In 2030 there will be more cars on the road in Ireland. As a direct result of current climate change policy, the private car will be more embedded in Irish society than ever before.
The current Climate Change Budget calls for a massive reduction in carbon emissions from the transport sector. The Programme for Government signed by the coalition parties in 2020 commits to a 2;1 ratio of investment in public transport in relation to roads. To date it is difficult to see if this has actually been implemented. Not a single rail project, whether heavy rail, Luas or Metrolink, is actually under construction.
The lack of urgency involved in rail projects is exemplified by the continued delays of the Metrolink project. First suggested in the Dublin Transportation Office’s ‘Platform for Change’ in 2001, a proposal was finally submitted by the National Transport Authority (NTA) to An Bord Planeala (ABP) on 30 September 2022. Of the four plans to upgrade and extend the DART system only DART+ West has actually been submitted to ABP and the various new Luas lines remain merely coloured lines on the NTA’s maps.
All of this matters. A serious expansion of rail-based transport in the Greater Dublin Area is the single most realistic method of shifting journeys away from the private car. Precisely because this requires substantial investment, the obvious need is to make the investment immediately so the benefits materialise as early as possible. Instead the upgrading of Dublin’s bus routes through the BusConnects project is presented by the NTA as obviating the need for other major rail investment for another decade. As so often in Ireland, investment is postponed – so that it can be cancelled when there is an economic downturn.
Rather than improving public transport, current plans rely on the bicycle and the electric vehicle (EV). There has been a substantial extension of cycling infrastructure. However desirable cycling may be, in terms of emissions what matters is not the absolute growth in cycle journeys, but the extent to which they replace car journeys. There is very little evidence that this is happening.
Cycling has ended up standing for sustainable mobility as a whole. Only a minority – if a growing one – of us cycle, but all of us walk. There is no commitment to upgrade and properly maintain urban pavements, while pedestrianisation is limited to a few much needed public spaces. Significantly, there is still no enforcement of cycle regulations (above all lighting) and no awareness that in cities cyclists and other micro mobility users constitute a major new hazard for pedestrians: cycles and scooters cluttering pavements, cyclists routinely jumping traffic lights especially those a pedestrian crossings...
The prospects for electric cars at first seem more positive. Electric Vehicle (EV) sales are increasing rapidly. The current target is for a million EVs on Irish roads by 2030. However, if the objective is to reduce emissions, what matters is not the absolute number of EVs, but the extent to which internal combustion vehicles have been replaced. Given that the Irish car fleet is replaced over a nine year period, the ‘million EVs’ target is only possible as part of a substantial increase in the total number of cars and that in turn assumes that car ownership will continues to increase in line with population growth.
EVs will no doubt replace petrol and diesel vehicles. However, the environmental benefits of EVs do seem to be rather exaggerated. The total emissions of each EV have to include the embedded emissions from its manufacture, and these are substantial. EVs may have zero emissions, but still produce other pollutants (brake linings, tyres…). There are also important equity issues involved. Given that purchases of new cars are disproportionately in higher income brackets, any direct or indirect subsidy will more benefit the well off.
More fundamentally, supporting EV purchase is to support private consumption which is possible only for the individual car owner. By contrast, investment in public transport is investment in a public good and a public service – anyone can get on the Luas, anyone can travel by train. Often public transport - especially heavy rail - is disproportionately used by the better off (think of the DART), but this does not negate the fact that it remains transport for the public as a whole. However green EVs may be, they remain private.
The negative effects of extensive car usage are now well established. When a society is car dependent participation in society is impossible without a car: doing the shopping, travel to school or work, visiting friends, entertainment – all require that each individual has access to a car. Without adequate and extensive public transport, those who do not have a car risk being excluded from many social interactions. By promoting the ‘green’ private car and continually postponing transport investment, current climate change policy ensures, as the recent OECD report on Ireland states, a reinforcement of car-centric development.
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.