Dublin Fire Brigade stuck in traffic on Capel St, Co Dublin Photo: Peter Murphy

Opinion: Driving towards progress, or driving communities apart?

5 July 2021

There is a noticeable stubbornness in Irish transport policy concerning the reduction of emissions – a reliance on electric cars to solve the problem surrounding Ireland’s second most polluting sector.

Already there exists incentives for purchasing electric cars, such as electric vehicle and charging point grants and very low motor tax for electric vehicles. Ultimately, the government’s plan is to disallow the purchase of new non- zero emissions small vehicles by 2030, another push for the general population to replace their petrol guzzlers with electric vehicles.

The proposed solution, then, is to fill congested rush-hour motorways, school entrances and shopping centre car parks with, well, more cars. Different cars, but still cars.

Ireland is reluctant to let go of its reigning car culture, and alternative forms of transport like cycling, walking and public transport tend to suffer for it.

There are plans within 2019’s Climate Action Plan to expand cycling and walkway networks in cosmopolitan areas, but it is difficult to envision a smooth transition considering the numerous issues that already exist concerning the mix of cyclists and motorists on Irish roads combined with the future projected growth of Ireland’s population of an additional million people by 2040.

Without vastly improved public transport, this growth will involve a huge increase of vehicles on already congested roads.

The problems surrounding car culture, commuting and cosmopolitan areas in Ireland are not a single-fix issue.

Jobs are largely condensed in city centre areas, particularly Dublin, and this leaves anyone outside of these job hubs left to make long commutes back and forth to work.

Areas that were once thriving communities become nothing but additional notches in the ‘commuter belt’, and rural communities starved of jobs suffer from youth emigration to city centre areas.

Public transport is an infamous issue in rural Ireland, where many suffer from travel, mobility and accessibility poverty and are therefore forced to own a car, not only to commute to work but to access day-to-day services. It is a combination of forced car culture and a concentration of work in city centre areas which leaves many rural communities isolated and without enough foot traffic to sustain thriving towns and villages.

Nothing has made this issue of inequality of access more obvious than the current COVID-19 pandemic and the implication of restricted movement and remote working and schooling solutions.

Spotty or non-existent broadband connectivity in rural areas has made home schooling incredibly difficult for children; there are myriad families and individuals who are further isolated by a five-kilometre limit on movement.

The spirit of a community’s collective ownership of their local area is often beneficial to the fight towards better and innovative climate-positive developments, but this cannot happen when communities are cut-off, empty and governance is hyper-centralised.

Efficient, expanded carbon neutral public transport links would not only be an improvement over roads and motorways backed up with car congestion, but they would also grant quality of life benefits to an often older and isolated cohort who live in rural areas.

The government’s reluctance to expand public transport links across the country is often blamed on poor planning by our predecessors in how homes and villages were built, and the low population density of these areas.

But surely this is one large investment that would not only benefit Ireland’s current generation, but the generations to come after – and good climate infrastructure is about tending to the needs and livelihoods of present and future generations.

Good public transport links would bring opportunities to create jobs in rural areas and better housing conditions than those found in Dublin’s precarious, expensive and underregulated private rental market; and populations coming together in formerly deserted areas allows new community cohesion between older and younger members of Ireland’s population.

Community bonds ensure people are not isolated, but looked out for and looked after; they allow people to come together, put down roots and think about what is best for the future of their communities.

Greener, self-sufficient communities are an important part of the ideal version of creating a climate-positive future all over the world. That cohesion will not happen if parts of Ireland remain cut-off and isolated from the rest.

Electric vehicles are indeed an important part of a less carbon-intensive future for Ireland. But they cannot be the sole crutch that the government leans on to improve the transport sector’s emissions, and they should not be allowed to excuse a lack of investment in good public transport links – and, ultimately, better links between rural and urban Ireland, its communities and its people.

Vanessa Conroy is a Masters in Social Sciences (Rights and Policy) candidate in Maynooth University. She is currently engaged in a gender focused examination of Irish environmental policy. Her interests include mental health, radical education, fat studies and rural policy.

This article was written as part of the 2020/21 undergraduate elective course Environment, Sustainability and Social Justice taught by Sinéad Mercier at the Department of Applied Social Studies, Maynooth University.