Public transport in rural areas
The lack of reliable public transport in rural areas means that rural households are more reliant on their car to access basic services and commute to and from work and school. This reliance is contributing to our carbon footprint, with transport being one of the three main contributing industries. Whilst transport emissions were reduced in 2020 by 15.7 per cent, passenger cars were responsible for 59 per cent of that. Government expenditure on public transport as a percentage of total land transport expenditure has fluctuated since 2002, reaching a low of 30 per cent in 2006. Notwithstanding commitments made to increase active travel and green transport, in 2020, less than half of Government expenditure on land transport was for public and sustainable transport (45 per cent).
A recent study found that access to public transport is a significant challenge in rural areas, with forty-seven percent of respondents not having access to public transport including local link (Irish Rural Link and Social Justice Ireland, forthcoming).
Infrastructure must be in place to support thinly populated areas to grow and thrive, while those living in Dublin and surrounding areas, with access to an extensive public transport network, should be encouraged and incentivised to use it. We must look at measures implemented due to Covid-19, particularly in relation to walking tracks and cycling lanes, and work towards making these a more permanent transport feature.
Public transport was also included in the Government’s response to the increases in the cost of living, published in February 2022. An average reduction in public transport fares of 20 per cent came into effect in April, as well as a cap on the school transport scheme with a reduction to €500 per family at post primary level and €150 per family at primary level. While reduced public transport fees are welcome, they assume that people have access to public transport. Due to the lack of public transport in rural Ireland, and the subsequent need to have access to a private car, not everyone will see an immediate reduction in their transport costs.
The Climate Action Plan sets a goal of 945,000 electric and low-emitting vehicles on Irish roads by 2030, along with the phasing out of selling petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 as part of the Climate Action Bill (2019). This will require substantial investment in the charging infrastructure and in our national grid. Electric vehicles are expensive, despite current incentives and will be competing with the cost of retrofitting for many households. While they will make a major contribution to reducing emissions from transport, investing to ensure our public transport fleet is compatible with our climate targets and is expanded should be the immediate investment priority as this is where some of the largest gains in terms of reduced emissions can be made. While this transition is required to reduce Ireland’s GHG emissions, there are knock on quality of life and socio-economic justice benefits to a transition to green transport.
The shift to green modes of transport not only benefits emissions levels and eases long-term costs of transport, but also benefits public health and quality of life for all. In a 2011 report, the World Health Organisation found that one in three people in Europe are annoyed by traffic noise pollution during daytime hours. In 2017, road traffic noise was “by far the most influential contributor to noise-induced harmful effects on the Irish population”. Transitioning to green transport must be supported by government for those in both rural and urban areas, and must reach all income brackets, not only those able to afford costly electric vehicles up front. This requires investment in public transport networks across the country (both inter and intra-city) and schemes which support the purchase of private vehicles which reduce emissions.