Fuel prices must spark transport debate

Comment & Opinion

PUMP PRESSURE Rural commuters are feeling the pinch of fuel hikes, but have little other option than using the car to get to work.

The frightening fuel-price rises in recent months are hitting a lot of people hard.
It was probably always going to come to this at some stage, but the speed at which the prices have spiked in the wake of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine has caught many off guard.
It has also led to some polarised debates about how people choose to get from A to B.
We are frequently told that we should rely on public transport over our cars and get on our bikes. While this carries a lot of weight in large urban areas – Dublin, in particular, Cork, Limerick and Galway – it is a different discussion in rural Ireland.
Relying on public transport leaves commuters to work in Mayo with extremely limited options. While cycling and walking to work are live options in larger urban areas due to proximity and infrastructure, it is less so the case in Mayo, where many people spend over an hour each day commuting in their cars.
Try walking or cycling that on a Monday morning, and you would no sooner have arrived at work and it would be time to go home … on the Friday evening.
In the meantime, people in rural Ireland are suffering for the dearth of alternatives to the private car. Commuters in Dublin may be able to get off the road by relying on much better public transport options, the opposite is the case here.
And it is hard to see that changing.
One only has to look at the ambivalence of successive governments to the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor from Galway to Claremorris and onto Sligo to see how much of a struggle it is for things to change.
Bus and train timetables rarely dovetail, meaning relying on public-transport connections is hard going.

Local action
But that’s not to say that improvements cannot be made in Mayo. It ought to be much easier for people living in towns in Mayo to cycle to work if they are employed in the town and for children to cycle and walk to school. But right now there’s very little chance of that becoming popular because it is so dangerous to do so.
Take the example of Westport. While there is a very popular and useful town Greenway running from Altamont Street to the Quay, the reality is that is only useful for those living close by. Cycling through the heart of the town is to take your life in your hands.
In a piece with reporter Oisín McGovern in last week’s Mayo News, Kieran Ryan of 15-Minute Westport made a number of interesting arguments and observations.
That organisation strives for the provision of better cycling and walking infrastructure, and dedicated cycle lanes should be possible in Westport’s wide streets, he argues:
“If you take any of the main streets in the town, your Bridge Street, your Shop Street, your James Street, they’re all very similar in their layouts and they’re all actually quite generously wide by Irish town standards. There are four lanes on each of those streets and all four are dedicated to motor traffic – I count parking bays as lanes in that description.
“If you were to reduce the space for traffic by half in each of those streets and give leftover space to cycling and walking, that’s one way to address the imbalance to enable people to cycle.”
An obvious counter-argument is the impact of such an approach on the town’s traffic, which gets very clogged up as is. Would reducing the amount of lanes for cars not exacerbate the issue?
Well you would hope that more cycling would mean more cars off the road. There most certainly is an aversion to change when it comes to town centres. Plans for pedestrianisation of the main streets in Castlebar and Ballina both fell due to some local objections – although there seemed to be considerable support too.
Change is coming though, and while we can and should demand more from central Government in terms of the provision of public transport and the reduction of high fuel taxes, we must also show leadership on a local level.
The greater good needs to be more central in people’s minds than selfish needs. We have climate-change obligations, but think back 30 years when so many people could cycle to school. That should not be aspirational in 2022.