Five degrees of change: ‘A lot of transport stuff is the carrot side. The stick will be needed’
Sustainable mobility expert Brian Caulfield’s research is centred on transport and how it contributes to emissions – and car ownership lies at the heart of the problem
When Brian Caulfield decided to focus his PhD on the transport sector 20 years ago, environmental sustainability barely registered as an issue.
“Back then, climate and sustainability weren’t as big a deal as they are now. It was more about trying to get more people onto public transport because of the congestion issues that were in Dublin,” he said.
Sustainability is now the buzzword in transport, and Caulfield is one of Ireland’s leading experts in the area of sustainable mobility. He is an associate professor at Trinity College’s department of civil, structural and environmental engineering and is producing a high volume of research that is directly informing Ireland’s shifting transport policy landscape.
While much of the climate debate in recent weeks has focused on agriculture’s emissions, transport is arguably a much more difficult sector to decarbonise and it accounts for 17 per cent of Ireland’s overall emissions.
“The majority of emissions in transport come from people driving their petrol and diesel cars around. About 75 per cent of all trips we take on this island are done by a private car,” he said.
Caulfield said Ireland was particularly problematic in terms of transport emissions because we are a sparsely populated island with a lot of one-off houses and a traditional under-investment in public transport infrastructure.
“If you look at all of the public transport trips that happen in Ireland’s cities, 90 per cent of them happen in Dublin,” he said.
While to date transport has been a less controversial sector, Caulfield said that is because we haven’t yet reached the point of taking difficult policy decisions, such as banning any further building of roads, or implementing very high taxes on fossil fuel cars.
“If we came out and said we needed to cut the national car fleet from 2 million to 1.5 million, you would see lobby groups get out there. At the moment, a lot of the stuff we are doing in transport is the carrot side. I suspect in the latter half of the decade that the stick will have to come out.”
Caulfield was speaking as part of Five Degrees of Change, the Business Post’s energy and environment podcast sponsored by PwC. In keeping with the format of the podcast, he proposed three policy changes and two personal changes for a greener world.
Policy: Create a cross-party transport climate plan for infrastructure
The main reason Caulfield wants to see a climate-led, cross-party infrastructure plan for transport is because projects invariably fall victim to political cycles.
“Let’s take the Metro for example. That has been spoken about for around 20 years. If Eamon Ryan pushes the green button on the Metro, then it is likely to not be the next government, but the government after that which ends up opening it,” he said.
“If there was a snap election and the next crowd decided they didn’t want it and wanted something else – that would set the project back to square one. That is what happened with Metro.”
Caulfield said the model used to produce Sláintecare, the cross-party health reform plan, could similarly be used to put together a transport infrastructure plan.
“They can tinker around with smaller projects that can be delivered within the lifetime of a government, but the big ticket items need to be nailed down,” he said.
While Caulfield said big infrastructure projects like Metrolink, extending the DART and new Luas lines were all critical, most of them would not be delivered until at least the beginning of the next decade.
So if we have to cut transport emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, are there any infrastructure projects that could be fast-tracked for high impact?
“One of the things I would prioritise is getting much more bus transport out there. It is one of those things we could do quickly,” he said.
“If somebody were to ask me what project I would have built in the morning, it would be the Metro, but if we are talking about what will have the biggest impact, it’s Bus Connects. It touches every part of the city and the region . . . It is going to transform Dublin city and Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick as well.”
Personal: Bought an electric car
Caulfield bought an electric Hyundai Ioniq second hand two years ago and his experience has been “so far, so good”. But with a limited second-hand market for electric vehicles, it was a struggle to get a car that suited him and could fit his three dogs.
“My dad told me years ago, never buy a brand new car. I have listened to that advice. But [there were] also financial reasons – the new ones are expensive and also they can take six or seven months to come.”
Charging was another concern for Caulfield as his home in Dublin doesn’t have a driveway, just like 50 per cent of Dublin’s residents.
“That was a big leap of faith on my behalf, to go buy an EV without a driveway. It hasn’t been as straightforward as I thought it would be,” he said.
Caulfield’s preference is to use a fast-charger point in Stillorgan near the Luas, which allows him to get to about 80 per cent charge in 40 minutes. But often when he arrives to use the charger, he isn’t the only one there.
“I don’t have range anxiety, I have charger anxiety. There’s an app that tells you if it’s free. But by the time you get there, nine times out of ten, there is somebody else there. EV drivers are very nice people and there are always taxi drivers there. You will often get or give a mobile number and somebody will text you when they are finishing, that kind of thing.”
Policy: Impose parking limits in urban areas
Even if you removed emissions from the equation, Caulfield believes there are too many cars in our cities.
“Parking is the enabler of driving. So if you have a car parking space, the probability increases that you are going to drive to work or wherever,” he said.
“The first step I would take is removing on-street parking. That is taking up very valuable real estate that could be used for parklets, cycling, and walking which would make our streets and where we live a lot better.”
But, Caulfield said, a re-examination of all parking across cities was required, from on-street to multistorey to workplace parking.
He explained that the majority of trips into Dublin city are for the purposes of getting to and from work. With this in mind, he said, employers should start to take responsibility for their employees’ travel habits, and should even start measuring them as part of their carbon footprint.
Caulfield used Trinity College as an example, explaining that it has very limited parking and surveys have shown 99 per cent of people get to the campus using public transport.
“Trinity is in a very lucky position in that it is in the city centre and most public transport routes across the island start or finish near our campus. But if you compare it to other places near Trinity, say Leinster House, there are a huge number of people who drive in.”
Personal: Reduce my flying
The typical life of an academic can involve a surprising amount of flying.
“You end up flying to lots of conferences. There is a conference in Washington DC that I would have gone to every year for 10 to15 years. I am involved in a number of EU projects as well which requires me to travel to Brussels or other European cities,” Caulfield said.
“It should be a luxury to fly somewhere. Flying back and forth to Britain for a conference or whatever for €20 or €30 is something I think needs to stop.”
Cutting down on that flying is now a priority for Caulfield. He hasn’t been on a flight since 2020, helped in no small part by the pandemic, but he said there were opportunities to travel that he had passed up.
“There was an EU kick-off meeting for a project that I asked to attend virtually. I have two PhD examination in-person interviews. I am hoping to do those virtually if possible and if not, I have looked into slow travel options,” he said.
“But then there is a conference I have been invited to speak at and this will blow my carbon budget for the year because it’s in South America.”
Caulfield said it was difficult because young academics gained a lot from travelling and meeting colleagues around the world and said he had even heard suggestions that older academics should curtail their flying to allow younger academics attend such events instead.
Policy: Prioritise the electrification of shared cars and taxis
Research on shared cars shows that for every one shared car in a city, it gets rid of 10 cars. Similarly, a taxi drives four times the amount a private car will do on an annual basis, making them far more efficient in terms of the amount of time they are active.
As a result, Caulfield said, a clever policy approach would be to prioritise both shared cars and taxis for electrification through incentive schemes and regulations.
“We need to step away from this electric vehicle target and start thinking about the kilometres driven by an electric vehicle,” Caulfield said.
On taxis, Caulfield said the current grant scheme to help them trade in their fossil fuel vehicles for electrics could be enhanced while other incentives could also be introduced, such as temporarily dropping the requirement for taxi wheelchair access due to the limited number of EVs having that capability, or letting only electric taxis use bus lanes.
“They also need priority charging units. Taxi drivers will be reluctant to electrify their car because they are worried they are going to miss out on fares if they are left waiting for access to a charging point,” he said.
Caulfield said that local city councils could impose rules about shared cars having to be electrified, but that policy direction from the Department of Transport would help steer councils in the right direction.
“It is about planning, taking a car trip should be something you have to think a little bit more about than we currently do,” he said.
“Then you don’t have a car loan [payment] coming out of your bank account every month. You aren’t paying huge volumes of money on petrol and diesel. From an economic perspective it is a lot better.”
Five Degrees of Change is the Business Post's energy and environment podcast, sponsored by PwC. This episode will be out this week and available wherever you get your podcasts