This Broadsheet column first appeared online here on October 1st 2019. Myoriginal title for the piece was: ‘Little things make a lot more than their sum’, but their one works better as the piece is a critique of the poor state of public transport in Dublin.
Dublin’s infrastructure is straining to cope with the city’s growth… so strained that it perhaps the biggest obstacle to the city’s continued growth, but the policy makers seem oblivious to this fact – public transport is just example of that infrastruture stretched beyond breakingpoint.
Benny Hill observed: you can sit on top of a mountain, but you can’t sit on top of a pin. Classical Roman poet, Ovid, put it a little more philosophically, remarking that: “dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence”, but it was the late Albert Reynolds who put it best, saying: it’s the little things that trip you up.
You know the type of thing, the everyday irritants that eventually get to you and send you over edge. For me, last week, it was the total mess that is Dublin’s public transport.
Bad enough that the fares are prohibitive – Deutsche Bank’s 2019 annual survey of global prices and living standards declared Dublin the second most expensive city for public transport in the world – but does it have to be so unreliable too?
With only London having higher fares, Dublin is now more expensive than Amsterdam, Chicago, New York, or even Tokyo, ask a Fine Gael Senator if you doubt that last one.
We have managed to fashion a public transport system with higher fares than Tokyo’s and reliability levels not much above Manila’s.
This was brought home to me with a trio of bus fiascos.
The first came on Monday afternoon via a short bus trip to Blackrock. I live along the Stillorgan Road (N11) bus corridor, reckoned to be one of the best served routes. The bus to Blackrock is the #17, now operated by Go Ahead Ireland. The journey there was unremarkable, the problem came with the journey back.
After doing my various errands I was ready to head home around 3:30pm. I checked the TfI (Transport for Ireland) App and saw that the next #17 was due in 3 mins. Great, I thought, and I headed to the Frascati shopping centre bus-stop and waited.
And I waited. And I waited. I tweeted the details a few days later. Long story short: a 1 minute wait on the App, turned into a 16 minute wait in real time. Across that waiting time the App showed the #17 on a serial loop of: “1 minute away”, “due”, “1 minute away”, disappeared, reappeared and back to 1 min away.
What is the point of having a real time display, apart from giving Scottish stand–up Larry Dean a very funny routine, if it is only going to have an Einstein’s relativity connectiveness to real time?
Incident two was more old school: the old stealth bus ploy. This is where the bus exists on the App and the display-board, just not in this dimension.
It was on Friday. I was meeting a colleague in town at 2.30pm and headed to catch a bus around 1.30pm. I got to the stop and saw that a 46A was due in 5 mins. “Grand”, I thought and waited while I watched the arrival time on the display count backwards from 5 to 4 to 3 to 2 to 1 minutes. The fact that this process took just over 10 minutes is not part of my complaint, just an interesting aside.
The display eventually showed the 46A as “due” or “ann”. I headed to the kerb to greet it. Anyone familiar with this stretch of the N11 will know that it is relatively straight, so you can see the bus coming from a good distance back. You can even see the preceding stop. I could also see that there was no 46A there.
I reasonably assumed if it was due at our stop it must be due there too – assuming there is no break in the space-time continuum between stops number 2068 and 2096.
But there was no sign of it. After a few minutes the announcement of its imminent arrival disappeared from the App and the time-display. A minute later two “out of services” buses passed.
According to the Dublin Bus timetable, the 46A runs every 8 minutes during the day. I was now at the stop for 18 minutes, so I rang the Dublin Bus helpline. They told me that the next bus was due in 8 to 10 minutes but had no idea about any the whereabouts of the earlier one.
A bus arrived 10 mins later. What should’ve been a 6 to 8minute wait turned into a 30 minute one, but at least I could get on the bus when it did show up.
This was not the case on Saturday night. The two of us were heading to the National Concert Hall. As we planned to grab a few drinks before the show we got to the bus stop at 6.20pm. we thought this would leave us plenty of time. Oh, our naivety.
Arriving at the stop we saw on the display that a #145 bus was due in 12 minutes. Rather than drag you though the minute by minute of the next hour or so, I will give you a highly condensed version.
The bus which was due in 12 minutes arrived 30 plus minutes later, not that this mattered as it was so already overcrowded that it was not taking on any passengers. Neither was the next one which followed it some 12 minutes later.
Checking the TfI I found that Dublin Bus had cancelled four successive buses due to run between 6.30pm and 7.06pm (see screen grabs here and here). So, instead of the six buses due in that time, there were just two, hence why both were so slow to arrive and overcrowded.
By the time it dawned on us that getting a bus was a forlorn hope and we started to look for a taxi, most the fifteen or so other people at the stop had decided to do the same thing, just as the dozens more at the other stops had probably also decided.
Not only were there no free taxis available to hail along the N11, there were none responding on FreeNow (the taxi app successor to Mytaxi, about which I have moaned here previously). Net result: over one hour wasted at a bus-stop and €67 wasted on two tickets for the NCH that were not used.
In the greater scheme of Dublin’s dysfunctions these things hardly rate a mention. None of what I have chronicled here is as remotely soul destroying as this city’s appalling housing and rental crisis, nor as harrowing as the state of our public health service.
But, the fact that such stories of the unreliability and inadequacy of public transport, privatised and semi-state, barely register should itself be a concern. There is now almost no area or facet of Dublin’s infrastructure that is not close to breaking point.
I regularly hear from clients and colleagues about the difficulties they encounter in attracting young talented people to come live and work in Dublin as people are hearing about the spiralling cost of living and declining quality of life here.
We are pushing so much of this city’s infrastructure so far beyond any reasonable point of endurance that we put Dublin’s future as a good place to live in grave risk.
I am very proud of my city and want to continue feeing that way, but to do this politicians and policy makers from across the spectrum will have to come up with radical plans to make this a viable place in which people can both live and work.
POSTSCRIPT (Oct 12th): I have since been contacted by Dublin Bus to explain that the problems on the Saturday night were due to a very high level of driver absenteeism that night – an issue they believe will be addressed after the current driver recruitment campaign. We shall see.