Imagine if Galway was able to implement a single policy that could reduce traffic, combat climate change, let people take up jobs they previously would not have been able to, make life in rural Ireland easier, and reduce the cost of living all at once - and it only took a year or two to get it up and running.
It sounds too good to be true, right? However, cities and countries across Europe are experimenting with making all public transport fares free and it seems to be working.
When Aubagne made public transport free, bus and tram trips in the French city - which has a population similar to Galway - more than doubled and car trips decreased by 10 per cent. The level of subsidy in public transport decreased by almost half from €4 to €2 per trip because public transport was better used. There are similar trials going on across France, England, Germany, Estonia, and most recently Luxembourg where it expanded from a pilot scheme to nationwide policy. This is an idea that is spreading.
If we did this in Galway, more people taking the bus would mean less traffic – both for people who use public transport and those who do not. Importantly, we could get this up and running in months rather than the decades it will take for the Galway City Outer Bypass or any light rail project and it will be far more cost effective.
The benefits are not just around traffic and the cost of public transport. It would reduce Galway’s carbon emissions; make the cost of getting a bus from Connemara or Clarinbridge into Galway, currently eye wateringly expensive, cheaper; and would reduce the cost of living for families, with free fares for those who use public transport and big savings for families who decide to use the bus instead of a second car.
It may be that this policy will not translate well from other parts of Europe into Ireland. It is a big change in how we fund our public transport system. We are not suggesting an immediate national roll-out of free public transport. With Galway hopefully welcoming the world to the European Capital of Culture in 2020, we are the perfect county to trial this policy and see if it makes sense for the State as a whole.
With this in mind, the Galway Social Democrats want to start a campaign with you to make this happen. The aim of the campaign is to get the Minister of Transport, Shane Ross; the Minister for Climate Action, Richard Bruton; and the Minister of Finance, Pascal Donohue, to begin work on designing a pilot and committing to fund the pilot in 2020. The money to finance this, estimated at €12-20 million, could come in the 2020 Finance Budget or from our €500 million Climate Action Fund that is currently funding other transport and energy projects and trials.
It is important the pilot is done in a big enough way to properly try it out and see the benefits. A proper pilot would add more buses in Galway city and county, so that bus services are more frequent and reliable. It would redesign the route network, including multiple crossings of the bridges, and avoiding all bus traffic going through the city centre. It would add new buses, with modern interiors that are more like trains, so that taking the bus would be a more pleasant journey.
This is not just money going one-way from our taxes. The pilot would need to allow for a proper economic and social study of the pilot outcomes and benefits. There are major potential benefits from this for the State finances from lower cost of maintaining and building new roads, reduced job seekers benefit from people being able to take up jobs, and avoiding some of the estimated €600 million a year in fines for not meeting our climate targets.
More important than money, and regardless of whether you would take the free bus or not, we would all have more time with our loved ones from spending less time stuck in traffic jams. Let’s get Galway moving in 2020!
You can sign the campaign petition here: https://my.uplift.ie/petitions/let-s-get-galway-moving-in-2020/ or e-mail [email protected] if you would like to get involved.
Niall Ó Tuathail is a general election candidate for the Social Democrats Galway West, working with city council candidates Sharon Nolan, Owen Hanley and John Crowley and county council candidates Kevin Lyda and Ken Campbell.