do more than just keep up.

We reported during 2016 that the TomTom Traffic Index says Dublin has the second worst morning peak congestion levels, on aggregate, across the planet.

This is corroborated by new and equally distressing comparative data. The EU Commission, along with the respected UN Habitat organisation, published a report called “The State of European Cities 2016”.

The EU study places Dublin at the bottom of a league of 40 cities when it comes to public transport accessibility. This is even while the report paints Dublin as a typical mid-sized city with average density levels by European standards.

The most recent figures we have for mode share for all of Dublin date back to the 2011 census.  In 2011, 21 percent of people in “Dublin city and suburbs” used public transport to get to work or school in the morning.

It is important that the Central Statistics Office (CSO) publishes these figures for the area described as “Dublin city and suburbs”. The area includes Dublin city, along with the western suburban towns of Tallaght, Lucan, Clondalkin, and Blanchardstown.

It correctly excludes outlying towns such as Bray, Swords, and Maynooth. In other words, this is the built-up city and only the city. We will come back to this point another time. It is a very important one as it should be the basis for our urban transportation planning and governance.

The NTA, of course, does have targets to grow public transport. In its Transport Strategy for the Greater Dublin Area (an area much larger than the CSO boundary mentioned earlier), it hopes to grow public transport mode share to 35 percent by 2030. How does this compare to Dublin’s peer European cities?

The European Metropolitan Transport Authorities Network (EMTA) measures mode share for core urban areas across its members. On average, cities across the network already have 29 percent public transport usage with the best performing cities scoring over 40 percent.

While Dublin is not a member of EMTA (perhaps it would be a thought to join?) it would score second lowest in terms of sustainable transport mode share among the current members.

We will find out later this year what the figures for the 2016 census will be. But trend-lines taken from canal cordon count and other data suggests things have improved. Some anecdotal evidence suggests we are accelerating towards our targets even faster than planned.

Why not then set more ambitious targets? Why not set out to become a really sustainable European city and double our current public-transport mode share?

That would take us to 42. The answer to the “ultimate question of life the universe and everything”, according to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But as Arthur Dent, the hero of that classic parody of planning would know, to get the right answers you have to ask the right questions.

Perhaps we need to ask: if other European cities can do it, then why not Dublin too? It will surely require strong traffic management, reliable public-transport services, and exceptionally good network planning.

And the rewards could be several: increased walking and cycling as our streets get safer and less congested; greater mobility and access for everyone; a better environment for business and jobs; and a chance to meet our climate-change responsibilities sooner and cheaper.

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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