Next stop: make up our mind time

In the last post Paddy Morris noted that we need a vision and implementation strategy along the lines of the Marshall Plan to shield us from the worst of the energy and climate crises.

He’s right. Avoiding oil consumption and carbon dioxide emissions would then guide our investments. Paddy’s post, and John’s before it, sent me looking through my notes on the biggest single transport investment proposal ever put forward in Ireland – Metro North.

Does energy or climate get a look in?

An Bord Pleanala is due to give its decision towards the end of the July. The planning appeals board held almost 40 days of hearings into Metro North earlier this year and in late 2009.

I looked up submissions made by members of my own organisation, the Irish Environmental Network. James Leahy, a chartered engineer with a masters in sustainable development, and Matthew Harley, an engineer with a master in economic analysis, made joint submissions on behalf of An Taisce and the Dublin City Business Association.

No cost benefit analysis was done on the proposed 18 km Metro from St Stephen’s Green to Belinstown, north of Swords. Some analysis was done of a much shorter 10km route from Dublin City Centre to Dublin Airport, and Harley relies on this as a proxy, even though the downturn has resulted in a sharp drop in the outlook for patronage.

Harley notes that endorsing projects on the basis of a ‘jobs, jobs, jobs mantra’ would lead to “justifying digging holes and filling them in again”, which “is not good public policy”. Harley draws attention to the finding by Dr Edgar Morgenrath of the ESRI that the cost of creating construction jobs in Ireland is four times larger than the cost of IDA-created jobs.

Leahy examined the Luas experience, and citing the 2006 Millward Brown study, notes that “no overall modal shift has been achieved from cars”. Some 47 per cent of people on the Luas corridor travelled by car in 2004, a figure that remained the same two years after Luas services began. While the tram line did obtain a 12 per cent share of journeys, two thirds of passengers (8 per cent of the 12 per cent) came from a decrease in bus use, while the balance took the tram and stopped walking. Overall, bus patronage in the corridor fell from 21 per cent to 13 per cent and walking fell from 22 per cent to 18 per cent.

Dissatisfaction in areas not served by the tram highlights the inequity of concentrating investment in one area, according to Leahy. But he said the construction of Luas did have some value: “it has undoubtedly achieved the change in public perception of what public transport can offer, which was one of its original objectives”. With the bar duly raised by Luas, Leahy now sees it as a question of how an integrated, high-quality public transport network can be delivered across our cities.

Constructing Metro North means “bus services would be re-arranged” according to the RPA. But, as Leahy points out, the question of who pays to re-arrange bus services isn’t answered. Such re-organised bus services might do more harm than good for the customer. “Will somebody who has a direct bus service from near his or her house that enters the city on a QBC … want to transfer into the Metro?” Leahy asks. Will buses in the area be re-configured to run east-west to feed into the metro, with direct buses to the city centre withdrawn?

It’s a similar situation regarding the tens of thousands of passengers who board buses along Dublin’s O’Connell St or along the Quays. “The majority of bus routes go over O’Connell Bridge or along the Quays” and, according to Leahy, no plan has published to show how bus passengers will be served if Metro North goes ahead, causing wide-scale disruption to the city centre due to excavation.

Leahy draws attention to the fact that as many bus passengers (10,000) were dropped by the axing of 100 buses from the Dublin Bus fleet in February 2009 as are expected to be served by Metro North upon its opening.

This presages Harley and Leahy’s work on the most glaring flaw in the Metro north proposals – the failure to properly analyse alternatives.

As Leahy observes “no bus option was considered … on the inaccurate and unjustified claim that a bus route has only a capacity of 2,000 passengers per direction per hour”. Indeed the RPA doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of Bus Rapid Transit, a modern bus system with dedicated reservations for buses, using tram-style stations where the time of the next bus is displayed.

BRT has a capacity ten to twenty times the RPA estimate, notes Harley, and he maps out an option that hasn’t been considered or assessed by the RPA – an omission which is attributable to the fact that the rail agency grossly underestimates the capacity of bus in the first place.

The rail tunnel proposed in Metro North is to link Swords and, to a lesser extent, Dublin Airport (which accounts 20% of demand) to Dublin City Centre. But, as Harley observes, “we have a tunnel already: the Dublin Port Tunnel, which already serves Dublin Airport and Swords via the M1 and is underused”. And there is “good reason to believe that [the port tunnel’s capacity] will continue to be significantly underused”. Harley argues that it makes sense now to maximise this investment given its cost of just over three-quarters of a billion (€751m).

The construction cost of Bus Rapid Transit between Swords and the city centre using Dublin port tunnel is less than €200m, according to Harley’s calculations, or about one twenty-fifth of the €4.9bn estimate for Metro North.

With three-quarters of travel demand along the entire corridor stemming from the city centre, Swords and Dublin Airport, BRT may even be a more attractive option for the travelling public: “from O’Connell Bridge to the mouth of the Port Tunnel, along the North Quays, is 3km. From the tunnel month to the Malahide Roundabout at Swords is 13km. Therefore, O’Connell Bridge to Swords, via the Port Tunnel is 16km”. This compares to a 14km metro between the same points. With no stops between the Port Tunnel entrance and Dublin Airport, and with a journey time of 5 minutes within the tunnel, “the BRT option might even better the Metro” in terms of travel time.

What about the intermediate stops which would be served by the proposed metro but not by the BRT? “The massive extra investment needed to build a metro” – running to €4bn to 6bn – could not be justified by these stops, Harley contends.

Instead, both Harley and Leahy recommend a radical enhancement of the bus system to serve the Drumcondra – Ballymum corridor, and indeed the wider city. And this is the central point really: for the money involved the entire city could be equipped with a European style BRT system, similar to that in the French cities of Nantes and Rouen.

It is this city-wide approach, and not the construction of one rail line, which will gain a higher share for public transport across cities as a whole.

Even if the planning appeals board finds in favour of the project the Department of Finance, along with other government departments, still have a decision to make. Leahy draws attention to the 2007 guidelines published by the Department of Transport, which state:

“There is a need to define options in such a way that decision-makers are faced with realistic decisions. For example, in appraising strategies to combat urban congestion, it is necessary to include some options that broadly achieve the same impact on congestion. This is to avoid the situation where a simple choice between a low level option that does not really address the problem, and a grandiose or gold-plated option.”

As Harley points out, once disruption costs are added in – which come to €230m a year – even the Railway Procurement Agency’s own analysis (for a 10km proposal) shows that the project does not make economic sense. For the benefits of a project to outweigh its costs, the cost-to-benefit ratio needs to remain above 1: however, with disruption costs added into the equation, this all-important ratio drops to 0.93.

In short, therefore, the project does not even make sense under conventional cost-benefit analysis. Factor in oil peak and emissions, with the failure of the project to help enough people move away from cars for the money involved, and the light must turn red.

There are solutions – city-wide BRT networks being a case in point; a €6bn metro isn’t among them.

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4 Responses to Next stop: make up our mind time

  1. James,

    An interesting article, which poses some hard questions, which I don’t think the RPA pay enough attention to. However, I also think we need to understand that the bus companies are the dominant transport provider in the city, who stand to loose business from a Metro proposal.

    I have no interest with the RPA or the Metro proposal, and I do think QBCs have been effective around the city, but I do not understand why the Dublin City Business Association (who sponsored the excellent report by Dublin Civic Trust – ‘Defining Dublin’s Historic Core) would oppose the project.

    I’m generally not convinced by economic comparisons of QBC to light-rail. It never seems to done on a like for like basis.

    For instance the bus economists never include the cost of handing over 2 lanes of road to buses to the exclusion of all other forms of transport. Dublin Bus never purchase this land from the road agency, yet it does have economic cost on the use of the road and that investment. Is this not a permanent disruption cost by the economist’s measure?

    What is the cost of using Dublin City Centre as a bus terminus? Dublin Bus park their buses on city streets all day long (equivalent cost of meterparking?) with a negative effect on serveral streets, and business that fall under the shadow of bus. You cant see a shopfront, if you’ve got a bus parked outside it all day. If buses can be taken out of the city centre, to be replaced with an electrically powered train that runs underground surely this is a positive measure?

    If we do factor in peak oil and emissions, would the train not come out on top being electric compared to petrol/diesel engines used in all other forms? I also wonder did Harely et al take into account the economic benefit ofrail (for Ballymun/Drumcondra), that buses don’t bring?

    A city dominated by buses feels an awful lot like a city dominated by cars. (i.e. urban congestion). Sometimes you have to spend more to get better transport, and a better city.

  2. James Nix says:

    Richard, you’ve a point about valuing roadspace. Trouble is we don’t charge cars, commercial vehicles, LRT, and in the Netherslands, where cyclists have effectively taken over many streets – see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-AbPav5E5M – they don’t charge for bikes either.

    I guess we are basically saying “look, it’s good we can take 90+ people in a vehicle that only takes up the space of 3 cars, and it’s also a social service”.

    Incremental improvements are underway at Dublin Bus. But the number of real time display screens Dublin will obtain is currently set at around 400, which is tiny in the context of 5,000 stops across the city. The money that would be needed to make real improvements to the services people use every day isn’t there – or is being spent elsewhere.

    The bus gate has made massive improvements to journey times (poorly documented) and it has also increased through running, meaning fewer buses have to clog up Marlborough St, Parnell Sq.

    You need a quantum increase in cross city services to cut out ‘shopfront-blocking’; the bus network review aims to bring us part of the way there but to really deliver you need to look at selected local interventions. By this i mean a tunnel under Trinity College, and later Christchurch – accepting that these are not simple projects.

    That’s the saddest aspect of the current transport step up. Bus carries 10 – 12 passengers every day in Dublin for every 1 – 2 on Luas / heavy rail. It’s the workhorse. But then we almost ignore the workhorse, and cast about for novelty, or something different, at the expense of enhancing what we have.

    I argue we should think to ourselves: this system is our backbone. The age of the belching bus has been replaced by hyper-efficient diesel hybrids – see http://www.wrightbus.com/site/default.asp?CATID=33 – now what is the best means to arrive at a quality transport network across the city given limited resources?

    – Shorthand summary on pollution / energy use of trams and buses. Trams using electricity result in less local pollution but then if the power is generated at e.g. Moneypoint, overall emissions are higher, and this is made worse by transmission losses etc. Hybrid electric buses can achieve no local pollution in given urban areas (by ensuring electric drive is operational there).

  3. Some good points, but 2 I would make.

    Value of developments such as Metro north are hard to quantify. I was born and bred in Swords, and even though I haven’t lived there since 1999 I am flabbergasted at how little the public transport services have evolved since the 1980s, despite significant investment in and improvement to, roads around the town. In fact I would argue that Metro does not go far enough, and ending at Lissenhall may be a mistake. The original northern line of the London tube extended from day one to Golders Green, which was green space. While it may seem unfortunate to have lost the green space resource, development followed the transportation, rather than the other way around, which is what we have in Ireland. The infrastructure in Swords has had only minute improvements since about 1987, despite the population more than doubling and significant job and retail clusters surrounding the area. That said – I would hope they do not do what was done with the Little Island/Eastgate area in East Cork and situate all development in a wasteland 30-45 minutes walk from all transportation and thus rendering it unsuitable for commuting.

    The bus service in Swords is shocking. Located only 8 miles from the city centre, it is possible on a quiet weekend morning, to drive to the city in as little as 20 minutes. However, unless you use the private Airport Express – which is not a public service and would not exist without private initiative and the quiet deperation of communters in this region – most buses take 40-60 minutes to make the same trip. Fares have escalated with little real service improvements and waiting times between buses can be significant – 20 minutes seems common – so your trip becomes 1 hour 20 minutes plus the walk to and from wherever you happen to have come from and are going.

    What is desireable is that many of the stops planned for the Metro do cover many high density areas. Indeed, I suspect the capacity may be insufficient as it will largely replace services currently running to the airport. (This was previously a major issue on that route before 16- services were extended in that direction). Buses takes up considerable road space, and unfortunately for most users, use the most inefficient routes – indeed – the 1987 route!

    What may not be immediately notable is the impact Luas had on the Heuston to city routes. Prior to its introduction there was an entire lack of coherence between incoming train times and bus times – for example, the last train from Cork used to arrive 10 minutes after the last bus to town left – leaving users with no transportation to the city whatsoever. No wonder it was always a quiet train. Luas solved this problem- not intentionally I suspect – but by accident. Its also considerably faster than the miserable 90 bus although it hasn’t dislodged airport bound routes (with good reason).

    We should have learned about the impact of building from the Luas experience – was there ever a “lessons learned” report or impact assessment on other road users or businesses? I recall considerable annoyance, but little substantial study.

    The second point is car usage in that region. There is a severe issue, not unique to Swords area, that much employment now is either across the city, difficult to access by existing transport (Eastpoint comes to mind) or on the M50 corridoor. I do think this is an issue nobody has tried to solve. Indeed, the original reason I learned to drive was spending a year trying to “commute” from Swords to Ranelagh – which took up to 2 hours each way. The difficulties of coordination on bus routes is something that Dublin Bus has never made any real effort to resolve – indeed “joined up” routes have either vanished or are so inefficient that they are unfeasible for day-to-day commuting. Swords is also outside the realistic cycling zone for the city (except for a hardy few).

    In that sense, I would welcome Metro as better than the truly appalling service that Dublin Bus have thrown at commuters on that route for years. Having watched this charade since about 1985 I don’t feel that Dublin Bus are in any way commited to real improvements on this route beyond tinkering with QBCs. There has been limited attempts to use better roads for example (only express routes use them). As for the tunnel – its simply economically unfeasible for most commuters at the current toll rates, plus consider that even if it were free, users would have to pay a secondary toll at the old toll bridge. This needs better consideration if Metro isn’t going to be an option.

  4. Good points James and Laura.

    I just don’t see this as an ‘either or’ argument. Citys are getting denser, and city centre businesses and users are placing greater demands on a limited amount of space. Everybody is after that precious space whether it be for a bus lane, cycle lanes or a wider pavement. We’ve made huge strides forward taking out the HGVs, and making space for buses, but it is finite. Something has to go underground. The cheapest option is that people should go underground (underpasses) but this has now largely been rejected. So its down to cars, buses or trains.

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