James Wickham, a former Professor of Sociology at Trinity, has dismissed the potential implementation of a free public transport system in Dublin until our current system is improved.
Wickham, author of “Gridlock: Dublin’s Transport Crisis and the Future of the City”, stated: “The big issue in Dublin is not to get people on to existing public transport, but to create a lot more public transport.”
The idea of free public transport has gained popularity recently for its potentially positive environmental and social impacts. The first free public transport network was set up in 1962 in Los Angeles. Today, there are 114 fare-free public transport systems, most of which are in Europe.
The creation of a free system of public transport depends largely on a city’s size, demographics, and existing network. Wojciech Keblowski, an expert on free public transport at the Free University Brussels, has stated that “the success or failure of a system depends highly on context”. He added that it is reliant on “the way it is done, the reasons why it is done. The absolute key thing is that there be strong political will behind it.”
Wickham emphasised his agreement with the idea and said that “if you want proper public transport in a city, a powerful political authority is an essential condition”.
Rather than being a system adopted for environmental impact, free public transport systems are usually put in place to enact positive social change. “Use among vulnerable groups – the unemployed, the elderly, and youths who do not have a middle-class income – increases dramatically when fares are abolished,” Keblowski says.
Wickham likens transport to a national health service, saying: “Transport is a public service. You have to subsidise it.”
Looking at how such a system might work in Dublin, Wickham notes that documents dating back 20 years “show all sorts of lovely lines on maps for metros and Luas extensions, virtually none of which has happened”.
Part of the problem with establishing this system is the lack of responsibility of the National Transport Authority in reporting to an elected body in Dublin. “Most big, successful cities have something that looks like a transport authority, whose experts answer to a mayor or an assembly,” Wickham points out.
Wickham believes that the effort should begin with “tying bits of the city together”, seeing as all the bus routes into the city are currently radial.
“You need some orbital routes, for example, a bus that went around the North Circular and down the South Circular, would be dead cheap. Make that one free. That would be absolutely brilliant.”
Priorities should lie with the city centre according to Wickham, where fare-free transport could be offered “between the canals…It would be largely used by tourists, and would prevent them clogging up at the Book of Kells and Dublin Castle.”
“Free public transport financed explicitly by a tourist tax on Airbnbs and hotels within the canals makes sense.”
Ireland is currently providing free public transport for citizens aged 67 and older, and for certain categories of welfare recipients.