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.

What a great opportunity for public transport

This will be a nice case study for future students of business administration. Consider a company that holds a near monopoly in a segment of a market that has been growing by 7.7% per year for a decade. What does such a company need to do to turn a loss?

Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus managed this feat (after subsidies). I will not speculate how and why. But with respect for the workers that are being laid off, I think this situation provides a great opportunity for public transport in Ireland.

Bus Eireann and Dublin Bus need to cut costs. They want to do this by reducing the number of busses on the road and the number of drivers on the payroll. That is their choice. The plan is to trim the schedule. That is wrong. Instead of reducing frequency at selected routes, they should give up some routes altogether. The regulator should then sell the concession on these routes to the highest bidder. (This would not save public finance.) Service levels would be maintained where commercially viable. Competition would lead to lower transport costs. (This would not restore competiveness.) Unemployment would fall (but the incoming operators may prefer to hire other drivers than the ones just let go).

Overall demand for transport is down in any recession, but the share of cheap (i.e., bus) transport is up, so I think there is a business case for bus routes in Dublin.

Over time, the state-owned, subsidised incumbents may get their act together, or they may be replaced by commercial operators altogether.

This post was written in Switzerland, where there is a train waiting at the airport to take you to the university’s doorstep. I landed at 2:30 pm in Zurich and was well in time for my 4 pm lecture in Bern. Zurich and Bern are as far apart as Dublin and Athlone.

The cost of carbon targets

While the macroeconomic crisis is all-consuming, there are other important economic policy issues on the agenda. Let me add to Richard Tol’s earlier post on the implications of the EU‘s Climate Change and Energy package formally adopted in December 2008. This sets demanding targets for reductions in Irish greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and particularly for the non-ETS sector of which Irish agriculture is a major part. How agriculture, and the non-ETS sector generally, is to meet these targets remains largely uncharted. The targets, and the policies implemented to meet them, will have major economic implications over the next decade. Like Richard, I agree that achieving the non-ETS targets for Ireland set out in the Effort Sharing Directive agreed in December 2008 now looks to be considerably less costly than earlier thought.