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When it comes to plans to improve Dublin’s public transport system, all the Dart+s and Metrolinks and Luases are years off – the action at the moment is in the bus network.
But efforts to improve the city’s bus system are still being held back by a shortage of drivers, National Transport Authority (NTA) chief executive Anne Graham told Dublin city councillors at their May monthly meeting on Monday.
The big plan to improve the bus network, of course, is the BusConnects plan, which is meant to reorganise how and where the city’s buses run – and clear car traffic out of their way so buses can run more swiftly and punctually.
The roll-out of BusConnects is being held up though, because bus operators Dublin Bus and Go Ahead Ireland can’t get enough drivers, said Graham, of the NTA, which oversees the bus companies.
“We’ve delivered four phases out of 11; there are three phases we want to deliver this year, but our main constraint is driver shortages,” Graham said. “This has impacted on our BusConnects Dublin network delivery, it’s delayed it by a number of months.”
Even if the NTA can get the planning approvals it needs to roll out the new BusConnects corridors, and hire enough drivers to pilot the buses through that network, the system would probably still be janky, slow and unreliable – with bus lanes blocked by drivers.
A solution in the works for that is using cameras to catch and fine motorists who park or drive in bus lanes when they shouldn’t.
But the head of a national working group tasked with sorting that said at the same council meeting on Monday that it’ll require new legislation – and, so, more time.
On to Public Transport
People are taking the bus more now than they were in 2019, before the pandemic lockdowns, Graham said Monday.
“Peak travel on buses has largely returned to pre-Covid levels whilst weekend travel has increased 27 percent on Saturday and 21 percent on Sunday,” her presentation said.
In December, Tim Gaston, the NTA’s director of transport services, told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications that, “We now have a higher number of people using public transport for leisure than for going to work.”
The government’s plans to reduce carbon emissions from transport, broadly, seek to help people avoid travelling far with city planning that means they can do what they want, and get what they want, close to where they are.
Then, if they do have to go somewhere, encourage them to shift how they travel by making it easier and more appealing to go by foot, bicycle, or public transport.
And improve the climate-friendliness of public and private transport through measures like electrification.
Between 2016 and 2042, the NTA hopes to shift from 58 percent of people in the Greater Dublin Area using cars down to 49 percent, according to its Greater Dublin Transportation Strategy 2022–2042.
That should come with an increase in people cycling (from 4 percent to 12 percent) and taking public transport (15 percent to 18 percent) – and, by contrast, a decrease in people walking (from 24 percent to 22 percent), according to the document.
Would making public transport free get more people using public transport faster?
The NTA believes research and experience around Europe shows that “free fares” leads to fewer people walking and fewer people cycling, “and makes very little difference to people using cars”, Gaston said on Monday.
“When the fares are low, but not zero, price is still a factor for people’s decision to use public transport, but it’s not the main factor,” Gaston said. “The research we do shows that people want a service, they want it reliably and punctually.”
The Driver Shortage
The main factor standing in the way of improving bus service in Dublin city is a lack of drivers, transport leaders have been saying for months.
Despite running what it has called the biggest recruiting drive in its history, Dublin Bus was still short of drivers in March.
“Dublin Bus preliminary reliability data remains below contractual standards,” an NTA spokesperson said at the time.
People don’t want to work long shifts, split shifts, night shifts, erratic shifts, drivers say.
And with low unemployment and high demand for professional drivers, they have other options, they say.
Meanwhile, making an already stressful job more stressful is the “PressIt” system, which involves controllers reminding drivers if they are running ahead or behind as they drive.
“All our operators are finding it very difficult to recruit and retain drivers,” Graham told the council on Monday.
In December, the government made changes to allow bus operators to recruit up to 1,500 drivers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).
“We are in more or less full employment across the state, so we believe the operators are competing with other industries including the construction industry to try and recruit drivers,” Graham told councillors on Monday.
“It’s down to, if you’re attracting new people into the industry and new people into the country to operate as drivers – and we also have a shortage of mechanics – housing is one of those issues that needs to be addressed, affordable housing,” she said.
Earlier this month, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan announced new regulations that allow holders of Ukrainian bus and truck driving licences to work professionally in Ireland.
“This is of benefit to many industries across Ireland, including the road transport and public transport industries where we have seen challenges around driver shortages,” a 4 May press release quoted Ryan as saying.
Even if Dublin Bus is able to hire enough drivers, and the NTA gets the roll-out of BusConnects moving again, there’s still the problem of traffic congestion.
“Traffic congestion remains the main issue impacting punctuality,” Graham’s presentation on Monday said.
One thing the BusConnects plan is supposed to do is clear routes for the buses to buzz more smoothly through the city.
But signs and markings aren’t always enough to keep drivers of private vehicles from using or parking in bus lanes and bus stops.
“It is vital to ensure sufficient enforcement is in place to protect the benefits of that investment from widespread breaches of the restrictions applying to bus lanes, cycle tracks and junctions,” Jack Chambers, minister of state at the Department of Transport, said in the Dáil on 4 May,
“To effectively ensure this outcome, camera-based enforcement will be required to augment the on-street activities of An Garda Síochána,” said Chambers, a Fianna Fáil TD.
The government’s road safety strategy for 2021–2024 “phase 1 action plan” included a plan to “Further develop camera-based enforcement by the Gardaí, including at junctions and for management of bus/ cycle lanes” by Q4 2022.
That hasn’t happened yet. An NTA spokesperson said in April that the authority “has been requested to Chair a Working Group to assess and make recommendations in relation to the further extension of camera-based enforcement”.
The NTA said in a letter dated 4 May that the working group had not yet met, but was expected to do so during the second quarter of this year, so by the end of June.
Chambers said in the Dáil that he expected the working group to report back in the third quarter of this year, so by the end of September.
At Dublin City Council on Monday, the NTA’s Hugh Cregan said he was chair of the working group.
“We will produce a report later this year. I personally think it’ll require some additional legislation,” he said. “But it’s up to the group to work its way through.”
As a bus driver of Dublin bus l understand why drivers dont want to join because of bad shifts , driver abuse by passengers and lack of motivation and accommodation around the city. Working long hours and still drive long hours home is not easy. The blocking of streets by taxis and delivery vehicles makes our driving a nightmare. Just look at what is happening at Dawson Street as an example of taxis blocking the bus stops. The use of cameras to penalise those who block the lanes and bus stops would help a lot .
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