I love getting the bus, don’t you? It appeals to my nosey side. Ever since I was a kid, I have loved being on the top of the bus, hopefully right at the front, looking into people’s gardens and over walls into the secret world of other people’s lives.
I like the public nature of the whole experience, watching commuters as they go about their business. This is also my nosey side; just the pleasure of watching people and wondering where they are off to. And then there’s the essential democracy of it; the fact that we are all collectively being shuttled from A to B.
These days, many people on the bus are locked into their digital universe, headphones on, sending the unmistakable signal out to all and sundry that they don’t want to be bothered. But there are always the chatterboxes who strike up conversations with whoever is misfortune enough to catch their eye.
I regularly get lectures on economics when I’m on the bus.
Recently, during the Graham Dwyer trial, a guy I vaguely knew from years ago sat beside me with his packed lunch and enthused about his weekend experiences in Dublin’s BDSM scene, which isn’t a patch on Berlin’s, I’ll have you know. Or so he said.
People talk about surprising things in public places.
Like all public services, Dublin Bus isn’t perfect, but it is communal and great cities are based on good communal experiences, whether they are public transport, public parks, public hospitals, public museums, public buildings or the public street itself.
Good public transport is the essential hardwiring of a proper city. The better the public transport, the better the city. Good public transport links between city and suburbs are the adhesive that bonds various parts of the city together.
When I was a kid, I loved getting the 46A from Dún Laoghaire to town. I especially liked the way this bus route meandered through the diverse suburbs. I experienced a range of feelings, from acute anxiety when passing through the council estates of Monkstown Farm, which I feared lest some “shaper” would hijack me for “odds”, to the mild jealousy when passing the walled lawns of Foxrock.
In contrast, a city that depends on the car exclusively is a nothing place. The car destroys cities – and we know that from all the evidence in America. It is not just the commuting to the outer suburbs which creates the soulless wasteland of an empty city at night surrounded by dormitory suburbs, but the singular experience of being in a car, hidden away from the rest of the population, means we never have the giddiness of the chance meetings with the rest of the city, which is one of the great joys of city living.
As a result of this, I am always concerned when I hear that there is a showdown between Dublin Bus drivers and Dublin Bus management over Government plans to privatize parts of Dublin’s bus service. I can see both sides of the argument.
The Government wants to open up parts of the city to private operators and the unions think the private operators will take the best routes, further squeezing Dublin Bus. The Government – rightly – approves the Ryanair model, which proves that if your get your fares right people will travel with you. This approach, the Government says, will actually provide more buses, more routes and ultimately, more jobs for bus drivers.
The drivers don’t see it this way. They see that the private operators will cherry pick the best routes and they – the public bus drivers -will be left driving for a company which will have smaller and smaller revenues because the profitable bus routes will be gone and they will be left dependent on a public subsidy.
In order to see how this might work and get a sense of both sides, I decided today to do a bit of a small, non-scientific experiment. I looked at two very different experiences where the public and private buses operate in my locality.
In Killiney, there is the public “Killiney bus”, as it’s known here. It is officially the 59 route, which goes from Dún Laoghaire to Killiney and then on to McIntosh Park in Pottery Road around by Deansgrange. This is a circuitous route that you couldn’t make up on acid, let alone sober trying to get directly from A to B.
But the route was planned according to the pattern of housing estates of the past from the council estates of Pottery Road to the three-bed semis of Glenageary, the corporation “buildings’ in Glasthule, the haughty mansions of Killiney and the two-up/two-downs of backstreet Dún Laoghaire. This is what a public route looks like.
In contrast, you have also the Aircoach to the airport, which leaves Killiney Castle Hotel and heads into town directly. I will be getting it later today; it’s a great service, beats driving and at €8 one-way is so much cheaper than a taxi. I get it regularly and it’s always on time, usually quite full, but not so full that you can’t get a seat, the wifi works and if you are prepared to chill out for an hour, it’s undoubtedly the most civilized way of getting to the terminal.
My experiment started earlier yesterday, when I got the 59 to Dún Laoghaire from Killiney village. It was a bit late: it was supposed to be there at 12.15 and came in at 12.27, but as it was a lovely day and the view from the bus stop to the Sugarloaf was beautiful, a little wait was no hassle. Although why a bus at midday in the suburbs should be late is open to question. There was only one other passenger on the double-decker bus. It is also expensive. At €2.55 for the 4km to Dún Laoghaire, compared with €8 for the 25k to the airport on the private bus, there is something wrong with the pricing structure on the public bus.
The bus itself was new, had working wifi, was very clean and the driver was – as almost always – good humoured. Tragically, only five people got on the bus from Killiney to Dún Laoghaire – all were over 65 and therefore on the bus pass. This means that the only revenue the bus received on this trip was my €2.55. The private operator would rightly scrap this route. Why would a profit-driven company keep it?
In contrast, the Aircoach makes decent money by keeping fares low and operating on a route where there is constant all-day traffic.
This anomaly is what the workers at Dublin Bus feel. If they are left with the 59-style routes, which are the legacy of past patterns of housing, before we saw mass suburban car ownership, they will be attached to the carcass of a dying animal.
Is it any surprise that they are up in arms?