Michael Moynihan: We should consider introducing free public transport in Cork

Paying attention to the bus as the workhorse of commuting and urban transport means prioritising it through dedicated bus lanes around the city.
Michael Moynihan: We should consider introducing free public transport in Cork

A computer-generated image of the Cork LUAS system as part of the CMATS. Introducing free bus travel in Cork is not as outlandish as it sounds. You only have to look toward France and Estonia for inspiration.

How many readers can recall Singles, a movie released back in 1992 featuring Campbell Scott, Bridget Fonda and sundry others?

If the two actors mentioned above locate it precisely in a particular time, so does the grunge-era soundtrack, which is appropriate to its Seattle setting. I don’t raise it here because the Mudhoney revival is overdue — it isn’t — but because the Campbell Scott character, Steve, is germane this morning.

Or rather his profession is.

In the film Steve works for the city of Seattle as a transport consultant, and his big idea is a super train to help alleviate traffic: a super train where people can “listen to great music, and have great coffee” rather than sit in their cars and fume at the congestion.

Of course, people can and do listen to great music on public transport now all the time thanks to their phones; Steve’s idea isn’t implemented by his bosses in Seattle, who may have foreseen the rise of Spotify when knocking him back.

I went back to Singles— its plaid shirts, its grubby coffee shops — because I see that Cork is due a transport overhaul.

Eoin English of this parish reported last week on some of the details: “While a €1bn 17km east-west Luas-style tram linking Ballincollig to Mahon is one of the big-ticket items in CMATS (the Cork Metropolitan Area Transport Study), transport chiefs said the city’s bus system will be the “workhorse” of the city’s future public transport network —with some €545m earmarked for investment in a BusConnects programme to deliver a 700% increase in bus lanes, from 14km today up to 100km.” 

This is just the kind of announcement that can distract you. While a super-train running through, or even around, the city is the kind of proposal that electrifies those living in an area, investing in the buses which are doing much of the heavy lifting seems a far more sensible proposal.

(And that’s without revisiting The Simpsons episode which details the false attractions of the monorail, but more of that at a later date.) 

Buses get a raw deal. Take one of the characteristic quotes attributed to Margaret Thatcher, her assertion that anyone over the age of 25 who takes the bus is a failure.

(Or maybe it’s 26. Or 30. Finding the exact quote, or even its exact source, is far harder than you might imagine.) Thatcher — if she said those precise words — was wrong about that, but it’s fair to say that buses don’t enjoy the same positive image that trains do, despite doing far more work.

What should those charged with reviewing the bus network in Cork look at, then?

Well, I don’t want to tell people their business  but if you look into the business of buses — the bus-iness, as it were — you soon discover the multiple attractions of the bus.

A book like Steven Higashide’s Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit teases this out. He points out that the bus is inherently greener than the private car, which we could have guessed, but he also points out that there are easy ways to boost numbers taking the bus.

By providing more services and better bus stops, Higashide says, more people are encouraged to take the bus. This takes cars off the street and is obviously better for the environment. This is good, obviously enough.

But in the middle of cities, where congestion occurs, buses slow down in traffic jams and become unreliable. That means people have less faith in the bus system and are less inclined to use it. This is bad.

So how is that remedied?

By prioritising the bus, says Higashide, who told an interviewer: “That’s a basic equity issue. Are you going to prioritise the 40 or 70 people on the bus? Or are you going to treat them the same as the cars that are carrying one or two or maybe three people?” 

This requires a change of mindset and is a more difficult challenge than providing more buses (I almost wrote ‘simply providing more buses’, but I caught myself just in time.) A quick jaunt by car around the city is enough to assure you that most other car drivers believe the entire transport infrastructure of the nation is in place to facilitate them on an individual basis, not to provide a framework for the nation at large.

As a result, paying attention to the bus as the workhorse of commuting and urban transport, as noted above, means prioritising it through dedicated bus lanes around the city.

Again, see (further) above — specifically the increase in dedicated bus lanes from the current 14 km to 100 km.

Can we go further, though? For instance, should bus travel be free in the city?

This is not as outlandish as it sounds. Paris commissioned a study a couple of years ago investigating the possibility of free public transport within the city: making such travel free for those under 18 from last September is seen as the first step in that direction.

Travel has been free on public transport in Tallinn in Estonia since 2013 and a couple of years ago the Estonians decided to extend the free service to many regional routes.

The fine print is interesting: on the plus side non-residents of Tallinn and tourists have to pay for public transport, which generates revenue, while there are obvious benefits in terms of social mobility and increased use of the services — because they’re free more people are using them.

The downside is lack of revenue from ticket sales and increased use of the services — because they’re free more people are using them, which can lead to overcrowding and delays.

Yet if lessons could be learned from the Estonian experience — here’s one person who wouldn’t carp if officials were sent on a fact-finding mission there once it’s safe to do so — then consider the potential impact of free public transport in Cork.

Removing the necessity to plan your parking trip would surely drive more people to visit the city centre, while not having to budget for bus expenses would be a welcome financial relief for many commuting into, out of and across the city, freeing up a considerable amount of money for spending ... in the city, maybe?

One of the possible bus priority lanes on Summerhill North as part of the CMATS which could increase dedicated bus lanes from the current 14km to 100km.

One of the possible bus priority lanes on Summerhill North as part of the CMATS which could increase dedicated bus lanes from the current 14km to 100km.

There are more questions to be answered. The shape of public transport after the pandemic — during the pandemic, indeed — is hard to guess at this point. The potential for problems from building a train line from Ballincollig to Mahon could give an aspirin a headache.

But at least those revamping public transport in Cork are dealing with a population well disposed towards the bus in particular.

Think of how the Luas is depicted in popular culture and your mind drifts to the cast of The Commitments sprawled across a carriage, warbling morosely.

Then think of how the buses of Cork are depicted and your mind drifts to The Young Offenders and a busload of passengers singing 'After All' by the Frank And Walters.

All aboard.

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