Páraic Carroll reports on the OECD Redesigning Ireland’s Transport for Net Zero report
The OECD report entitled ‘Redesigning Ireland’s Transport for Net Zero: Towards Systems that Work for People and the Planet’ launched in October 2022, was commissioned by the Irish Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC). Here, Earth Institute member and UCD Civil Engineering assistant professor Páraic Carroll analyses this key report using his research on and expertise in transport engineering, in particular examination of travel behaviour, travel demand, the quantification of the benefits of active and public transport and other human centred aspects of transport such as accessibility and disadvantage.
The OECD ‘Redesigning Ireland’s Transport for Net Zero: Towards Systems that Work for People and the Planet’ cites work by international and national experts and stakeholders on this topic (a number of which are cited UCD / Earth Institute researchers) and lays out the need and opportunities for transformative change in transport sector in Ireland via envisioning, understanding, and redesigning the sector from a systems perspective to help identify innovations in transport policy for intensified efforts to reduce emissions. It extensively highlights the contributory factors that have led to Ireland’s car dependent ‘car culture’, and the consequential challenges that currently exist in seeking to rapidly reduce Ireland’s transport emissions by 2030.
The report recognizes the predominantly reactionary approach to transport policy making in Ireland in recent decades and the overemphasis placed on private electric vehicles as a solution was brought to light with reference to key documents such as the 2021 Climate Action Plan, which devotes much attention to the electric vehicle target of 945,000 vehicles (845,000 electric passenger cars) as a means of reducing transport emissions by 51% by the year 2030, which accounts for an estimated 67% of the abatement of 2030 transport emissions. In actual fact such policies reinforce car dependent travel behaviour and do little to address associated issues with car use such as congestion, road safety, wellbeing, amongst others.
The historical approach to transport investment in Ireland has prioritised road building generally, and the movement of the private car over other means of transport, with certain exceptions being Luas and improvements to the DART network, and the roll out of rural Local Link services. While road schemes and maintenance of existing roads are indeed required and have resulted in positive benefits for connectivity and a reduction in trip times in certain areas, decades of underinvestment in public transport have resulted in the proliferation car dependent lifestyles. This is simply due to there being no practical alternative to the private car that meets the travel needs of many people, particularly in outer urban and rural areas and the public losing confidence in public transport offerings as a result, which take time to repair and reverse. This will take a number of years to shift, even with increased funding being allocated to public transport schemes such as BusConnects, MetroLink, DART+ and Connecting Ireland.
The report references issues such as induce demand, and urban sprawl i.e. the highly dispersed, low-densely populated nature of Ireland’s settlement patterns, which have locked-in car dependency due to the unattractiveness of inaccessible and unreliable sustainable modes of transport. This unattractiveness is explained via a causal loop where, as the catchment area for cars increases due to improvements being made to road capacity (thus attracting latent demand for car travel due to available capacity), the population density then decreases leading to lower patronage for public transport services, which has resulted in a reduction in public transport service frequency hence producing an unattractive public transport offering. Such a causal loop can however be addressed by transport-oriented development (TOD) and integrating sustainable transport provision with land use and planning processes that favour mixed use development, car-free or 15 minutes neighbourhoods, increased public transport and active mobility investment, demand management measures and road space reallocation. Reallocation of road space to prioritise movement of people rather than vehicles is cited as a key means of ‘dissolving’ problems of air pollution from transport at their root cause and in such a way, increasing the attractiveness and perceived safety of active modes in addition to associated wellbeing and health benefits.
The OECD System Innovation for Net Zero process is referred to throughout the report which sets out three stages:
- Envision the goals and patterns of behaviours and challenge deep-rooted mental assumptions;
- Understand why current system is not accomplishing planned goals & whether planned policies have potential to redesign the system;
- Prioritise and scale up policies that can redesign systems to foster desirable patterns of behaviour and goals.
This process is illustrated via the depiction of an iceberg with traffic jams, spikes in air pollution, road fatalities, emissions at the tip of the iceberg, being visible and experienced by everyone. They are the result of systems being designed in a certain way and built on dominant mental models (unconscious assumptions that underpin how humans see and understand the world). However, under the surface of the iceberg lie patterns, system design and new mental models, which set out the transformational structure that will achieve the changes to the problems experienced at the tip of the iceberg. These structures set out the information flows, system rules and mental models that deliver mindsets or paradigms shifts from which the structures, goals, rules and parameters arise from.
In the context of this process a range of Irish polices were classified in terms of transformational potential or ability to create a paradigm shift. The report lists measures such as EV incentives, brownfield/infill targets and carbon pricing as having low transformative potential; road pricing, efforts to improve public and active transport are listed as having medium potential, while road space reallocation and street resign, mainstreaming of on-demand services (shared bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters and tailored on-demand taxis/ bus services, car-sharing) and communication efforts being highlighted as policies that have high potential for transformative change. While the interventions listed as having low potential may be vital in revenue generation and are indeed required, it is an interesting observation, which is in some ways contrary to current prioritisation/ effort balancing linked to investment in Ireland.
Overall, what the report demonstrates is that there is a need to prioritise transformative policies with high transformative potential in order to realise real travel behaviour change and redesign the Irish transport system. The report acknowledges that Ireland has ambitious, skilled and well-intentioned stakeholders and existing untapped potential for change and innovation in transport, which provides a ‘fertile ground’ for considering and potentially implementing the report’s recommendations.