Give us proper alternatives to the car before you punish us again, Mr Ryan

If Green Party leader Eamon Ryan wants to slash Ireland’s reliance on private cars, the only way to do so is to give us a proper alternative, says John Dolan
Give us proper alternatives to the car before you punish us again, Mr Ryan

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan.  Picture: Damien Storan.

THE other Friday, at 8pm, I drove my lad into Macroom for one of his sporting activities.

As I have written here recently, the town doesn’t know itself since the bypass opened, and sure enough, those tell-tale jams crawling down the main street had disappeared in a puff of smoke. Eureka!

But when I got to the town square, I was presented with a dilemma. Not a single parking space was available, either on the roadside or in the large space for vehicles by the castle. Not one.

I realised I was behind a trail of cars all seeking the same thing as me, and that, if I was to park up, I would have to head to one of the spacious car parks at Dunnes or Lidl, then walk back the five or ten minutes into town. Not an issue for a fit-tish fella like me, but a big problem for someone elderly or disabled.

Luckily, my fella is of an age where I can set down, let him out the car, and zoom off without having to park.

That evening was something of an anomaly, there are usually sufficient spaces in Macroom for cars, and I certainly wouldn’t be advocating for more. But it did set me thinking about the reliance of cars in rural areas.

Does even the most pious environmentalist think any of those motorists who parked up in Macroom that evening had a choice in the matter?

Does even the most devout Green Party member (is there any other kind?) believe there was a bus route regular and reliable enough to service their need? Or that they could have just hopped on a bicycle, on a dark night, and risked life and limb to cycle perhaps five or ten miles into Macroom for - what? - a pint, a bite to eat, or to do a shop? You know contribute to the circular economy.

If they do, I hate to burst their bubble, but the motorists had no choice. None at all. It was the car or stay at home. That was the only choice they had.

All this talk of pious and devout environmentalists brings me neatly onto our Transport Minister, Eamon Ryan, who once again lifted his head above the parapet this week to outline his latest, exciting attack on Ireland’s motorists.

It was reported that he was to bring a memo to Cabinet outlining the next phase of his strategy to tackle climate change, containing a blend of carrots and sticks to lure and threaten motorists out of their cars.

The carrots included cheaper and better public transport, a pledge us voters are entitled to view with a degree of cynicism.

Certainly, in areas outside of Dublin, the average driver is left to wonder if a public transport system can ever be created that is regular enough and reliable enough to replace the motor car.

Can motorists trust a government to deliver on such promises, when it resolutely fails to deal on issues such as our over-worked health service and an unfit-for-purpose housing system?

No, Mr Ryan, we’ll believe those carrots when we see them.

However, what really offended me and a million or so other motorists were the sticks that formed a key plank of Mr Ryan’s updated climate change plan. Congestion charges, fuel price increases and higher car parking charges are all on his agenda in his quest to force people out of their cars.

There were suggestions that a congestion charge to enter cities could be set as high as €10 per day, and of a 400% increase in parking charges. As for increasing the price of fuel - well, motorists have been used to this high-tax highway robbery on them for decades, but it still doesn’t make the punishment any more palatable.

Of course, we all know for a fact that, unlike the carrots, which may take decades to be introduced - if indeed they are introduced at all - the sticks will be introduced promptly and punitively. Death and taxes can be relied upon, a wonderful, new pubic transport system for all... not so much.

Not surprisingly, there was pushback to these plans, not least from within Mr Ryan’s coalition partners.

Fine Gael TD Emer Higgins said: “Our city centres are still recovering post-Covid. Any move to restrict motorists should be tied to capital investments ensuring they have tangible alternatives when leaving their cars at home.

“Any plan should focus on how we continue to prioritise improving public transport infrastructure, instead of placing further pressure on motorists.”

AA Ireland reiterated this point about bringing in the carrots first before wielding the stick.

“We know there must be a push to other modes of transport in order to meet climate targets,” admitted Paddy Comyn, Head of Communications for AA Ireland. “Many will say there is no public transport solution available, or the frequency isn’t there.”

He called for a period of free public transport to gauge how many drivers would consider it.

However, doubling down on his measures, Mr Ryan bizarrely stated that offering free public transport would lead to “an increased level of unnecessary trips”. How so? Does he think I will pop on a free bus several times a day for the sheer hell of it? And even if I did, what difference would that make to emissions?

Perhaps Mr Ryan could also define unnecessary, which has a rather sinister ‘Big Brother’ feel to it? Would taking my lad to a sporting activity five miles away be deemed “unnecessary” to him. Or the aul wan heading out for a pint and a bit of company - would he deem that “unnecessary”?

Are Mr Ryan’s St Patrick’s Day flights to Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai - which will exceed a whole year’s worth of carbon emissions from the average family car - “necessary”? Or is that different?

Nobody can deny Eamon Ryan is a decent man whose heart is in the right place - and much of the abuse he gets is sickening. But the image of him as a member of the metropolitan Dublin elite in a cycling helmet, utterly out of touch with rural and even urban Ireland, is surely one that contains more than a grain of truth.

It’s not that people like me, and so many others, adore our cars. We would love a cheap, regular and reliable alternative. We would love to not have to pay through the nose for tax, insurance, repairs and fuel. We would love to do our bit for the planet too.

But, at some point, reality has to set in, surely, and an alternative to cars has to be offered

For decades, this state has failed to prioritise and invest in public transport - outside of Dublin - forcing millions of us into cars as the only travelling option. Railways were disbanded and left to rot, and grand plans were drawn up for cities such as Cork and never followed through.

The state is the pusher that weaned millions of us onto cars for decades, and now we are totally dependent on them, it wants to penalise us for its own failings?

I recall perhaps 15 years ago reading of a plan for a railway linking Blarney to Cork city. Ah, I thought, I could then drive (or perhaps take a bus or even cycle ) to Blarney, park my car there and commute in and out by train. I was genuinely open to the idea.

Well, we’re still waiting for the first sod to be turned on that - and, after successive Governments’ sins of omission, it now plans to punish me more and more in the pocket? Away out of that.

If Mr Ryan wants to slash Ireland’s reliance on private cars, the only way to do so is to give us a proper alternative. Punishing motorists will merely see them punish the Greens back at the next election.

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