Vision for congestion-free suburbs and a car-free city centre:
· Short term / high impact actions: 8-point plan
1. School buses: Without doubt the single biggest cause of traffic congestion in the city arises simply because of the predisposition of most Irish parents to chauffeuring their children to school 5 days a week. This is understandable as most suburban areas don’t have the public transport services capable of providing for the transport needs of pupils. In some cases, where good services do exist, they are as someone wrote recently in this forum, perceived as an inferior substitute to the car, because acceptance of public transport is still hampered by class issues in this country.
Many of these journeys, probably in excess of 80%, are less than 3km in length and many households utilise a second car to fulfil this daily task. Nobody I have ever met who has complained about traffic problems in Ireland has ever disagreed with the sentiment; “When the schools are out, the traffic gridlock disappears.” A simple solution like providing comprehensive urban school-bus networks to eliminate the bulk of this congestion has not, to my knowledge, ever been tried in this country. This speaks volumes about our approach to traffic-easing programs, or more importantly, our failure to understand that CONGESTION reduction is primarily a concept of TRAFFIC reduction.
Already many schools have ‘Green Days’ where pupils walk to school or get the bus, so there is a general feeling in communities that driving to school is not environmentally or physically beneficial. However, in most cases it simply means that the parents drop the kids 500m from the school and then walk the rest of the way with them to the school door. According to the Galway Strategic Bus Study (GSBS) in 2006, just 9% of Primary schoolchildren, 25% of Secondary students and 13% of Third Level students travelled by public transport in the city. Nothing has changed to improve these figures since then, and in fact recent events suggest they may even have deteriorated.
If a school-bus scheme was implemented in consultation with each and every school in Galway, and a MINIMUM target set of 50% uptake by pupils, this would have a dramatic effect on the overall congestion crisis in the city. Incentives like cheap fares and rebates or prizes for schools achieving the target etc. would be necessary. It would need massive promotion on a city-wide scale by everyone involved in both the educational and political fields, by the Garda and the Chamber of Commerce. The promotional campaign would need to target the perception that bus services are poor EVERYWHERE they currently exist, and more importantly, the MOST serious perception issue regarding bus travel – the class issue (perception that buses are for the poor) – also would need addressing. It would need to be a separate system from public buses but it could be operated by either or both of the city’s bus operators and it should where possible, use the bus-stops already provided. Given that a large number of schools/colleges are located in a five-square kilometre area of the western city, it should not be, logistically speaking, a complicated operation. If this was the ONLY innovation to emanate from this forum, then it could reasonably be regarded as a success.
2. Integrated bus network: The decision to allow two different bus companies to operate two completely different route systems in a city as small as Galway must rank in the top 5 worst in the city’s history. If there is just one single improvement made to our overall public transport system as a result of this forum, it should be the integration of both systems. There is no comparison at all between TWO SEPARATE route systems operated by two companies (what we have) and a SINGLE, INTEGRATED route system operated by two companies (what we don’t have).
The fact that 13% (GSBS, 2006) of workers/students in Galway County use public transport for daily commuting – admittedly, an appallingly low figure – versus an even lower figure of 10% in the city is stark reminder that our two city bus operators are not even close to being up to the job of doing what they are supposed be doing. For Galway’s two bus operators to provide an accessible, comprehensive and effective bus service, the integration of both route systems is absolutely vital. Even if every single identifiable problem within both systems were thoroughly solved, Galway would still not have the sort of public transport system we need or deserve. To most residents of the city, the existence of two route systems is confusing; to visitors of the city it is truly baffling. Things of course are not made any less confusing for all by the fact that both systems in themselves are quite different and have different route concepts, timetable layout, stopping/starting points, bus-stops and fare systems.
City Direct for example has four routes (down from 5 in 2006), uses small buses, doesn’t do cross-city routes, will only take the exact change for a fare and will not accept copper coins, uses their own bus-stops and operates in the west-side of the city into the city-centre. Bus Eireann has 8 routes (no change since 2006), uses larger buses, does have cross-city routes, will give change – but only if less than €5 is tendered, uses their own bus-stops and operates on both sides of the river. The fact that neither of them provides anything like enough buses or routes or exact times of arrival posted at stops or the fact that both are significantly hampered by peak-time traffic is really almost irrelevant. The existence of two competing, separate systems will always ensure that a realistic or practical alternative to car-travel in Galway cannot ever be realised.
A brief look at the No.2 Bus Eireann service from Seacrest (a 15-minute walk from my house) indicates that during the morning peak between 7am and 9am, just 5 buses leave from the stop there Monday to Saturday. Only 3 of them are cross-city buses, and of those, only one goes to the industrial parks in Ballybrit and Parkmore. In fact, this is the ONLY bus that goes to these parks on a daily basis. There are 43 buses running on this route daily, but just 24 are cross-city. Of these 24, 18 go to Renmore via Dawn Dairies (imagine a tourist trying to figure out where this is) and Lisbeg Lawn and a further 6 go to Merlin Park, returning via Dawn Dairies and Lisbeg Lawn. Of the 19 buses that serve Eyre Square only, 16 do not travel down Knocknacarra Road but go directly to the city-centre from Knocknacarra Cross. The timetable lists only Seacrest and Eyre Square as termini, and does not show any east-side termini. Merlin Park or Lisbeg Lawn return times have to be read by accessing another timetable, which is bizarrely listed also as No.2. A different timetable exists for Sundays and Bank Holidays. A truly Kafkaesque timetable by any standards! In 2006 the GSBS stated; “Information relating to the Bus Éireann services in Galway is difficult to come by with limited information available on the internet, timetables with no mapping, limited, if any, information at bus stops and timetables that are difficult to locate and are of a poor quality.” ……………Plus ca change!
The City Direct service is simpler to understand but is greatly limited in scope and overall offers little in the way of an accessible, effective and comprehensive service. Route 34 (3 minute walk from my house) has again just 5 buses daily between 7am and 9am, and travels to the city-centre only. Just 28 buses run on this route daily Monday-Friday with a different timetable on Saturdays and a different one again for Sundays and Bank Holidays. Route 34 is about 8 minutes walk from my house and of the 9 buses that run on it daily only 2 run between 7am and 9am. This route has no weekend or Bank Holiday service at all. Routes 35 and 36 are not worth the time to write about. City Direct therefore have realistically, just 2 proper bus routes.
As a result I am not a regular bus user and prefer to drive, cycle or even walk into town. The weekend services of either operator, which are the ones I would like to use most often, are completely inadequate. Bus Eireann has a good Saturday timetable as it’s the same as weekdays, but the downside is their stop is over 15 minutes walk from my house. Why is Knocknacarra, the single largest suburb of Galway divided on a north-south basis for bus routing? Bus Eireann buses follow almost exactly the same route today that they did when CIE first offered a service to the area – in 1972, I think. This is down Kingston Road, along Shangort Road to Ballymoneen Road, then back to Kingston Road via either Knocknacarra Cross or Knocknacarra Road. It does not go up Clybaun Road because that area has been reserved for City Direct Buses. Currently, both operators service Shangort Road (the dividing line running east-west) and two different sections of the Ballymoneen Road. Why couldn’t Bus Eireann go up Clybaun Road to the intersection with the Western Distributor Road and along it back to Ballymoneen Road? City Direct Services could then also service the area to the south of Shangort Road using Bus Eireann stops. The current situation makes sense only from a purely, narrow organisational/management/commercially focused viewpoint, but not from a customer-focused perspective, something the GSBS recommends as a vital mindset shift.
So what does all of the above mean for the average commuter on the ground? If we had an integrated system, I could access bus routes on the internet or printed ones in-bus etc. that would show me ONE uncomplicated timetable with colour-coded route map, including all termini. Bus stops would be more easily accessible; they would be identical and have posted arrival times – on a shelter wall hopefully. All fares would be standardised. All buses could even be a standardised type or at the very least have identical livery – complete with company logos if required – and all staff could wear standardised uniforms. Both operators could continue to service different routes separately or alternatively could share routes. The crucial aspect is that they would both operate as part of the ONE overall route system. This route system should be designed and implemented with both bus operators and other stakeholders consulting, and should be overseen with regular improvements by a City Transport Board.
The recent extensions/improvements proposed by bus Eireann to their routes are welcome but are merely scratching the surface in providing Galway with a decent bus service. The exclusion of a circular service using the Quincentenary Bridge is a major mistake. If even the No. 5 Rahoon route, which goes within 250m of the bridge in Newcastle, could be re-routed to go across it 8-10 times a day instead of going through Eyre Square, it would provide a speedy cross-city service. If this route was extended back along the Western Distributor Road to the north-end of Knocknacarra, which is not served by Bus Eireann, this would be at least a little progress in a plan that provides almost none at all. The east-side of the city has interconnecting routes – Nos.2/9 and Nos.3/5 for example. On the west-side no such interconnection takes place between Nos.1, 2 and 5 – the only exception being the connection between Nos. 4/5. The fact that just one route runs along the €16m Seamus Quirke Road cum bus-lane, is a disgrace, but typical of transport planning in a country that has little in the way of any real or meaningful planning.
The fact that the only major recommendations in the GSBS involved changes to traffic management and the implementation of bus-priority measures, does not bode well for an improved bus service in the city. In fact the only changes since then have been to the layout and/or signalising of some junctions and the creation of a couple of QBC’s, and although in line with the recommendations, are too insignificant anyway. We need to get away from the notion that better traffic management and QBC provision is the answer to overall traffic reduction. QBC’s are fine in a city with good, modern road infrastructure, a thing that most Irish cities, including Galway, don’t have. QBC’s are the result of our complete failure to REDUCE traffic to a level per kilometre of roadway that doesn’t cause congestion, a level we have not seen since the 1980’s in Galway, when we didn’t need QBC’s. Simply creating a QBC does not automatically mean that congestion reduces, especially if bus frequency is not improved and car-poolers and motorcycles are not allowed to use it. It is surely more logical to implement concepts that reduce traffic levels, thereby freeing up the flow of traffic and hence the speed of ALL vehicles, especially in peak periods. Because the extension and improvement of bus services is so QBC orientated and therefore very dependent on them in Ireland, progress in this area is limited to creeping slowly forward as funding and planning processes allow for extra QBC’s.
The GSBS stated that the “hard barriers” (access, quality, frequency, reliability and speed) to improved service were more difficult to remove than the “soft barriers” of understanding the system, confidence in the system and negative perceptions about it. The authors stated: “The primary aim of this study is to identify the infrastructure and fleet required,” – in other words, the hard barriers. I would disagree that the soft barriers are actually distinguishable or even separate in such terms from the hard barriers, or indeed that they are more easily overcome. It seems to me that the utter lack of confidence, lack of knowledge/understanding and negative perceptions (including the class issue) people have about public transport in Galway will be as difficult to overcome as any of the hard barriers.
We also need a radical shift in thinking about how to manage all aspects of transport infrastructure in Ireland. Our approach is too laissez faire and lax to stimulate real, meaningful and practical change. Our elected local authority representatives have little in the way of executive control in our so-called democracy, compared with France for example. We need to adopt a more hands-on approach to dealing with the suppliers of public transport; we the people should be advising, implementing and controlling public transport systems in a more participatory and therefore more professional manner – one that at least ensures a degree of effectiveness and accountability. It was interesting almost to the point of comical, to recently read of Councillor Cameron’s complaints regarding his entreaties to the bus operators to come to City Hall and explain their obvious “lagging behind” in implementing plans already in place to improve services. His plaintive cry from the heart that “they come to the table with plans to be implemented in the short term”, tells you all you need to know about public transport planning and development in this country. HE, an elected public representative, is waiting for THEM to come to HIM with THEIR plans. I’m not blaming him, just the undemocratic and impotent system of local government in Ireland. As long as suppliers of public transport are the ones designing routes and deciding service levels, then we will get the sort of services we have always got; sub-standard, ineffective, inadequate, irrelevant, underused. How is it that a bridge over the Corrib, built in 1986, does not even today carry any local public transport vehicles? Wasn’t it built to help alleviate the volumes the other 3 bridges were carrying? People never realised it was to be reserved for private cars, vans and trucks. Where have the hordes of elected representatives local and national been on this issue all this time? The answer of course is that the decision to create bus routes, or not, involving this bridge was left entirely up to the bus operators. It wouldn’t surprise me if some elected officials were also dead set against using the bridge for this purpose in the first place!
3. Rural hinterland bus network: apart from the problems caused by school-generated traffic in Galway, the second biggest reason for congestion in the city is the large volume of traffic that flows INTO and OUT OF Galway to towns in the city’s hinterland every morning and evening. I have travelled to several European countries that exemplify modern transport systems that are NOT designed around cars/trucks – Switzerland is a good example. In any medium to large Swiss city, there exists a RURAL bus transport system that operates within a radius of 10km-50km outside of city limits depending on city size. This means that there is a cheap and accessible bus network at 20-30 minute intervals that connects with the various urban centres. In tandem with their excellent commuter rail network, Switzerland is a country in which you rarely see traffic gridlock – even in Geneva or Zurich. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel in Galway. If a bus network operated connecting places like Spiddal, Headford, Oughterard, Tuam, Loughrea, Athenry, Oranmore and Gort, at 20 minute intervals during peak hours, this would eliminate thousands of cars from our city roads every day. If it works in other countries, it will work here also. However, I am long enough living in this country, not to naively believe that this sort of futuristic concept will be adopted anytime soon, if at all.
4. Park-and-ride: To help alleviate the problems caused by traffic from outside the city referred to above, we need more than one park-and-ride in Galway than the one we get once a year at Ballybrit. We need possibly one on the Tuam Road at Casltegar, Headford Road at Ballinfoile, Clifden Road at Dangan and one in Knocknacarra. A good idea that has already been tried at Ballybrit racecourse park-and-ride facility is a free bus service for people using the facility. The concept of a free bus service for everyone regardless of whether you are a park-and-rider or not, should also be considered. I was in Perth, Australia in 1999 and they had a Central Area Transit bus service that was free! But this is funded by charges at the park-and-rides which ring the city, car tolling and the massive savings to business from the lack of down-town congestion. Galway City Council recently slashed prices in the 3 large city centre council-run car parks and the hourly street-rate in the city centre from January next. Under pressure from the Chamber of Commerce to promote more business in the city centre, the City Council has capitulated to commercial concerns. So we are actually regressing in 2012, not progressing. How can you pretend you have a policy to encourage the development of park-and-ride facilities if you are going to then encourage motorists into the city-centre? It’s has always been the same in Galway – the business sector and the profit motive determine transport policy and we better get used to it. Anything that deviates from this will not get their support.
5. Workplace car-pooling: I am not aware that any workplace car-pooling schemes exist, I have never heard of such a thing in Ireland, and I’m not alone in this view. They may exist somewhere, but how many people participate in them? How effective are they? Are they a realistic means of reducing the number of cars on the roads at peak times, given that most employers in this country allow their employees to park all day for free? Here is what the GSBS stated in 2006: “… there is a culture within many of the organisations such that they, or the IDA, may not be ready to introduce any measures to restrain car use by rationing or charging for parking, nor are they fully prepared to manage the process or the risks associated with it. Nevertheless, there is a growing sense that the amount of valuable land taken up with surface car parking could potentially be put to more profitable use. This awareness may, in time, bring about a change.”
This culture needs to change, rapidly. Again there are no recommendations in the report to effect such change, as this is precisely the sort of approach that a management consulting company hates to promote as they know too well that the business sector will resist it fiercely. If bye-laws were enacted to outlaw the provision of free parking for periods of more than 3 hours in all commercial premises within the city limits, and a workplace car-pooling scheme put in place, the result would be dramatic. A standard daily charge of €2 per car could then be implemented by the City Council and levied by employers. Employees could then be given a discount of 50% if they pooled with one other person and have no charge levied for pooling with 2 or 3 people. We don’t need to re-invent the wheel on this issue, as workplace car-pooling schemes exist all over the world.
6. Cycle lanes: If more people were able to walk and cycle safely in the city, then this too would reduce our dependence on cars. I own a bicycle, but yet, 10 years after completion of the Western Distributor Road, 18 years after completion of a dual-carriageway into the city centre and 25 years after the completion of the Quincentenary Bridge, I can’t cycle across town from say the Cappagh Road roundabout in Knocknacarra to say the Skerritt Roundabout at Renmore using cycle lanes. Those that do exist are poorly constructed or are dangerous to use because they exist for short distances only. The recently proposed removal of some of these is welcome, but this is to happen ONLY to a short stretch of road in Terryland! Again like improvements to the bus service, they are on a very limited scale and are not going to radically change access to city roads for cyclists.
The most obvious location for an east-west, cross-city cycle lane other than the current mish-mash of W.D.Road – Seamus Quirke Road – Quincentenary Bridge – Headford Road – Bóthar na dTreabh – Ballybane Road would be from the same point of origin as above; down Cappagh Road, through Knocknacarra Cross to Salthill, Grattan Road, Claddagh Quay, through Spanish Parade (along the quayside and through the Spanish Arch) to the Long Walk, Dock St., along the right-hand side of Dock Road, behind the Harbour Hotel and then onto Lough Atalia Road, through the park at the back of the Huntsman and along the right-hand side of the Dublin Road to Roscam.
On the Galway Tourism website, their map of the city shows no cycle lanes – why would it, they don’t really exist. Under the heading “Getting Around” on the website, there are two pages of listings for taxis, buses, planes, trains, ferries, limos, car rental etc. but nothing about bicycles. Under the heading “Things to do” there is a sub-heading for “Cycling” but the information given is for activity OUTSIDE the city, as in: “Galway has a great network of rural roads, where traffic is likely to consist of sheep and tractors rather than SUVs or buses. Bicycle hire is widely available and inexpensive. Guided cycling tours are also available.” It then goes on to talk about cycling locations in Cos. Mayo and Roscommon oddly enough! If you put “Cycling” into the website’s search bar you get 5 listings for places that again are OUTSIDE the city where you can cycle and see beautiful scenery etc. and one listing for a bike-rental shop in the city, but nothing at all about cycling IN the city. But again, why would you expect that? Most tourists don’t even want to drive on our admittedly substandard city streets and roads (although many have to) let alone CYCLE on them. That we are not a bicycle-friendly city is evident, and proof of that fact can be seen in the literature of the very agency which is responsible for promoting tourism in Galway.
Many people were amused to read of the recently proposed bike-sharing scheme for Galway. While of course this would be a welcome addition to the set of alternatives to using a car to get around, do the proposers really think it will be as successful as they obviously think it will, given our lack of any real cycle-lane infrastructure and because of the heavy traffic congestion, our not very cycle-friendly streets? If people who OWN bicycles are not using them to commute with, what makes anybody think that they or others, will sign up to a scheme to SHARE bicycles?
7. Pedestrianisation: this is a concept that really only arrived in Ireland in the late 1990’s, although Grafton St. in Dublin was pedestrianised in the late 1980’s. The concept is in its’ infancy here and Galway is no exception. Wikipedia lists countries with car-free city centres, or cities with a significant portion of the city designated as car-free, and of the 26 European countries listed, Ireland is not included. Even small, poorer, undeveloped countries like Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Croatia, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Serbia are listed. The concept that most suits a small European, medieval city (with a larger modern city and suburbs surrounding it) like Galway would surely be something similar that already exists here in Europe – like Bruges or York for example. There is again, no need to re-invent the wheel. An extended pedestrianised area can be implemented immediately and with almost no cost. You don’t need expensive cobbling/paving of the roads involved, just a series of bollards and street signs. This could include Williamsgate St, Eglinton St, Eyre St, Woodquay, St. Brendan’s Ave, St. Anthony’s Pl, St. Francis St, Mary St, Abbeygate St, Bowling Green, Market St, Lombard St, Cross St, Flood St, Middle St, and St. Augustine St.
But of course we are actually going backwards in Galway, with the recent and successful lobbying by the business sector for INCREASED traffic into the city-centre by reducing car-parking charges. The building of several large high-rise car parks in the city centre over the last 20 years is evidence of the medieval thinking that has been associated with transport policy here, and all because of the involvement of business interests. Business is important to life, but if we really want to improve transport quality in Galway, then a more enlightened approach is needed. I am not optimistic though.
8. City Council led promotion of REDUCING traffic and INCREASING walking/cycling/using public transport: Firstly, as even the briefest scan of articles/comments on this website shows, many people in Galway view the solution to easing congestion as simply better MANAGEMENT of our traffic through improving: junction layout, traffic light coordination/sequencing, road width, one-way traffic systems and CCTV monitoring. They would also agree with the construction of more roads including a by-pass in conjunction with the above innovations as being the main driver of change to congestion on our streets. It is this conceptual and blinkered mindset issue that you have to confront when making suggestions about how we REALLY need to change. Most European countries have tried all of the above but have completely abandoned the idea that these are the PRIMARY solutions. We need to argue that the link between increasing population and increasing car-use, is not NECESSARILY true. Our local politicians (particularly Fianna Fail and Fine Gael) and local business ‘leaders’ unfortunately perceive it this way – read Councillor Michael Crowe’s puerile ‘analysis’ in the Advertiser recently.
Secondly, regarding bus transport/walking/cycling: A Channel 4 series two years ago proved the point comprehensively that when people were encouraged to abandon their cars for journeys of less than 3 km, the result was dramatic in 3 different medium-sized English towns, where it was tried. There are hundreds of studies on this worldwide, we don’t need to do surveys. Why are we always trying to re-invent the wheel in Ireland? School bus services/cycle lanes are vital in most European countries in combating traffic congestion AND providing a safe and efficient means of getting students to and from school. We already know this stuff! It’s the perception that the reduction of car-use is not the FOREMOST consideration in easing traffic congestion that we are truly having a difficult time battling.
A traffic reduction strategy is what Galway needs, before any of the myriad changes to infrastructure and traffic management take place. A school bus system in tandem with an effective, integrated bus system and the provision of a network of cycle lanes should and could be quickly implemented. Ally these things with a work-place car pooling scheme, a ring of park-and-ride facilities and an expanded pedestrianised city-centre and you have a concept that will work in the short-term. Do these sorts of things and then the job of making the city more bus and cycle friendly will be a piece of cake. Medium-term measures, which bizarrely are the ones being undertaken currently, like coordinated/synchronised traffic lights, better junction layout, can play their part, but they will not alone provide a solution. Remember, easing congestion is not the objective even if it’s a step forward, as it does not necessarily mean the city becomes more pedestrian/cyclist/bus friendly. The ultimate objective is to make the city a more CAR-FREE place and thereby making the streets and roads more accessible to people who want to use alternatives to the motor car.
Short-term / medium impact actions:One-way systems, CCTV monitoring: Enough said on these already.
· Medium Term: high impact actions:
Coordinated traffic lights, better junction layout: Enough said on these already.
· Long Term / low impact actions:
The problem with a ring-road in Galway is that it won’t divert traffic from major destinations e.g Dublin,Cork, Limerick around the city and onwards. This is because traffic from these destinations already bypasses the city at Oranmore, e.g. Limerick to Sligo. All of the traffic therefore to be bypassed, is local. I agree ring roads have their uses, but they are not a panacea for reducing traffic volumes by 40-50%, even where the traffic being diverted is not local. Athlone is a good example, Galway isn’t. A lot of the congestion in Galway is in the centre, in the retail parks – traffic going into and not around the city.
PRO, United Left Alliance,
Jan. 17th 2012.