Allegedly, the next election and the one after that and the one after that will be fought for the hearts and minds of the “people who get up early in the morning”. Therefore, the battleground is a massive geographical arc of new estates and houses stretching from on the coast at Drogheda out west to Mullingar, down to Portlaoise, sweeping down to Carlow and then finishing up at the sea again in Arklow. This is where alarms go off well before six-thirty in the morning. For these commuters, RTÉ’s ‘Morning Ireland’ is in reality ‘mid-Morning Ireland’ because they are up and out well before 7am.
The election will be about women because women who have just had their first babies will determine who wins this battle. This the result of the fact that mothers who are going back to work after having kids, are on the commuting road in huge numbers. According to the census, the greatest increase in employment in the past five years was seen in women aged 35 to 44.
The census reveals that this huge demographic radius is Ireland’s baby belt. The buckle of the baby belt used to be Naas, now it’s Portlaoise. Every five years or so, the buckle of Ireland’s baby belt loosens a notch or two, easing itself out a dozen miles or so into what used to be rural Ireland. As the arc grows bigger, its circumference maps our outer ‘Communterville’.
These places are Ireland’s exurbs.
The suburbs end just outside the M50 and they then are replaced by the exurbs — large estates built around motorways in a massive radius incorporating and linking previously distinct towns that had nothing to do with each other, such as Kells and Gorey, until now. Today these towns are dominated by a similar daily rhythm — up and out by 6.30am and back home close to 8pm.
This is Applegreen country.
It’s a world of Costa coffee, crèches and burgeoning GAA clubs. This is an Ireland of new immigrant families, displaced Dulchies and conflicted inter-generational loyalties, where dad is pure Hill 16 Dub but the kids are exclusively Royals. In the same way as traditional West Ham supporters now live miles away from their East End roots somewhere in farthest Essex, Dubs GAA supporters are no longer in Finglas, Fairview or Walkinstown, but quite usually Navan, Monesterevin and Castledermot.
These changes are picked up in the 2016 census, which is a treasure trove of information about how we all live today.
First thing that jumps out of the data is our car addiction.
The overall number of people commuting to work increased from 1.7 million in 2011 to 1.88 million in 2016, an increase of 10.7pc. This is a huge increase as the recovery seeped out from Dublin.
The number of people driving to work increased by 85,180 to 1,152,631 and was the largest increase of all categories. We tend to drive alone because although commuting passengers increased to 77,335 in 2016 from 69,164 in 2011, it is still a tiny fraction of those in cars every day.
We are using public transport more, but not enough.
The number of us commuting by public transport has increased by 30,144 persons over the five years, bringing the total to 174,569. This still represents a European low of only 9.3pc of all working commuters.
Cycling has exploded but this is mainly a city affair. In the 2011 census, 39,803 people cycled to work; now it is 56,837 and rising. That’s a huge 42.8pc over the five years.
However, the message from the census is that in order to make people’s lives immeasurably better, Ireland needs huge investment in public transport. This should be the first thing the new Taoiseach does, particularly if he wants to be the “patron saint of those who get up early in the morning”.
Affordable public transport is the key to civilised society. We see this all over Europe. Traffic, traffic jams and the daily hassle of the commute take their toll on families, relationships and people’s health.
Ireland is a tiny country and a few new fast train lines could transform commuting here. As this column has pointed out before, with a better transport system, such as French-style fast commuter trains, most of the main conurbations of Ireland could be accessed east to west and north to south in less than an hour. French TGVs travel at an average speed of 320kmh, meaning that Dublin to Cork — a distance of 157 miles — could theoretically be done in about 45 minutes. Belfast to Cork could be done in under an-hour-and-half, while Dublin to Galway would be just over 30 minutes.
Now imagine how quick people could get in and out of Dublin with such an investment.
The reason we should focus on Dublin right now is because this is where the problem is at the moment.
One very noticeable development in the past five years is that although commuting numbers in the counties around Dublin have increased as those in work have increased, we have not seen, even on a smaller scale, similar developments around Cork, Limerick or Galway.
This was not the case in the Noughties, when new estates were being built around other cities and large towns. Unfortunately, in the past five years the gravitational pull of Dublin has become much stronger.
So while lots more of us are at work, we are at work in the greater Dublin region.
Overall, there were 199,281 more people at work in April 2016 than in 2011. The number of women at work stood at 929,967. The same figure for men is 1,076,674, bringing the total number at work to just shy of two million.
For the new Taoiseach, the battle ground is defined by where people work, where they live and how they get from A to B. Schools, hospitals and public infrastructure need to be centred on where they are demanded. The logical implication of the demographic evidence would be to put a new maternity hospital in Portlaoise where babies are being born, not Dublin 4 that has amongst the lowest birth rates in the country.
The census gives us evidence and data upon which to base policy, let’s use it.