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Smarter Travel: Motherhood and Apple Pie in the Sky

Ministers Dempsey and Ryan yesterday presented the new transport plan of the government. The document is long on intentions and targets, and short on specific action. It promises significant increases in e-working (from home), public transport, cycling, and walking, but it does not specify the measures that would stimulate this. As far as I know, we do not know whether people would want to work in rural e-offices, or whether their bosses would allow them to. We also lack the empirical basis to predict the effect of, say, road pricing for cars on, say, cycling.

Frank Barry recently came out in favour of congestion charges and road pricing. I fully agree. The government plan, however, does not get beyond a tame “we will think about it”.

The first set of measures in the plan are all about planning. The growing distance between home and work is indeed one of the main drivers of increased transport demand. The underlying forces are simple and hard to control. We would all like to live in a beautiful yet affordable house that is close to our work, our spouse’s work, and our childrens’ school — but such houses are rare. Most of the announced measures are in the mandate of the Department of the Environment, Heritage, and Local Government. Minister Gormley was absent, however.

(Interestingly, Minister Gormley did pronounce on the pay increases at ESB, although Minister Ryan is in charge there.)

The Smarter Travel plan professes faith in the power of government. It announces “We will establish a car-sharing website which will help employers to encourage such initiatives in the workforce. We will also work with our counterparts in Northern Ireland to develop a website applicable to the whole island.” Putting the Northern component to the side, if there were demand for a car-pooling website, would the market not deliver it? (It does in fact, see here.)

The plan is silent on increasing competition for bus and rail, or privatising CIE. Indeed, it announces more subsidies (capital) for Dublin Bus, Bus Eireann and Irish Rail. The document also contains a Freudian slip: “Link increased PSO [public service obligation] subvention to growth in patronage.”

The parts on walking and cycling are interesting too. The Smarter Travel plan reminds the reader of the tax breaks on new bicycles, which supports the owners of bikeshops (e.g., the Belfield Bike Shop) but does not stimulate cycling. The plan proclaims that furthering cycling and walking for recreation and tourism would stimulate cycling and walking for commuting (sic).

It announces that “We will ensure improved road priority for […] cycling access to […] airports”. I cycle anywhere in Dublin, but rarely to the airport because of luggage (long trips) and travel hours (short trips).

The plan announces that, from now on, the government will “[e]nforc[e] the law relating to encroachment on pedestrian spaces by motor vehicles, cyclists, skips and other obstructions”. It is a great good that the government plans to enforce the law. (Minister Ahern was not there either.)

For cars and trucks, the plan is “by 2020” to “maximise the contribution from second-generation biofuels”. Second-generation biofuels are currently in the research stage, with the first demonstration plants planned for 2015. It is unlikely that they will be deployed at any scale by 2020.

The plans for electric vehicles are wishful thinking too. The Smarter Travel document says “We will provide further incentives to encourage a switch to electric vehicle technology with the aim of achieving 10% market penetration by 2020.” Previously, Minister Ryan wanted 10% of the car stockin 2020 to be all-electric. This would have required that at least 50% of the entire world production of electric cars be bought in Ireland. 10% of the cars sold in 2020 is substantially less ambitious, but still hard to achieve. The electric cars currently on the market have two doors at most. The big car companies are betting on hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and smart diesels. The wishes of the Irish government are unlikely to make them change their strategy.

In sum, pious pleas, wonderful intentions, and wishful thinking on technological progress. All measurable targets are for 2020, which is at least two elections away.

2 replies on “Smarter Travel: Motherhood and Apple Pie in the Sky”

I agree with your sceptism, and can only shudder at the thought of what the practical implementation of the commitment on page 28 will be. “To support sustainable travel, future population and employment growth will have to predominantly take place in sustainable compact urban areas or rural areas, which discourage dispersed development and long commuting”.

That little tag of ‘or rural areas’ is the whole point, surely. I take this means that, as at present, the next farmer who wants to sell a site will be facilitated just like the last one was. There will be no practical test established as to whether the result is a ‘sustainable compact rural area’, whatever that is.

Why do they bother producing these plans? Why don’t we just frankly state our policy intentions? “The state will do nothing to prevent further growth in the numbers of people opting for dispersed development and long commuting. We will support that choice by, among other things, continuing to spend twice as much on rural school transport services than on Dublin Bus, to carry one third of the amount of passengers. The right of farmers to find the best immediate commercial use for their land will not be obstructed in any way.”

At least then we’d know where we stand.

To get seriously into the electric car game on that sort of timescale, we would need to put in some infrastructure now. There is a company that does that and has deals with Hawaii, Israel and Denmark. Web address is http://www.betterplace.com/ .

To have great transport, what is really needed is action. We love coming up with grand plans in Ireland, which we tell everyone that we will eventually carry out. But we don’t do well at marshalling the resources we already have to provide great public transport.

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