Cork needs buses not rail to drive its growth

Cork needs buses not rail to drive its growth

Margaret Thatcher was reported to have said that a man over the age of 30 taking the bus could consider himself a failure, writes Declan Jordan.

Whether or not she said this, the sentiment persists and the bus remains an under-appreciated part of Cork city's transport system.

This is a pity. Not least because an effective public transport system, with an integrated and effective bus system at its core, is an essential element in making a city more liveable and more productive.

A well-functioning city bus network holds the key to Cork realising the ambitions set out for it in Ireland 2040.

According to the national planning framework, Cork will be the fastest growing city region in Ireland in the next two decades. This will not be viable using current transport modes.

People want to live, work, and shop in cities that are cleaner, less congested, and more enjoyable places to be. This means drastically reducing the number of private cars on our city streets.

It is woeful that only 5% of trips into Cork city use public transport, which in Cork’s case largely means bus trips. Over 70% of trips are by private car.

This shows how hard it will be to move Cork people out of their cars and into buses, or even onto bicycles. But the rewards for the city’s business community and residents would be substantial.

The Cork Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy is a very welcome development. There are clear commitments in it to develop the bus network and to increase the share of trips in the city that use public transport. The strategy will only work if the private car is placed at the bottom of the list of priorities in the allocation of road space, where it belongs.

The part of the strategy that received more attention was the proposed light rail system for Cork, running from Ballincollig through the city and out the docklands. Again, we see the perception that shiny new trains are far superior to the lowly bus.

Perhaps, in time, Cork’s size will justify the development of light rail but this should not be a priority now. Even when it is in place the majority of citizens will not benefit directly as they will not live near the line. The priority has to be an integrated, high frequency and quick bus network. It will be easier to overlay a light rail or tram system onto an existing bus network if that is needed in the future.

Many objections to using the bus actually arise from our car dependency rather than the public transport system. A bus network cannot function effectively where it shares road space for substantial parts of its journey with private cars. Cars create traffic and the delays these cause to buses reduce their attractiveness to commuters.

Moving cars out of the way of city buses is only one of the elements of creating an effective bus network, though making it more difficult to use the car will go a long way to making buses more attractive.

Other elements include matching the places people live with the places they work - which is not always the city centre - with a range of routes and bus sizes. These should cross the suburbs rather than only running through the centre.

There must be an investment in new bus stock. A single transport authority for Cork, with real locally-based power, should be an essential part of the development of a coherent public transport system. Public transport should not be profit-maximising, but rather a social service with low fares.

It is something that businesses in Cork should embrace enthusiastically. Not doing so risks condemning the city to years of congestion.

- Declan Jordan is director of the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre at Cork University Business School

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