For some time, we’ve been hearing how BusConnects is a new and elemental approach to transport, which is sure to make Dublin a proper, accessible, and social city to live in.
Can it rise to this lofty expectation?
Dublin is a medium-density city with 1.2 million people. It is mid-sized compared to others across Europe.
Alongside sound investment in walking and cycling, surface transportation, especially bus (and not including underground or drone transportation), should be able to provide a strong city-wide transport network.
Investment in quality bus design can also reinforce the development of safe and attractive streets.
In short, BusConnects could be key to helping us all enjoy a good “quality of life” – that magic potion, it seems, of economic success in the 21st century.
After two recent announcements from the National Transport Authority, we can now see, in a fair degree of detail, what it should mean for the lives of Dubliners.
The first announcement was all about “infrastructure”. Media comment was saturated with talk of who would be losing their front garden – and it’s a well-known Irish obsession to dwell on any perceived threat to private property.
But it is worth comparing the reaction to any motorway or major road-scheme announcement when, oddly, the prospect of compensation is pitched more as an enticement to those whose land might be “lucky enough” to fall in the path of the gleaming corridor of asphalt.
There is no doubt that BusConnects is an important step forward in turning Dublin into a sustainable and accessible city.
But there are a few conundrums that will affect whether it succeeds or fails.
It is welcome to see so many progressive measures.
There is talk about transferability, 90-minute fares, orbital routes, and good-quality interchanges – which all make sense and are viable investments. Making the overall network a legible one is a simple and essential idea.
People will need to look hard, though, to grasp and digest what the real benefits of BusConnects are to them. This is a common failing of transport, planning and engineering projects. Their proponents are often trained to think in terms of problem-solving. So, the problems often get the most attention.
It is surprising that a London Tube-style map of the future Dublin transport network hasn’t been created. It could go front and centre in the consultation material. It would help to really get people thinking about their city differently.
Right now, the consultation material talks a lot about orbital routes, for example, but it is hard to figure out where they are. (Look closely at the proposals; the 18 orbital route is being scrapped, but new routes along the North and South Circular Roads are proposed).
A schematic map, like a clever one devised by graphic designer Aris Venetikidis, could make this an easier sell.
And is BusConnects any benefit at all? The documentation promises frequencies of 4 to 8 minutes on the main corridors. But users on many of Dublin’s existing routes already enjoy frequencies much higher than this.
At Fairview, travellers wait on average about 75 seconds for a bus during peak periods. (There’s a good chance on many of the busiest corridors that as you walk there, you’ll see a bus coming). That is nearly 50 buses per hour, though this might drop by up to half that during the day.
There was a similar problem with the Swiftway scheme, a previous proposal for five “bus rapid transit”, or very high priority corridors, which has now been quietly dropped.
The Swiftway proposal bizarrely proposed far lower capacities than the bus infrastructure it hoped to replace, which really didn’t make a lot of sense. Swiftway did provide information on stop locations, which is not apparent in the BusConnects scheme to date.
Most transport projects have a good-sized elephant in the living room.
In the case of BusConnects, it is Dublin’s city-centre congestion levels. Most routes in the proposed transport network still seem to lead there. And, a bit surprisingly, in an even more concentrated manner than before.
The infrastructure plans in BusConnects seek to address and upgrade the network of QBCs, “quality bus corridors”, which provided higher-priority and dedicated lanes for buses that were put in place mostly during the 1990s and 2000s.
It is a not a bad thing that these are being revisited in a “Mark II”, if you will. They are such vital infrastructure. But, in priority terms, they only ever reached the edge of the city centre, where the congestion set in.
Unless the city-centre congestion is dealt with, we are unlikely to be any better off, with or without BusConnects.
Passengers won’t have reliable journey times, as they don’t currently for bus and tram users through the city. Any opportunity for transferability will therefore be neutered.
We need fewer cars in the city centre. This needs to be aggressively pursued. The softly-softly approach of tweaking signals will not be enough here.
The thousands of civil servants who drive to their city-centre jobs each day may have faced down governments of the past. But it is time to tackle this.
A start would be to look at three key corridors – Rathmines, Phibsborough and Liffey Quays anyone? – and make these public transport and active-travel only. In other words, for walking and cycling. This sounds aggressive but it works, even for business y’know!
It is a distinct lack of courage that strategic cycle corridors appear in the BusConnects proposals to be diverted purportedly to accommodate bus priority. But it is clearly intended to accommodate car, not bus access.
To get fewer cars in the city centre, cars should be diverted, not cyclists.
Another key thing is that the NTA seems to be confused on what is meant by “Dublin”.
These are outlying towns and of course they need to be served. But there are at least twenty more of these fast-growing towns and it is a problem at least as big as dealing with the city area. BusConnects should deal with the city first.
A transport network for the region is another major project that needs to be on the books. The Eastern and Midlands Regional Assembly is working on a plan for this space and they need to be involved in this.
It’s a huge and growing problem that needs to be addressed.
The final and biggest problem for BusConnects is that the city it purports to serve is not even the city we have today.
The inital BusConnects Choices Report illustrated a city with a distinct pattern and orientation. The main employment zone covers a large box-shaped area stretching from Grangegorman to Leeson Street Bridge. Dublin City and Suburbs is revealed to be rectangular, not circular. Yet the core proposed network is substantially a radial one.
If demand doesn’t exist on some of the intended orbital corridors, it needs to be built up. Very probably one of the most important capital and planning projects in the State is the Blanchardstown Town Centre and Village Urban Framework Plan. It is in the Fingal County Council Development Plan and it should be in the National Development Plan too.
That means, for BusConnects to work, our planners need to step up to the mark in shaping the city as well.
To see the potential of BusConnects people need to be able to perceive the city and its future differently. Achieving and implementing this will take a great deal of coordination between the NTA, the Eastern and Midlands Regional Assembly and the four local authorities, at the same time communicating and engaging with the city and its stakeholders.
Who will take the lead in coordinating this? The answer to that question may be the biggest deciding factor between success or failure.