Why go to the trouble and expense? It matters how politicians get around, says Enrica Papa, a senior lecturer in transport planning at the University of Westminster.
“The transport culture and the way in which politicians live their life, where they decide to live and the way in which they commute influence their thinking and their political choices,” she says.
Of Dublin’s 63 city councillors, 40 have responded this week to queries as to how they commute to work.
Of the 40 who responded, 12 said that the main way they travel is to take some form of public transport, with two travelling mainly by Dart, seven by bus, two by Luas, and one by unspecified means.
Another nine said they would most regularly drive a car to work. One noted that his car is a hybrid and that he cycles as well, another said that he walks equally too, and a third said he took the bus sometimes also.
Nine of the councillors who answered said they use their bike as their main steed to get to work in the city – three jointly with walking, and with one noting his bike is electric.
Nine, meanwhile, said that they mostly walked – two jointly with cycling. Many others noted walking as a smaller part of their journey.
Two said they worked from home and didn’t commute, and two said they had complete mix of modes – and couldn’t break out any main way that they get around.
The vast majority of councillors said they were multimodal – with their decision dependent on weather, the time of day or night, or how many scattered appointments they might have lined up in a day.
Does It Matter?
Some councillors said they thought that the way they traverse the city impacted on what they noticed about the transport system – and what they flagged with the council as in need of change.
Others, though, said they tried to separate the decisions they made, and the votes they took, from their own personal experiences.
In 2017, Independents 4 Change Councillor Pat Dunne, who represents Kimmage-Rathmines, stopped using a private car in exchange for walking and taking the bus, he says.
“As an advocate for public transport and improved pedestrian and cycling infrastructure I felt it much more informative to do so as an active participant,” Dunne said.
Dunne says he used this new experience as a daily user of public transport to make “informed observations” about the BusConnects proposals, and that it allowed him to advocate better for his constituents.
Fianna Fáil Councillor Deirdre Heney said her regular use of the Dart means she has been acutely aware of overcrowding – raising it an issue within her party, and at council meetings.
“It’s been so obvious that the Dart is packed,” Heney says. “My own personal experience has made me hugely aware, and I raise it at every opportunity.”
Both cycling and driving have gotten tougher in the city in his experience, said independent Councillor Damian O’Farrell, who says he walks and drives, but cycled for a long time before an injury when he came off his bike.
It’s dangerous for cyclists, but also really stressful for drivers, who have to keep checking in front, behind, to the right and to the left for cyclists, he says. “You have to be more aware. But it’s also difficult being a cyclist.”
Said Independent Councillor Nial Ring, who drives or gets the bus: “I believe the focus on cycling, bus, Luas, walking, etcetera has put motorists in the role of chief enemy of the cyclist, pedestrian etcetera.”
Some commuters have no other choice than to use the car, Ring says. “We must respect that and stop making motorists out to being somehow fully responsible for all our traffic problems.”
Green Party Councillor Donna Cooney says that, because she cycles, she understands the dangers.
“I can see what the situation is for cyclists. I sometimes will stop and take photos of things as well and send them in, and say this is something that needs addressing.”
“I think all public representatives should have a go at cycling and walking around our city anyway and using public transport, so they’re aware of the issues,” she says. “It does influence the way I look at things and see things.”
Not everybody thinks that it’s something to be embraced, though.
“I would always take an objective approach to matters, rather than looking at my own subjective position on transport,” said Councillor Tom Brabazon, of Fianna Fáil, who says he gets about mainly by car, but sometimes too by public transport and bike.
Because he’s a councillor, he is generally observant of how road systems and junctions in different parts of the city are working, he says. “You become very observant of how the road system works.”
Elected representatives may have unconscious biases when it comes to policy-making, said independent Councillor John Lyons.
“But if they’re doing their job they should be engaging with all the material and they should be affected by their own personal habits,” he said. “I don’t think they should.”
Social Democrats Councillor Catherine Stocker says she gets into council meetings mainly by bus, but also says she makes sneaky short trips to the creche to pick up her kids in her car.
Those car trips don’t stop her from supporting public-transport investment and cycling infrastructure because that’s the future that seems right for the city, she says.
“I do think we need to disincentive car use, and some of that is, in a way, I know my own car use should be disincentivised,” she says, with a laugh.
Several councillors mentioned the challenges of juggling day jobs, with council meetings and constituency work as a councillor – which is technically a part-time position – but takes more time than that, they said. Sometimes, driving is necessary to get too all the stops on time, many said.
Papa, the senior lecturer in transport planning, said that it makes a difference for politicians to travel by different modes.
“The more they experience different transport modes, the better and more open would be their view on the transport system and on how they should invest public money,” she says.
But that assumes that politicians have the power and resources to invest in the modes of transport they experience and see as needing public investment.
In Dublin, there are more than two dozen bodies engaged in transport planning, and power is spread between councillors, council officials, and national agencies such as the National Transport Authority and the Department of Transport.
Said Cooney of the Green Party: “We don’t have all the resources, we don’t have the money,” she says.
The council has to get it from the NTA, who have to get it from the central government, she says.
“I suppose it needs to be at central level,” she said. “We don’t even have the ability to raise the revenue to spend on these measures.”
Dublin City Council’s head of technical services, environment and transport, Brendan O’Brien, says he cycles to work.
The Department of Transport Press Office didn’t get back to a query as to how recent Transport Minister Shane Ross commutes to work.
O’Farrell, the independent councillor, said he thinks there has been progress on infrastructure such as cycle lanes, though. “Particularly in the last two or three years, there are a few things being tee-ed up.”
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