M50 demand management – economic and social impacts
Remember the good old days? The days of economic growth and jobs for all? The time when a peak hour journey on Dublin’s M50 motorway filled the region’s commuters with dread and horror? Dublin Transportation Office’s (DTO) annual Road User Monitoring Reports provide tangible evidence of the experiences of commuters in the time preceding the M50 Upgrade scheme, completed three years ago this September. For example, average 2004 morning peak journey times on the M50 between Malahide Road / N32 and the Ballinteer Road junction of 43 minutes were recorded, with poor journey time reliability, in particular in the PM peak, a further undesirable side effect of too many people using too little space. More recent data from late 2006 / early 2007 show comparable journey times of 67 minutes, although the timing of these surveys likely coincided with M50 Upgrade construction works.
Although evidence of its post–scheme performance appears sparse, few would argue that the M50 Upgrade scheme has successfully achieved substantial reductions in journey times and enhanced journey time reliability along its entire length. Despite its success, which in many ways was inevitable given the introduction of substantial capacity increases at a time of economic malaise (and implemented at an equally substantial cost of €950 million), maintaining these journey time improvements into the future is far from assured.
Data presented with NRA’s M50 Demand Management Study Briefing Paper indicates that, despite declines in traffic volumes elsewhere on the national primary road network, M50 traffic volumes have significantly increased since the scheme’s completion. When economic growth returns in earnest in the coming years, demand growth will most likely further accelerate. Transport modelling outputs included in the Briefing Paper support this view, with NRA forecasting that “within 10 years congestion will once again become commonplace.”
Still reminiscing about the good old days? Well, in the case of M50 traffic congestion, it may yet again become a part of many Dubliners twice daily commute.
M50 Demand Management
This realisation of future degradation of M50 performance underpinned condition seven of An Bord Pleanála’s 2005 planning approval of the scheme: –
“A scheme of specific demand management measures for the M50 motorway corridor shall be published by the relevant roads authorities not later than three years after the M50 Motorway Upgrade Scheme has been completed.”
In advance of the September 2013 deadline set by An Bord Pleanála’s condition of planning approval, a working group of the NRA and four Dublin local authorities was established in early 2012 to study potential demand management measures, leading to publication of an M50 Demand Management Study Briefing Paper during the summer of 2013. In light of the limited information presently in the public domain (at the time of writing this article only the Briefing Paper has been published), the process pursued by the NRA / local authority working group is somewhat unclear. The study’s high-level objectives are however set out in the Briefing Paper as follows: –
- “reduce demand on the M50, such that it operates without congestion for longer; and
- improve the safety and reliability of the M50 by reducing congestion.”
An indicative package of measures is included within the Briefing Paper, although other options identified and appraised in development of the scheme, and considered ineffective against the scheme objectives are not included. The indicate package of measures consists of:
- “fiscal measures
- intelligent transport systems / traffic control
- travel information
- smarter travel
Within 24 hours of publication of the NRA Briefing Paper, Minister Varadkar clarified his, and the Government’s position on the fiscal elements of the scheme: “I have no plans to introduce any new tolling points while I am in office as Minister for Transport” and furthermore that the scheme “does not reflect Government or Department of Transport policy”.
Without fiscal measures, or other interventions to reduce demand, the package is in our view deemed unlikely to be effective in ‘locking in’ the benefits of the M50 Upgrade much beyond the short term.
What are the lessons learned?
Perhaps somewhat premature in advance of the NRA’s detailed report, however a few pointers emerge from the evidence presented to date:
- The demand management study appears overtly road transport focussed. It could have benefitted from more in-depth consideration of the relationships between transport and regional / national economies and societies. This would have provided not only a more robust starting point for appraisal of potential scheme components, but also a stronger basis for decision making.
- Related to the above, and accepting that information in the public domain is, at present, restricted to a Briefing Paper, land use planning and other non-car based transport measures to incentivise mode shift from the car to public transport, walking and cycling are noteworthy by their absence. As far back as 2004, land use planning, alongside measures to promote travel demand management and fiscal measures, were identified as key demand management tools in the Dublin context, and described as “Planning measures aimed at fostering land use location and design, which is favourable to public transport, walking and cycling.” Land use planning measures have considerable scope to shape overall levels of travel demand, distances travelled and modes used, and in doing so have potential to not only manage demand but to reduce travel costs. Importantly, they also represent a lower cost, more economically advantageous, and less politically sensitive option than fiscal measures. Although not necessarily a viable alternative, land use planning and related measures, could significantly reduce the extent of, or defer the introduction of fiscal demand management measures.
- Often labelled as ‘a tax on motorists’ by motoring organisations or opposition parties, fiscal measures are by their very nature politically sensitive. Minister Varadkar’s immediate clarification of his and the government’s position in relation to their introduction is unsurprising, particularly as no clear exposition of the economic and social rationale for their implementation is evident in the Briefing Paper.
- Access control measures (sometimes referred to as ramp metering) has been introduced successfully elsewhere, and has the potential to preserve journey speeds and reliability. It does not however feature as part of the current M50 demand management scheme.
- Finally, and most crucially is the wording of An Bord Pleanála’s relevant condition to ‘publish’ rather than ‘implement’ a scheme, and the lack of clarity on its specific objectives. This has reduced the incentive to develop and implement a scheme that could effectively manage traffic demand on the M50 for the benefit of the region’s economy and society.
In development of a transport scheme, package of measures or strategy it is commonplace to develop a series of contrasting scenarios. In the case of the demand management study, scenarios would range from a ‘do-nothing’ scenario representing a passive demand management approach, to a series of ‘do-something’ scenarios consisting of a comprehensive package of measures. The scheme as it currently stands, without either land use planning, non-car transport or fiscal components is akin to a ‘do-minimum’ scenario. As such, it is likely that the package of measures will be of limited economic and social benefit, and should be considered short term at best. In this context, a more relevant question is ‘what is the opportunity cost of the current package?’
The way forward?
Has the opportunity been lost? Definitely not, however it is difficult to see a way forward at present, given the political sensitivities. The most effective approach would involve further intervention to identify clear, specific deliverables and require an effective package of measures to be developed and delivered to safeguard the future performance of the M50 for the benefit of regional and national economies.