Drive or Ride?


Ciarán Fisher examines the push and pull factors of public transport for students in light of suggested parking fees at UCD.

To use public transport or not? That is the question facing more and more UCD students as traffic worsens and costs soar. It was recently revealed that the increase in students driving to lectures has lead the university to consider introducing parking fees.

Driving to Belfield is coming under attack, particularly given our location on the well serviced N11. These potential charges would be aimed at freeing up spaces for those who work in, or commute long distances to, the university. However fees might well have a minimal impact.

Ireland has become, quite literally, a car driven nation. Seven out of ten employees in Ireland are dependent on cars for transport. It seems students take their cue from the professional world as more and more students are driving than ever before. This is in spite of growing costs and criticism of energy inefficiency facing drivers.

With rising petrol prices and the current economic climate, students’ attitudes might change. In most cases public transport is cheaper than taking the car near the university. But is it really worth the financial savings? So far many students have voted with their wheels.

Lots of students continue to drive to college and snub the buses that creep along the roadways. The recent explosion of oil prices showed us that money might not be an effective deterrent. Even when the forecourts displayed prices well above the euro mark, students and other drivers alike still turned up religiously for their dosages.

In this respect it seems hard to push drivers out of their comfort zone with costs. Many drivers would rather absorb the price of petrol or charges to have their own flexibility.

To regular public commuters, it seems mad that some people would rather pay more for the hassle of edging their car through traffic. One bus company that provides a service between Dublin and the large towns of Dundalk and Drogheda boasts impressive student savings. Savings upward of €500 annually are quoted, taking car taxation and insurance into account.

But there is more to it than practicality and costs. The car is also a symbol of wealth and freedom. How many Jeeps and SUVs turn up to a local school with a lone parent to pick up a lone child? People gladly pay more for brand name clothing than discount ranges and the same with transport. People will absorb pay parking and tolls to turn up to university in their own car as opposed to the old reliable Dennis Trident DT5.

“Stuff like this isn’t just driving us mad; it’s driving us to drive!”

One way to get more people to use public transport would be to improve its image. A report carried out on Dublin’s transport sector for the taxi regulator noted that ‘the traffic congestion is caused by poor public transport and sometimes by an inadequate infrastructure. With rising affluence, citizens will only use a public transport network if it is significantly more efficient and convenient than car travel.’

On the one hand there is a problem with the ad hoc planning that evolved during our explosion of road laying and car purchases in the last decade. On the other hand we see that investment in the transport sector is required to lure people onto buses. This would involve large investment on the Government’s behalf, but it could well prove worthwhile.

Economists could tell you that buses use up five times less energy than cars. The domino effect of students and the general public switching from private to public here would be a huge bonus for our economy as this would help slash our oil imports for transport. Ireland is a heavily oil dependant country and this would lessen the burden in an era of vacillating prices and fears that global oil reserves have been depleted.

However it is easy to question commitment to producing a world class transport service in light of Dublin Bus’ recent price hikes and cuts. The company says this is ‘to match existing levels of customer demand’. But it seems somewhat ironic that government bodies are asking citizens to use public transport while at the same time they make the service less attractive.

Despite the CIÉ website claims that we are in the midst of a ‘renaissance of our railways’ (yes they actually say that), rail too has seen staff let go and prices increase. New laws now require pay parking at train stations equating to about €8 a week. Stuff like this isn’t just driving us mad; it’s driving us to drive!

There are more economical ways to travel without sacrificing the car. Car pooling is practised by some people who live and work near to one another. The danger of this is that you have little control over the punctuality of others. There could be a clash of personalities with your car-poolers if say, you smoked and they didn’t, and if the driver is sick or has to attend an unexpected meeting the rest of the poolers are left stranded.

‘Drive and Ride’ involves driving your car to a designated parking location at the edge of town and then riding a bus into the traditionally congested city centre. This requires drivers overcoming their fear of public transport. The danger is that like at train stations they would be punished with parking fees.

Environmental awareness is growing but it seems to have a limited effect. The knowledge that buses are more efficient and less pollutant than cars has been in circulation for quite some time but with little sympathy. As Ireland struggles to keep up with Kyoto Protocol limits it might become likely that students could see a heavy financial backlash.

As we remain loyal to cars it looks increasingly likely that more extreme measures could well be taken to run us off the roads. The proposed pay parking scheme at UCD would be only a small step in that direction but significant improvements need to be made to infrastructure if it is to be a step in the right direction.