VICTORIA WHITE: We need to put brakes on obsession with car as mode of transport

HE has €2 zipped into his pocket, enough for the fanciest ice-cream in the local shop. He takes his bike from against the wall and off he goes.

He has been told to cycle straight home to his parents who will be waiting rather anxiously because he’s autistic, so although he’s 12 this is his first ever trip to the shops on his own. Our annual summer holiday on Inishbofin island off the Galway coast has made my son Tom a full citizen of this republic for the first time. There are very few cars here and when they chug along the roads they’re almost apologetic.

The walkers and the cyclists press into the hedgerows reluctantly and then take the road again. It is they, not cars, who matter.

People love it. “I feel so free when I throw away the car key”, an elderly man told me on the beach. The place is buzzing and the listed prices of the few properties on offer wouldn’t look out of place in Dublin.

Which shows its car-free status really works for Inishbofin as a holiday location. But what interests me more is the sudden independence of my son Tom, who will never drive, in a car-free society.

What shocks me is the realisation that a car-based society almost takes away his personhood. He is never independent. Instead, he gets into the back of his Mam’s car. Or into the institutional bus.

He is not the only person who will never drive in this Republic. The people who can’t drive include those who are too young, those who are too old, those who are intellectually or physically disabled in a range of different ways, epileptics, some people with psychiatric conditions, as well as those who can’t afford the nearly €12,000 a year the AA says it takes to buy and run a family car in 2013.

People about whom we bellyache loudly in lots of ways. But never because the car-based society excludes them from full citizenship. It’s astonishing that we’ve continued to build this car-based society long after its downsides have become clear.

The National Transport Authority’s Integrated Implementation Plan 2013-1018, published last week, sends us a worrying report card. It shows a 2.3% increase in those driving themselves to work between 2006 and 2011 in the Dublin area when this country went into the deepest recession of its history and the numbers at work in the area plummeted by 6%.

It shows that in parts of Ireland there are now 500 cars for every 1,000 inhabitants. In Meath, for instance, virtually every person who can drive a car has one.

They have cars because they need them just to live a normal life. Which leaves the many who can’t drive as outsiders. That’s pretty serious stuff to be going down in the lovely, leafy county of Meath.

So serious is it that in Ireland young people are voting with their feet and getting them onto clutches and brakes as early as possible. Between 2006 and 2011 there has been a 58% increase in the numbers of people driving themselves to education.

While some of this increase has surely occurred out of necessity, some of it surely hasn’t. The increase in students driving themselves to school or college in Dublin is 52%, and in Dublin there really is usually a bus or Dart or Luas or cycling option.

It is surely the culture which has changed. Young Irish people are now seeing driving as accession to full personhood. Where does that leave people who can’t drive? Up the junction. Ah well, that’s just the way of the world, isn’t it? No, it isn’t. What makes this recent report card more depressing still is that there is evidence of “peak car” in some other developed countries.

In the US the number of miles driven per person is down 9% from peak and is equal to the figure for 1995. The change is being led by the young among whom driving decreased 23% between 2001 and 2009.

There may be some influence of recession on these statistics — though judging from our own experience, there may not be, either. However, research in major universities relayed in major publications shows there is a cultural shift against driving among young people in the US.

They have a different way of staying connected. They have the internet. Though there are other factors at play too — renewed interest in living in city centres where riding bikes has taken off, mobile phone technology which facilitates car pooling — the Internet is the key factor.

The more “wired” a young person is, the less likely to drive.” Why spend an hour driving to work when you could take the bus or train and be online?” asks the New York Times.

These are voices from a country which built its cultural identity as well as its economy around the car. Even Bill Ford, executive chairman of the corporation which bears his name, last year proposed partnering with technology to create cities in which pedestrians, cyclists, cars and public transport are woven into a network.

And the city is, of course, the future. The UN reckons that cities will absorb all of the 2.3bn population expected in the next four decades. But Ireland has her own ideas. Cork is a well-known “doughnut” city, while in Galway massive development on the periphery has led to a huge daily migration of cars every day. And as the Transport Authority’s Implementation Plan puts it, Dublin has continued to “cascade” as far as Meath and Kildare where car ownership is maxed out.

The vision of a modern city has not formed, as it could have done, had we followed the Dublin Transportation Office’s detailed Platform for Change (2000) by which Luas, Dart and Metro North would have been inter-connected.

Fourteen years in the planning, Metro North was dumped by the current government in 2011 and now will never be built. What contractor would ever bid for it now? The Dart Interconnector which would join the four rail lines coming into Dublin has been kicked to touch in this implementation plan. And even if Dublin Bus were properly resourced rather than starved for cash, buses just can’t do it on their own.

Corrupt planning and the age profile of politicians who still think driving is the future have been part of the problem. But more than anything else there has been a lack of courage to do the right thing now even if the dividends aren’t seen before this generation of politicians has retired.

Last year the IMF criticised our cuts in capital spending, so much easier to implement politically than cuts in current spending. What will happen when economic recovery puts more workers on the road again? The implementation plan warns that Dublin will be gridlocked unless there is “targeted transport infrastructural investment”. Not to mention soaring greenhouse gas emissions.

One thing’s for sure, an economic recovery based on still more car dependence will marginalise still further the “transport poor” — people like my boy who has just successfully parked his bike outside the house after his first independent trip to the shops.


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