Time to Rethink Our Approach to Transport Expenditure

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


In a Budget 2018 that, understandably, focused on health, education, and housing, there was comparatively little emphasis on transport infrastructure.

Though the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has had its budget increased by 12 percent, much of this is spread across tourism, sport, disaster relief and Brexit-flanking measures.

The traditional and almost mandatory road capital project was included, but it wasn’t over-egged. The M7 Osberstown Interchange/R407 Sallins Bypass will principally allow the rail-head town of Sallins continue to grow in a reasonable and sustainable fashion.

BusConnects was the only other project indicated as being strategic, and it is a good one to have had picked. The recent travel-time improvements for buses on Dublin’s north quays, which are nothing short of stellar given the modest investment, demonstrate what significant returns can be made if the bus network is taken seriously.

Beyond that, €9.6 million is to go towards public-transport services. It remains to be seen how these will be allocated.

And €3 million will be spent in 2018 “to allow planning for a new investment programme for cycling (including walking and traffic management)”. This will be seen as derisory by many, but could yet be interesting.

For cycling in Dublin, the government may well go and figure out a new strategy for investment. All over the city, they are hitting roadblocks, as communities, who should be the main beneficiaries of such schemes, are coming out in opposition, feeling – with justification – that their needs are not being taken seriously.

One way to beat this would be to put communities and healthy neighbourhood design at the heart of these schemes, and integrate them with good public space and street design.

The government needs to create a workable mechanism to redesign and traffic-calm our local streets so that they are healthy, child-friendly, age-friendly, walk-able and cycle-able public areas. One good place to start would be implementing their own guidance.

The Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets is a best-practice template for healthy street design, but is being blatantly ignored by most local authorities. Infrastructure funding should be withdrawn from local authorities that fail to properly apply this mandatory guidance.

Walking and public-realm investments should themselves be at the apex of the spending pyramid. Towns like Westport, Waterford, Clonakilty, and Kilkenny are living proof of this.

By investing in their public realm, they have bucked the trend of supposedly inexorable and inescapable decline across our regional towns. These aren’t aberrations or random outliers. They are simply the result of local governments investing and taking an integrated, people-centred approach to streets and public places.

Linked to this, the government could bring forward the development of the Dublin Greenway Network as a vital community and social resource. Eamon Ryan of the Green Party has proposed a Dublin Greenway Project Office, and this is probably a very good idea. He thinks about €150 million is enough to complete this network, which would be a unique amenity available to everyone.


The government should ultimately have three investment priorities for transport in Budget 2018, and the forthcoming Capital Plan.

These should be: walking, cycling, and public transport – in that order. €3 million will not go far but, if spent right, could be used to initiate a policy shift in this direction.

If the government wants to maximise investment returns and get the greatest bang for its buck in the main urban areas, investment in walking, cycling, and public transport is how they can best do it. If it wants to see the quickest returns too.

We now know that active-travel policies tend to yield by far the biggest returns on investment (perhaps 20 times higher returns than for infrastructure megaprojects, and much lower risk levels). Benefit-to-cost ratios of up to 35:1 have been recorded in UK active-travel schemes. Not only are they relatively inexpensive, often they save huge amounts by obviating the need for expensive megaprojects over time.

Some media commentators mightn’t like it, but traffic in Dublin would be at a standstill if cycling as a mode share hadn’t grown to 7.5 percent across the city by the April 2016 census.  For sure, to allocate 10 percent of the transport budget to cycling would be a very progressive investment.

Standards for minimum benefit-to-cost ratios (BCRs) should also be established, and applied to even the smallest investments in active and public transport. The UK WebTAG guidance for transport schemes, introduced this year, requires a minimum benefit-to-cost ratio of 4:1. It is accepted that any scheme under 2:1 should not be considered.

That is bad news for the big-ticket items. The scrapped Metro North scheme (whose initial cost:benefit ratio of 1:1.31 was revised to 1:1.55 and later 1:2 to include “wider economic benefits”) would likely never have made it to the decision table, and it remains to be seen whether the new Metro North scheme can fare any better.

Investment in very-high-quality bus schemes typically yields benefit:cost ratios of 5:1 to 10:1 but can be much higher. It is quite possible that the overall benefits to society of the new bus priority measures on the quays (with a miniscule financial outlay) could outweigh those of any Metro North corridor (with multi-billion euro costs).

Continual, consistent improvements to the public transport network, taking a systems approach, is central to achieving this. Having a template for a high-quality-network connecting neighbourhoods with safe, comfortable and efficient services is an approach worth considering.


Overall Budget 2018 has been a quiet affair for transport in the capital. It could be an opportunity to rethink a few things.

It would be timely to invest in healthy neighbourhoods and to allocate 10 percent or more for cycling. And we need to stop calling our bus service “the workhorse” and recognise its inevitable role in a sustainable urban future.

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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

Reader responses

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Jonathan
at 14 October 2017 at 11:47

Agreed on the cycling/walking but I’m not with you on the CBAs. 2:1 or 4:1 would exclude much of what you see being built around the world. Auckland’s Britomart tunnel, Melbourne’s Central Rail Tunnel and Crossrail are all in the multi billion league in terms of cost but I doubt any of them has a CBA greater than 1:2.
The benefits of a mega rail project agree for a century or more but it’s hard to know what your benefits will be worth that far in advance so you end up not accounting for them.

The plan is to expand Swords to 100k and Dublin Airport to 50 million pax/year by 2037 ([https://www.dublinairport.com/nor…). Where is the capacity to handle that going to come from? The bus? Buses take up too much space as they scale and cannot handle figures like that.

Rail offers a much stronger brand too. The reason for the renaissance in light rail worldwide from the 1990s was due to rail’s better ability to attract passengers.

So, yes, I agree about building BRT and cycleways everywhere in Dublin but we also need Metro and DART upgrades.

David O'Connor
at 16 October 2017 at 10:15

Jonathan, wrt BRT capacities, the BRT Planning Guide is worth noting [https://brtguide.itdp.org/](https…
WebTAG is an official UK guidance. And as per a previous article, Swords is not EMRA’s only growth town. Regards, David

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