The 2021 Climate Action Plan makes it clear that passenger transport will not be decarbonised quickly enough with EVs and biofuels alone. Nor should we believe we should even try: Public transport and cycling are cheaper, better for public and individual health, and more sustainable. As Oxford researcher Christian Brand says, “cycling is ten times more important than electric cars for reaching net-zero cities”.

Cycling has always been my preferred commuting mode but since moving to the Irish countryside, it’s no longer an option for me. (Some day I would love to cycle but even though I’m a confident, experienced cyclist, the roads are far too dangerous.)

But, maybe public transport is an option for me.

In this short post I want to run the numbers to demonstrate why all the carrots and sticks are leading me to drive to work instead of taking the bus, even though diesel is at €2.20 per litre right now, and I’ll go through some of the measures needed to tip the balance towards taking the bus (spoiler: it’s not making the bus free).

My current context is as follows: My family (my husband, two young kids and I) has two cars, a 2014 electric Nissan Leaf and a diesel car. The Leaf is the default car - whoever is driving more that day takes it, and I estimate that it covers 80% of our family’s kilometres. I live about 20 km from my office in UCC, which is about the average commute distance for Cork County. My kids go to preschool and school. There is no school bus service so the combined journeys for picking them up and dropping them off is about 40 km per day (8000 km per year!), about the same as my round trip commute. I work from home about three days a week.

I charge the EV overnight with the night rate tariff at about 16c/kWh (soon hopefully with Solar PV, which will make this cheaper when the car is parked at home during the day). The Leaf consumes about 14 kWh/100km so a 40 km daily round-trip commute (or all the school drop offs) costs about 90c - let’s round it to €1.

The diesel car consumes about 7 litres per 100 km and diesel is at about €2.10, which comes to nearly €6 per day. This car is generally used only when I’m going to the office.

Staff parking at UCC is free, and driving takes 35-45 minutes.

Policymakers need to figure out how to get people out of cars, and I would love for an alternative to be viable for me. Here is what is currently possible.

There is an hourly bus route from my local village to Cork city, which I am lucky to have. Unfortunately, the route doubles up as an airport bus, which adds about 25 minutes to the journey each way. A one-way ticket costs about €4.50. It goes to the city centre, so I would need to take another city bus to get to UCC, costing another €2 (I don’t believe the first ticket can be used for the city bus, I could be wrong). In comparison, in Dublin there is now a flat €2 fee for any journey on combined public transport lasting under 90 minutes, one-third of the cost of public transport in my case. My home is about 2.5 km from the village bus stop which I can cycle in less than 10 minutes.

So the critical comparators are:

  • Car: 1hr 20 minutes daily (max), €6 (even if I drive the EV, which would cost €1, that means the diesel car will be used for the school runs), complete flexibility.
  • Bus: 3 hours (minimum) daily, €13 (€9 if I use a folding bike and avoid the city bus), tied to bus timetable and weather.

As for the other factors which would influence my decision: The fact that the bus option would require me to walk and/or cycle might feel like a drawback, but I would welcome the chance to bake exercise into my routine. I’ve gained weight since I stopped cycle commuting.

There is no bike shelter at the bus stop, which I’d need to be able to leave a bike there. I have a folding bike I can take on the bus though. The bus stop itself is not appealing. It’s at the side of a busy road, with nowhere to sit or shelter, and there is no footpath to get some security from the busy passing traffic. I would be nervous standing there with my kids. People living in the village could walk, but incredibly, there are few footpaths and safe road crossings in the village. The street design prioritises the rapid flow of vehicle traffic far over pedestrians, cyclists or bus users.

I have taken the bus a few times, mainly to the train station (to avoid parking charge and uncertainty about space) and to go to town in the evening to have dinner. According to this experience, the bus rarely runs according to the timetable, and sometimes falls well behind schedule, mainly because it takes a long time to load passengers. It is sometimes full and leaves passengers behind. This added uncertainly is a huge barrier. Can you imagine if your car wouldn’t start 5% of the time?

“You can work on the bus” - not really, and I listen to Podcasts and audiobooks while I’m driving so it doesn’t feel too much like lost time.

So clearly, every factor is weighted towards me driving rather than taking the bus, except the environment: Every 40 km journey in the diesel car releases 5 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. If I used it to commute every day, that would amount to over a tonne each year.

Now I could replace the diesel car with a newer EV to cover towing and make longer distance trips that we can’t do in the Leaf due to its limited range (and I’m looking forward to doing so in a few years when the costs come down). But reducing car trips in general is very important, and in particular to take cars out of cities and towns.

What measures are needed to tip the balance towards taking the bus to the office, in my case?

  • Firstly, remove incentives to drive cars into a city: Remove free parking, which is a subsidy for car drivers. To ensure this is equitable, return the value to staff annually as a “mobility credit” in a lump sum, for example. It is important that parking is charged daily so that people can choose the optimal mode on a daily basis. If parking is charged monthly or annually, then the disincentive to drive for that period disappears.
  • Remove on-street parking to introduce more bus and cycle lanes to decrease time
  • Rationalise ticketing so that multi-stage journeys can be made on one ticket
  • Make bus routes direct and more frequent
  • Add covered bike parking and possibly even car parking at rural bus stops
  • Add proper shelters, seats and timetables at rural bus stops
  • Introduce congestion charging or road pricing

Cutting the cost of the bus could help (and it would be an especially good gesture to “Rural Ireland” if we had the same conditions as the Dublin 90 minute ticket). But cost is not the main factor: if you have a car already, and parking at work is free, the time saving and flexibility offered by driving alone would still make most people favour their car.

The key, in my opinion, is to make rural public transport so reliable and regular, and make cycling the norm, so that many two-car families can live with just one car, which would save families thousands in the upfront cost of keeping a car each year.

Another factor to consider is that I could live closer to work so that I could cycle or take the city bus. This is true, and here is where the huge overlap with the housing and climate crises lies - building affordable and attractive homes in towns and cities is a great measure to enable sustainable transport choices. Much of the population is already living rurally though, so a certain amount of this is locked in.

I live in the hope that we will one day have a network of rural bike lanes, so that I could cycle to work and my kids could cycle to school - maybe if I have grandkids they will have this infrastructure.

A final point is that since my “school run” experience has started I have realised that we overlook sustainable school transport (I wrote about this here). A school bus service would cut my family’s daily car kilometres more than any other measure, and would save the driver about an hour a day in the car. The streets around each school should also have footpaths and protected cycle lanes. We must get the backseat generation back on two legs and two wheels!

Link to discussion on Twitter.