Tadhg O'Mahony: Our transport system is suffocating us, but the seeds of transformation lie in wait

Our transport system is suffocating us, but the seeds of a transformation are already here and we must grow them further, writes Tadhg O’Mahony.
Tadhg O'Mahony: Our transport system is suffocating us, but the seeds of transformation lie in wait

Globally, transport is associated with significant death and injury, from air pollution and road traffic accidents, while traffic congestion imposes major costs on economies. Picture: Larry Cummins

December is a key month in the calendar for reflection on climate action and sustainability. 

The last few days have brought far deeper targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, -55% by 2030, and a new EU mobility strategy. 

Meanwhile, the recent EPA 2020 assessment has shone a new light on Irish transport in particular. 

It is our second highest carbon emitter, on a growth path despite needing to rapidly reduce. 

Globally, transport is associated with significant death and injury, from air pollution and road traffic accidents, while traffic congestion imposes major costs on economies. 

In Ireland, many such problems are even more pronounced. Transport carbon emissions are the fourth highest in the EU per capita, while our cities rank among the most congested in the world, according to the INRIX survey. 

As the pressure for change builds, understanding how we have developed such systemic problems is essential to progress.

The Irish transport system was very different a century ago, dominated by sustainable modes, an extensive rail network served communities throughout the country. 

Much of this network was dismantled throughout the 20th century, coinciding with the rise of the private car. 

Glossy industry advertising promised ‘freedom’, the car was continuously marketed as a potent status symbol, an expression of a successful lifestyle. 

From the 1980s, the vision of successive Irish governments, for economic growth and to drawdown European funding, was for major investments in roads and motorways. 

In comparison, public transport largely stagnated, rail freight became almost non-existent, and walking and cycling became more niche activity than sensible mobility options. 

At the same time, laissez faire spatial planning allowed proliferation of one-off housing in the countryside, and low-density suburban and commuter developments. 

This ‘urban sprawl’ renders alternatives to the car far more difficult to implement, and lumps the costs on the public. 

Our physical settlement and infrastructure were now becoming deeply set. 

From the mid-1990s, policy, market, and lifestyle dictated that we would funnel our growing economy and population into the private car. 

When all of these factors line up it is called ‘lock-in’. Both inevitable and difficult to escape, it blocks off options for more sustainable outcomes. 

The total number of vehicles now on our national roads, squeezing into towns and cities, is heading towards three million. 

According to the latest survey from the CSO, almost 80% of journeys are made by private motorised forms.

The problem of bias, towards roads and more roads, can be seen in political support for the proposed M20 Limerick-Cork motorway. 

Building another motorway will inevitably induce worse traffic congestion in these already heavily congested cities, further embedding car-based transport and sprawl, and diverting funds that could be better spent. 

Building one of the proposed rail options offers an opportunity for fundamental change, yet the branding of the project website ‘M20’ suggests a fait accompli. 

For sustainability to be delivered, sustainable modes need to be the default in public policy, not the folly of ever more roads.

In recent years, the Citizens Assembly and an Oireachtas committee have demonstrated significant public and political appetite to change course. 

The Government’s 2019 Climate Action Plan sought a new seriousness in tackling emissions, yet two critical flaws had undermined the approach to transport. 

The plan did not address the long term to 2050, and even more problematic, the most important decisions had already been taken, in Project Ireland 2040. 

Project Ireland established a settlement plan to 2040, and for infrastructure to 2027. The targets are at the lower end of ambition, compromises that can evade political challenge, but wholly inadequate to overcome lock-in. 

An openness to societal discussion about a new transformational spatial and transport planning is a prerequisite of progress. 

The opportunities and challenges must be surfaced and discussed by society if we are to transform.

As the Climate Action Plan was developed, it became clear that Project Ireland would push us over our 2030 carbon targets, let alone 2050. 

In response, the plan ramped up the electric vehicle target, to 936,000 by 2030. 

This process, to begin with the shorter-term instead of long, and focus on improving technology instead of embracing systems change, is the exact reverse of a sensible transport policy. 

A further challenge is that national energy and emissions modelling studies, used to support action on carbon emissions and air pollution, have consistently focused on changing vehicles, fuels, and behaviour. 

This reinforces the dominance of road modes, driving more beneficial systems change out of discussion. 

Given these limits we have imposed on ourselves, we are in effect attempting to walk the difficult path of a ‘sustainable low-carbon transition’ both blindfold and with our legs hobbled. 

In such circumstances, urban sprawl and car-dominated transport are virtually guaranteed to grow. 

Emissions targets will be more difficult to reach, with a deepening of the other maladies the current path is delivering.

The new EPA assessment, in its transport chapter, draws on decades of global assessments and international best practice to platform a radical new departure consistent with the scale of the problem in Ireland, a ‘sustainable mobility transformation’. 

It must look into the long term, to 2050 and beyond, and seriously consider the potential for transformational systems change, to avoid travel, shift travel modes, and, last in the hierarchy, improve technology such as with electric vehicles. 

It must bring together spatial, transport, and emissions policy, across the various institutions and agencies. 

It necessitates considering much more dense settlement patterns, and integrating this with transformational change of mobility. 

It requires big visions, from redeveloping low-density urban areas to major shifts in how we travel, based on a backbone of healthier walking and cycling, and nationwide expansion of electrified rail. 

Making informed decisions means studying the implications of alternative paths, something which we have not yet done in Ireland. 

Five years on from the original Low-Carbon Development Act 2015, and after declaring a ‘climate emergency’ in 2019, we still have no plan to reduce emissions to 2050, with transport a chief area for concern.

Such a transformation can begin with political or institutional vision, with research communities, or bottom-up with citizens demanding change. 

Without even pause for doubt, it can be stated that current plans will not steer Ireland on to a sustainable path, and we are markedly out of step with the needs of a net-zero 2050. 

On the flip-side, a sustainable mobility transformation offers immense opportunities. 

With an appropriate long-term and whole-of-government strategy, accompanied by political will, we can actively empower sustainable paths. 

Our transport system is suffocating us, but the seeds of a transformation are already here, and now it is time to grow them.

Dr Tadhg O’Mahony is a sustainability transformations researcher and consultant, and an external advisor at the Finland Futures Research Centre.

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