Commuters shun public transport in favour of their cars

Plans to coax commuters out of their cars are being hampered by Covid as tens of thousands shun public transport for their daily travel.

Road traffic is almost back to pre-pandemic levels while passenger numbers on bus, rail and trams are at half their previous volume on some services.

That’s the opposite to the trend needed if transport emissions are to fall and climate action targets are to be achieved.

Transport operators are reassuring the public that they are continuing with enhanced cleaning and implementing mask-wearing policies.

But they believe many people remain nervous about sharing confined spaces and where they have access to a car, are opting to use it instead.

Dr Brian Caulfield, a lecturer in sustainable transport at Trinity College Dublin said the pattern worldwide was that car traffic recovered first but, if the trend continued, incentives such as free travel days should be used to encourage people back on public transport.

“If we see the same trend after Christmas when we are all back to normal or as close to normal as we expect, that’s something we will have to consider,” he said.

“There is an argument that, maybe in January, a couple of days free on public transport to entice people back would be a good idea.”

Rail services have seen some of the biggest fall-off in passenger numbers, despite the reopening of college campuses last month and the lifting of almost all remaining pandemic restrictions last week.

Irish Rail said overall numbers were back to 60pc of pre-Covid levels but on the Dart and commuter services, the figure is just 50pc.

Intercity services are faring better with numbers back up to 70-75pc.

“It’s growing gradually,” said spokesman Barry Kenny. “There was no big bang after restrictions eased and suddenly everyone was back, but the trend is of a gradual return.”

Dervla Brophy, spokeswoman for Luas, said passenger numbers at morning peak times were about 70pc of pre-Covid levels.

“Off-peak is steady so numbers are healthy,” she said.

Dublin Bus said it was carrying 73.5pc of pre-Covid numbers, but that rose to 84pc at weekends.

Bus Eireann’s town and city services have about 70pc of their previous passenger numbers, while the intercity services were at around the same level collectively with greater variation depending on the route.

Road traffic meanwhile is almost back to full pre-Covid levels. Diesel sales have only been lower by just 1pc-3pc in recent months compared to the same period in 2019 and were higher in June this year than in the same month in 2019.

Daily traffic counts at 15 set points on motorways and national routes last week showed on average a 9pc decrease since the same period in 2019 but observations on short journey traffic indicate volumes are very high.

Dublin City Council’s traffic centre will be conducting their annual canal cordon count in the coming weeks which is expected to provide clarity on trends.

Traffic officer Damien Cooney said at certain periods, there was no doubt that traffic was back to normal but he added there was also a marked increase in cyclists and he anticipated a surge in people using e-scooters once draft laws published last week regulating their use were finalised.

Dr Caulfield said the increase in both pedestrians and cyclists was notable but if car traffic was close to normal, they had probably swapped from public transport.

“The question is, if we get a bad winter, will they go back to public transport or start using cars and how do we ensure they choose the former?”

The National Transport Authority did not comment but it is banking on service improvements through the BusConnects projects to boost medium to long-term passenger numbers.

The Department of Transport did not comment either but it recently briefed TDs and Senators on the drafting of a new sustainable mobility policy which will aim to get people to switch from cars to public transport, walking and cycling.

It also announced a new scheme in the Budget which will allow under-24s half price travel on all public transport, from a date to be confirmed next year.

The idea was welcomed as encouraging young people to get into the public transport habit but criticised for focusing on those who were not currently using cars in any significant numbers.

The Oireachtas Transport Committee issued a report during the summer with almost 50 recommendations for coaxing people out of their cars after overseas experts testified that Ireland’s reliance on cars was far in excess of the majority of our EU neighbours.

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