In September it was announced by the Taoiseach that a 14km stretch of the M7 motorway at Naas in County Kildare will be expanded from two lanes to three in each direction at a cost of €120 million. Such announcements are typically described at “easing congestion” and reactions generally include phrases like “at last” and “badly needed.” However experience shows that this sort of project seldom leads to any improvement in the long run and usually makes traffic conditions worse.
The M50 orbital motorway surrounding Dublin was supposed to alleviate congestion, yet it has been described as “Dublin’s biggest car park” since drivers now creep along in first or second gear. Daily traffic at the M50 toll booth has risen from 109,434 vehicles in 2009 to 142,496 according to Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) and the National Transport Authority (NTA).
This is not surprising to anyone familiar with the concept of what economists call “induced demand.” When a good is provided free or very cheap at the point of use, it becomes almost impossible to keep up with demand for it. In the case of roads, induced traffic is the phenomenon of newly widened highways into a city filling to capacity in a short period of time and ending up just as congested as ever with cars plodding along at walking pace. Even if conditions are temporarily improved, people living in the city have an incentive to take advantage of lower property prices in outlying areas. An expensive home in the city is exchanged for a cheaper home in the suburbs with a slightly longer commute. However as more people do the same thing and move to the same area, the roads into the city fill up and what was once a quick commute becomes a grueling grind.
In the United States, unbelievably, authorities persevere with making roads ever wider in an attempt to keep up with demand, resulting in freeways over ten lanes wide, vast monstrosities that still seem to remain clogged with nearly stationary vehicles at commute times.
So if the solution to traffic problems is not to make roads wider, what is? Some would argue that well funded public transport can get more people into town more efficiently, and there is some merit to this. Even if a bus were only 25 percent occupied it would still be more utilized than the average car that has four empty seats in tow and takes up far more road space per occupant. Trains offer even more efficiency, speed, and comfort without swallowing up vast quantities of land and splitting communities with a constant stream of noisy traffic like a motorway does.
However as any fans of Douglas Adams will know, getting the right answer is pointless if you do not ask the right question. Instead of asking how we can more efficiently move everyone from A to B, we should be asking why so many people are trying to get from A to B in the first place and asking if we can shorten the physical distance between the two.
Ireland’s problem is too much economic activity concentrated in Dublin where there is a shortage of housing. Dublin is not the only city in the world to suffer from a jobs/housing imbalance, and a look at the bigger picture makes it clear that the solution has to be a bigger discussion about land use and regional development, not just looking at transport in isolation.
To give credit where due, the government has sought to attack some aspects of the problem. There is a proposal to raise height limits in the construction of new residential buildings in cities. This is essential if Ireland is to become competitive as a place to live and work with a decent quality of life, so it would behoove the government to follow through on this promise. The only alternative to building upwards is to build outwards, and every floor added to a planned building at the urban core is one less patch of green grass paved over on the edge of town.
Every separation of land use is guaranteed to cause more people to drive. Retail “parks” and office “parks” that are only accessible by car should be banned in favor of traditional city streets. Allowing mixed uses such as corner stores in housing areas and commercial and residential development on the same street can eliminate car journeys now that people have the chance to live within walking distance of more destinations. Higher density housing can be quite comfortable if more of citizens’ daily needs are within walking distance. Nor should urban loft apartments be seen as a threat to anyone’s way of life or be seen as a repeat of the failed inner city housing projects of the 1960s. Raising a family in the suburbs is fine, but students and young single professionals would much prefer to live in a compact walkable neighborhood where there is plenty of nightlife and entertainment options close to hand. For younger people who have not yet settled down to start families, what is available outside the home is more important than what families consider important.
Higher density living in town also makes it easier to provide economical public transport options since buses, trains and trams have more people living and working within walking distance of their boarding points. For those who do want to live in suburbs, sensible decisions can also be made on good principles of urban planning so that driving a car does not become the default option. Cul de sacs can be fine as long as they allow pedestrians and cyclists to take shortcuts through roads that would be a dead end to car drivers, which in many cases can make the bike a quicker means of getting to certain destinations than the automobile.
Every ounce of power given to the NIMBY lobby is a threat to future economic growth, evidenced by the farcical situation of a major Apple datacenter development in Athenry being held up by one person who is able to mount a legal challenge in the courts despite overwhelming support for the project among locals. The same person is also objecting to a $1 billion Amazon data center campus in Dublin. That projects like these can be delayed for years by two men and a dog is an indictment of a legal system that gives too much power to curmudgeons. Housing developments often face similar blockages despite the state being in the midst of a housing shortage and homelessness crisis.
Above all, Ireland needs to embrace urban living and come to understand that the benefits of living in a city cannot be fully realized by trying to accommodate cars at the expense of people. Cities are for living in, not driving through. The sooner the government learns this, the better.