Duncan Smith: It’s time to get serious about the idea of free public transport

Ensuring decent and reliable public transport is key to reducing carbon emissions, and free fares is one way to encourage people to use it

‘If more commuters choose the bus over the car it will lead to improved air quality, reduced emissions and give back time spent in the car to reading, calling friends or just taking a break.’ Picture: Rollingnews.ie

Commuting wasn’t working for workers before Covid-19. One in ten of them spent an over an hour travelling to work daily, with commuters losing on average five hours every week stuck in traffic. Dublin was the third worst city in the world for congestion, which was not only bad for our economy and workers mental health, but also the environment. Transport in Ireland remains a significant contributor to carbon emissions, the second largest emitter behind agriculture at 19.8 per cent of the national total emissions in 2017.

That was before Covid and the advent of social distancing. Double-decker buses that once carried 95 people pre-pandemic can only bring 48 if it is safe to operate at half capacity. Intercity trains which once carried 660 people will now only be able to bring 330.

Ensuring decent and reliable public transport has to be at the heart of any serious attempt to reduce carbon emissions, but with research from Trinity College Dublin in 2020 showing that 75 per cent of workers fear contracting Covid if they use public transport to get to work then these fears must be addressed, and not added to.

The car companies already know this and are playing on commuters’ Covid anxieties. Nissan Ireland led a campaign last year targeting commuters’ concerns in advertising their car scrappage scheme with its chief executive James McCarthy saying: “Covid-19 has changed attitudes to public transport in favour of private car use.”

If we’re serious about lowering our emissions and meeting our climate targets, Government needs to challenge this and reorient public behaviour as a matter of priority. We need to encourage workers back onto the bus.

While developing cycling and walking infrastructure would be an obvious way to address commuter concerns, for many commuters this does not make practical sense. From 2012 to 2019, the number of people using Dublin bus increased incrementally before the fall off in people using public transport last March. Now, investment in our bus, Dart, Luas and rail network needs to be prioritised by Government.

That’s why we now need to have a discussion about zero-fare public transport, following the lead of Luxembourg.

Like Ireland, Luxembourg’s high housing costs drove its workforce to commute from a distance which, like Ireland, led to congestion problems.

To encourage people to ditch the car, Luxembourg made the momentous decision to make public transport free.

We should discuss the possibility of doing the same. As well as encouraging people back onto public transport and tackling pollution, this would also have the effect of supporting low earners in our economy.

If we’re serious about a behavioural change and a cultural shift we can’t be afraid of radical thinking.

Government is keen to invest in electric car grants and charging points, but perhaps buying back public transport would represent better value for money. Pre-Covid, we had a capacity problem on public transport in Dublin. Ensuring ample capacity for social distancing and demand will encourage commuters to choose the bus over the car, improve air quality, reduce emissions and give back time spent in the car to reading, calling friends or just taking a break.

It’s going to take a radical rethink of how we charge for public transport to encourage commuters back on the bus. In its submission on reimagining bus services, Dublin Bus proposed a number of costing measures that would increase revenue while not risking pricing commuters out of public transport including a range of dynamic pricing measures to encourage off peak travel. Perhaps this could lead to even greater flexibility in workplaces, doing away with the archaic concept of workplaces opening at 9am.

We know that investment in public transport has a direct impact on creating jobs and bettering our economy which can also lead to better communities, better livelihoods. As more and more people return to work, we need to encourage people back on the bus and prevent workers losing precious family time by being stuck in traffic.

We can reduce congestion in our cities, shorten commute time and actually improve our climate outcomes, but that will require the courage to let our minds travel.

Duncan Smith is a Labour TD for Dublin Fingal