James Wickham: According to the Taoiseach before COP21, Ireland needed special consideration because: "We have lost a decade of investment in our country because of what happened”. Yet in terms of climate change, such talk of Ireland’s lost decade is nonsense. Given that in Ireland the level of CO2 emissions has been closely tied to economic activity, the crisis reduced Ireland’s own contribution to global warming. Going back to the earlier form of growth would therefore ensure that Ireland made its own significant contribution to global disaster. It’s not just a question of more or less investment, it’s a question of what investment.
Moving towards a low carbon economy requires that carbon emissions stop increasing in line with economic growth – that they are decoupled. During the boom there was absolutely no sign of this happening. For all the current talk of emissions from agriculture, in the early stages of the boom between 1990 and 2003 these rose by 3.2 percent. By contrast, as I showed ten years ago, during that period CO2 emissions from transport in Ireland rose by an astonishing 129.4 percent (Wickham 2006). As Figure 1 shows, up until the crisis the number of cars continued to rise faster than the growth in population.
Figure 1 Cars and population, Ireland 1990-20012
The rise in transport emissions was largely because of the continued expansion of private car ownership and private car usage. It’s highly unlikely that there was a concerted plan to increase car usage – and so greenhouse gases – in Ireland, but what actually happened with investment was as good as if there had been such a plan.
Firstly, public investment in transport infrastructure was disproportionately in roads. In particular the motorway building programme ensured the final motorisation of Ireland. Building motorways doesn’t just mean that existing car-based journeys are quicker, safer and more convenient, it encourages more such journeys. Although most research on such ‘infrastructure induced mobility’ (e.g. Cervero 2009) has focused on urban motorways (think the M50)), the motorway network has made it much easier to reach all parts of Ireland by car – so more people make such journeys. Because car drivers can travel door to door a motorway network also facilitates suburbanisation – there is no need for those who wish to travel to live near a transport hub.
The motorway programme has made Irish inter-urban rail less competitive and many Irish trains still travel at speeds close to those of the 19th century. Compared to twenty years ago the public investment plans certainly show some increased investment in public transport, especially of course rail. Yet the plans and the reality are somewhat different: planned new roads get built, planned new rail systems often don’t. Political dithering and planning delays hold up rail far more than roads. The classic example of this is the failure to build DART Underground – the investment that would potentially tie together Dublin’s fragmented public transport ‘system’. Initial decisions are biased in favour of roads because there is virtually no consideration of the environmental externalities, while there also appears to be a great if usually unspoken reluctance to fund anything that would be operated by the public sector. So Luas Cross-City gets built, Dart Underground (which would have to be operated by Iarnród Éireann) does not.
The other major investment contribution to Ireland’s greenhouse gases is the particular form of private housing. The boom showed how ‘urban planning’ in Ireland is really an oxymoron. Essentially houses were built where developers wanted to build them – this was ‘developer-led development’. Most new building was on prime agricultural land adjacent to existing towns and cities – especially in the Greater Dublin Area suburban sprawl accelerated. In particular the new housing areas out beyond the M50 have virtually no public transport and are utterly car dependent (Caulfield and Aherne 2014). And across the country, as we are now realising, an as yet uncounted number of houses were built on flood plains.
Certainly there has been some investment in public transport. The Dublin Bus fleet has been modernised and there has been some upgrading of Irish Rail. Indeed, improvements in the DART and Dublin Suburban services have probably been especially significant, since national and international research shows that such ‘heavy rail’ services are most likely to persuade commuters to leave the car at home (e.g. Commins and Nolan 2010). There have been infrastructure projects such as the Dublin Port Tunnel - an imaginative and massive investment which has enabled HGVs to be largely excluded from the city centre. And despite the almost interminable delays, in Dublin the Luas did finally get built and is now being extended.
All of this has made some difference. In Dublin, unlike in other Irish cities, the apparently inexorable rise of the private motor car has slowed. Whereas in cities such as Cork and Galway, travel to work by car increased between 2006 and 2011, in Dublin the modal share is not only lower but constant.
Within the Dublin area there has also been a significant increase in cycling, facilitated by the limited but real investment in cycle lanes and cycle tracks. Young workers in the internet companies in ‘Silicon Docks’ (Google etc.) seem more likely to cycle to work than travel by car. Here we can see Ireland’s (or at least Dublin’s) version of ‘peak car’ – the point at which car ownership and car usage starts to decline (Goodwin and Van Dender 2013).
Yet such change is very limited and very localised. Cycling may even be increasingly concentrated in the central area of the city – in the outer suburbs cycling to work is almost non-existent. Cycling is also still largely limited to a particular demographic – managers and professionals aged between 35-54; cyclists are also more likely to have switched from another sustainable mobility mode (walking, public transport) than from the private car (Caulfield 214). Equally, the new growth of apartments could be seen as a counter-balance to suburban sprawl, except that many new apartments are so small that they are hardly an adequate basis for urban living.
Curbing the emissions of the Irish transport sector will require more and different public and private investment. Within the Dublin area it will require investment in transport that ties the city together rather simply facilitates movement along existing corridors; it will require effective land-use planning to ensure good housing is built in areas that are not only reachable by private car. In other words, it will involve the oppositeof what would have happened if the lost decade hadn’t been lost.
Caulfield, Brian (2014) Recycling a city: examining the growth of cycling in Dublin. Transportation Research A: Policy and Practice 61: 216-226.
Caulfield, Brian and Aoife Aherne (2014) The green fields of Ireland: The legacy of Dublin's housing boom and the impact on commuting. Case Studies on Transport Policy 2: 20-27
Cervero, Robert (2009) Transport infrastructure and global competitiveness: balancing mobility and livability Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 626.1: 210-225.
Commins, Nicola and Anne Nolan (2010) Car ownership and mode of transport to work in Ireland. Economic and Social Review 41.1: 43-75.
Goodwin, Phil and Kurt Van Dender (2013) ‘Peak Car’ – Themes and issues. Transport Reviews 33.3: 243-254.
Wickham, James (2006) Gridlock: Dublin’s transport crisis and the future of the city. TASC at New Island.
James Wickham was Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies and Professor in Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He has published widely on employment, transport and migration in Ireland and Europe; he is the author of Gridlock: Dublin’s Transport Crisis and the Future of the City and co-author of New Mobilities in Europe: Polish Migration to Ireland post-2004. His book Unequal Europe: Social divisions and social cohesion in an old continent analysed the collapse of the European Social Model; his new text book European Societies (Routledge 2020) examines the structures of inequality in contemporary Europe. He is a former director of TASC.