It’s not just car park owners who stand in the way of progress on sustainable transport

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: “Ireland stands to benefit in a big way from investing in public transport” is the headline of an Irish Times article by John FitzGerald. The sub headline is “Good public transport improves quality of life and lowers greenhouse gases”… and who maybe except the most motoring mad can disagree?

The problem is what seem like finer points in the article but which are policy recommendations and also partly misdirection based more on personal preferences or other factors rather than evidence.

This isn’t just about cycling — across the newspaper articles, and podcast and TV interviews etc, FitzGerald has advocated for electric cars and buses at different times while often undermining or otherwise being blind to the potential for cycling and being a slight bit dismissive of rail at times too (although still being far more progressive than some other economists on rail).

Electric cars, while cleaner than conventional cars, are still subject to being unsustainable when used on mass, as per the Black Hole Theory of Highway Investment:

IMAGE: Black Hole Theory of Highway Investment from Plane, D. A. (1995), Urban transportation: policy alternatives. In Hanson & Giuliano (Eds.) The geography of urban transportation. (2nd ed.) New York ; London: Guilford Press.

As a Dublin-centric thinker, FitzGerald has at least a few times suggested congestion charging as a solution — even if we accept his contentions that such charges are fair (which is disputed), congestion charging has been mostly limited to central areas of a relatively larger cities.

In Dublin and more so in Cork, Limerick and Galway, a battle for congestion charging would make BusConnects or the Liffey Cycle Route look like a walk in the park.

On cycling, FitzGerald has suggested in his most recent article that, before the Luas, his commuting options were “commute options were either an infrequent and unreliable bus service, a stiff uphill cycle home, or an exhausting journey by car”.

Talking about the Luas, in an interview, with the Sunday Business Post’s 5 degrees of Change podcast, FitzGerald has said that he didn’t cycle on wet days. Which is fine, cycling will never be suitable for everyone or for every trip, but personal preferences should not have a strong impact on even casual policy recommendations put forward in a newspapers. After all, Amsterdam — where around 50% of commuters cycle — has more wet days per year than Dublin.

But FitzGerald’s appearance on RTÉ’s Prime Time late last year prompted one twitter user to say: “It defies belief how anyone who visits Amsterdam, which John presumably has, can fail to believe in anything other than a cycling and pedestrian centric city. It’s like a doctor finding a cure for cancer and refusing to apply it to their patients.”

In The Irish Times today, he writes “Dublin City Council has taken action to reallocate road space to cyclists and pedestrians in the city centre” and that “This is welcome”. But, there’s always a ‘but’ and he doesn’t stop there.

In a key segment of the article, FitzGerald writes that:

“Long-term there are two contrasting approaches to rationing scarce urban road space and encouraging city dwellers to shift to public transport. One can make life difficult for cars by increasing congestion, and reducing parking, or you can ration the scarce road space by congestion charging.”

“As an economist, I favour price over misery as the way to ration. However, there is another concern: if increased congestion for cars impacts on bus transit times then you have a lose-lose situation. It is essential that a way is found to prioritise buses in the more restricted road space.”

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First, the council and NTA are acting the way they are to promote walking and cycling due to COVID 19, it’s not a normal situation. Some of the BusConnects plans already show how with bus gates and other measures cities can prioritise buses in a more restricted road space. The solutions are out there, it doesn’t need to be a question mark.

Some mesures such as the Rathmines bus gate may be trialed as part of the COVID 19 response. Others might take longer to happen. Good transport planning also shows it’s not a good idea to give priority to too many modes on every route.

He seems to be boiling basic sustainable transport action such as a transfer of space from cars to walking, cycling and public transport as making “life difficult for cars by increasing congestion, and reducing parking”. That’s not supported by the cities which have made or have started to make a switch to sustainable transport without congestion charging.

The idea that there are no humans in those cars and that the cars are a fixed thing — ie where he says: “One can make life difficult for cars” and “misery as the way to ration” — goes against proven modal change of people from cars to sustainable transport. The evidence around modal change is overwhelming, far stronger than that around congestion charging alone.

I cannot say that every single person is happy with the change in the cities that have already made the switch to sustainable transport, but people seem to be getting on better in cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht than when there was higher car use in the 1970s and the problems that they had with pollution, safety and cars dominating public space etc. The people who want to go back to the old ways are likely just as prevalent in cities with congestion charges, ie a very small minority.

I could go into finer details unpacking the above key quotes, but I’ll end with the idea that the two mentioned approaches are “contrasting approaches”: London — an example often used by FitzGerald to support congestion changes — continues to change the use of the road space within the congestion charging area. A lot of what FitzGerald says on transport seems to be based around pricing with little concept of modern transport planning, active transport and means of modal change.

It gets worse. He goes onto write: “In countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, cycling and commuting by public transport are complementary – with big cycle parks at stations. However, cycling on its own is a solution for just a minority of city-dwellers. Long term, we must invest in effective public transport that can move people rapidly round the city.”

This sounds reasonable, but it’s AA-level shadow boxing. Nobody with any power or influence has even hinted at the idea that “cycling on its own is a solution”. Actually nobody that I am aware of has suggested such. Most cycling campaigners I’ve every interacted with are also public transport advocates.

Suggestions of cycling being the sole option of transport being put forward is a trope often used against cycling and dressing that up around support for cycling is now a norm even for many of those who object to cycling projects. I knew FitzGerald was a sceptic on the potential of cycling, but it’s both surprising and worrying to see him come out with such a trope even if it was dressed up nicely.

Furthermore, the line “just a minority of city-dwellers” is a clear sign of underestimating cycling — the Greater Dublin Area Cycle Network Plan estimates that if the network was built, then there’d be more people daily cycling than on buses. Cycling cities have a cycling modal share of 30-60% of trips by bicycle (that’s city-wide and higher in city centres). A mix of minority and majority but even at the lower end not to be scoffed at.

IMAGE: This is subjective but is a draft of work showing transport modes rated on attractiveness, practicality, and scalability. The first column is cars mostly unrestricted, which isn’t the case everywhere in Ireland all times (ie dropping a child to school can be a pain).

FitzGerald also claimed that: “Because of Dublin’s low density, buses have a key role. BusConnects is essential to lower bus journey times.” I don’t know where the Dublin is a low density city myth started but it needs to stop, at least among anybody who claims to be evidence-driven. There’s variations in different areas due to them being different sizes or at different stages of being re/developed, but Dublin is overall comparable to European cities of its size.

FitzGerald’s article ends by stating how “Investing in quality public transport has an important pay-off…” and needs to be made now even with the pressure the COVID 19 crisis is having on the public purse. I cannot agree more with that, as I cannot agree more with the start of the article — but, for the reasons already outlined, the middle of the article is a strange way of arguing for public transport investment. And not one mention of what usually drains transport funding away from public transport — roads.

Similarly, FitzGerald has shown support for electric car grants — even increasing incentives for cars — but silence on electric bicycle or cargo bicycle grants.

And, nothing on cycling infrastructure, despite the proven ability of walking and cycling combined to replace car trips and reduce emissions far faster and with greater benefits than a fleet change to electric cars. Investment in cycling can be justified on health, pollution reduction or transport capacity grounds.

We’re still in a position where no Irish city has a segregated cycle route the whole way from the city to suburbs. Dublin is only soon to start construction on the Clontarf Route but even that will not reach the whole way directly to the quays.

I know some will see this article as being overly critical, but FitzGerald a key advisor who has pushed electric cars as a key part the Government’s reaction to climate change. If Fitzgerald reads this, I honestly hope he sees it as constructive criticism, my job here is not to school him but to highlight to others how flawed an argument is being made by someone so influential.

I am editor of IrishCycle.com and have reported on and commented on cycling in Ireland for over a decade. My background is in journalism -- I have a BA in Journalism from DCU and HDip in Print Journalism from BCFE. I wrote about cycling for national newspapers, and then started CyclingInDublin.com for overflow stories. Later the website was re-branded to reflect a more national focus.

4 Comments

  1. Electric cars do not address congestion, particulate pollution, transport inequality, storage waste, roads, injuries and deaths due to direct impacts, children being cocooned indoors and being helicopter parented everywhere. They also introduce new problems around battery manufacture and disposal.

    Bikes aren’t for everyone and aren’t a panacea….? Eh? Anyone who suggests this is an idiot. Anyone who suggests that other people suggest this are an even bigger idiot.

    I expect that those who advise at high levels on transport policy should know the basics.

  2. As you suggest by italicising “stiff uphill”, one of his problems with his old commute is addressable by a electric-assist bike, and his weather-based objection is mostly addressed by that, as you can wear *really* weatherproof gear on one of those. Dublin’s weather isn’t all that wet anyway. It’s almost an ideal cycling city, apart from the street design, and that’s eminently changeable.

  3. Oh, and the low-density trope showing up! I don’t know why he wants to put himself forward as an expert if he commits a howler like assuming Dublin inside the M50 is much less dense than, say, Amsterdam.

  4. Mike McKillen May 30, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    He follows in his late-father’s footsteps in advocating for a congestion-charge, but Garrett ended up calling for proper road pricing rather than congestion charging.

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