The Irish Times view on traffic strategy: congestion must be tackled soon

The urgency comes because of a legally-binding commitment to halve transport emissions

A great many of the 35 options for tackling chronic congestion in Ireland’s cities and large towns in the Government’s traffic demand strategy have been tossed about for years. But the draft document approved by Cabinet last week puts a clear framework and timeline on a set of possible actions.

The extent to which congestion brings escalating costs for the economy, makes basic journeys far too long and causes worsening environmental impacts is laid out. The likely duration of a typical cross-city trip in Dublin by car is impossible to predict on most days of the week. When the transport sector’s carbon emissions problem is factored in, most measures will soon switch from possible to likely, though the Government insists this is a medium- to long-term strategy.

The approach places most onus on local authorities, with future funding weighted towards those reducing car dependency while increasing availability of reliable and frequent public transport using clean energy, along with active travel options such as cycling and walking.

They will have the power to introduce congestion charges similar to those increasingly deployed in gridlocked cities across the world. These often come in the form of low emission or clean air zones, which have dramatically reduced private car use despite inevitable outcries from motorists, who in the Irish context feel lumbered with high costs including taxes and insurance.

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The strategy, which is out for public consultation, concludes the benefits of investment in public transport, active travel and EV infrastructure cannot be fully realised while current levels of congestion remain. The urgency comes in the medium term – up to 2030 – because of a legally-binding commitment to halve transport emissions. Already there is a notable gap in progressing towards that target. Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan has repeatedly warned that the sector could prove to be more problematic than agriculture. EU fines for non-compliance could be as much as ¤3.5 billion by the end of the decade.

Facing into a year of elections, the Government knows how congestion charges can easily become a lightning rod issue. Ryan has been at pains to point out the initial emphasis should be on reallocating road space, while local authorities will be allowed to decide how best to reduce congestion in each area.

This strategy will also develop “a fair and sustainable approach to transport taxation” as the current motor tax regime is not appropriate for a new world dominated by EVs. On both fronts, a careful balancing of carrot and stick will be critical to success. The scale of behavioural change needed, and Ireland’s poor record on addressing climate change, means more stick will probably be required. In the transport realm that is most likely to come in the form of congestion charges.

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