Revolution by Double-Decker

Revolution by Double-Decker

On Riding Dublin's Human Transit-Redesigned Bus Network.

// In last week's post, I wrote about the relative lack of rail transit in Dublin, a city with a population of 1.28 million (2.12 million in "Greater Dublin"). Much smaller cities in Europe have metro systems of their own; Dublin is limited to DART (an S-Bahn-like aboveground heavy rail), some commuter rail, and the 2 lines of the Luas tram system.

What I noticed immediately was a heavy presence of double-decker buses in the city center. Buses are daunting for a newcomer to a city, especially if you're only spending a few days there: it's easy to figure out a subway/metro map, but bus routes tend to be less predictable, with lots of potential for construction changing routes. And there are generally a lot more bus routes than there are metro lines—the chances of getting on the wrong one and ending up far from your destination are much higher.

I'm no longer afraid of riding buses in unfamiliar cities, thanks to the Montreal-designed Transit App, which I wrote about in this post. It gives you real-time information on the location of buses, and allows you to type in your destination—a restaurant or museum or street address—and then indicates bus to catch, and where to catch it, even charting the quickest walk to the nearest bus stop. (In the past, that kind of knowledge seemed to take me days, even weeks to acquire; riding the bus always felt like an advanced, locals-only skill.)

Payment is an issue, too. Many big cities, among them New York, Paris, and London, now allow you to pay with a credit card, or smartphone, rather than a farecard. (Sorry, Metrocard, Navigo, Oyster: you're going into my box of souvenirs.) The first time I rode a double-decker, in London, back in the 1980s, I told the conductor my destination, and he issued a ticket based on distance, giving change in pence with the coin dispenser on his belt. Picturesque, but ridiculously inefficient. This time, I went on to the website of Transport for Ireland, and found a map of where I could buy a Leap farecard—a newsagent a three-minute walk from my hotel. Somewhat predictably, the card is bright green, though less obvious, I suppose, is the image of a leaping frog...

Short-hop zone on DART and commuter rail

Each ride works out to about €2. Kids under five and people 66 and up ride free; older kids are 65 cents. Quite generously, youth up to age 25 pay just €1. This gives you 90 minutes of travel on buses, trams, and the DART and commuter trains within a "Short Hop" zone that covers most of central Dublin. And there's a fare-capping feature that's brilliant: the maximum you'll pay per day (even if you take half a dozen rides) is €8, and, in a week, €32. So you don't really have to worry about deciding whether a weekly pass is the best idea; as on New York subways and buses now, there's an automatic maximum, and you won't get dinged for surpassing it.

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After a visit to the Chester Beatty Museum next to Dublin Castle (highly recommended, incredible collection of manuscripts), I walked to a stop on Lord Edward Street. Most stops in central Dublin have predictive signage: digital signs that list the numbers of the next half dozen buses to arrive, and how many minutes you'll have to wait. (Handy if you don't have data, or simply don't want to pull out your smartphone when it's raining, as it often is in Dublin.) I boarded the 77A, and was rewarded with one of the great pleasures afforded a globe-trotting straphanger: a seat in the front row of the top deck with a bird's-eye view of the city. Flânerie turned into passive spectacle—quite relaxing. (Unlike walking up the narrow, twisting stairs; the height of the bus makes it sway drastically, so you better not be fumbling with a water bottle or a camera as you ascend, or risk bruising and soaking.)

I rode many buses over the next few days, and they got me where I wanted to go quickly, with a minimum of snags. It turns out Dublin buses were, until recently, notorious for their inefficiency, or, as Jarrett Walker of Human Transit puts it: "the problem of the pre-existing network was extreme complexity combined with remarkably low frequency." In 2017, Jarrett was called in to redesign the network under the BusConnects program. He found a complex tangle of routes, many overlapping, with a high-frequency network entirely focussed on the city center; the system was entirely built around radials, bringing people from the outskirts downtown, rather than orbitals, which would allow travel without going into the center. Jarrett orchestrated a public consultation, which generated 50,000 responses to survey questions about what riders wanted the new services to look like. After analyzing the responses, Jarrett and his colleagues decided to turn radial services into super-frequent "spines," create frequent orbital (cross-town, if you like), routes, increase frequency in the outskirts with feeder buses, and create a high-frequency brand.

The key to all of this is the "spines," which are clearly identified with letters from A to G. If you're on a letter route, you're guaranteed not to be waiting long for a bus—3 to 8 minutes in the center. (So far, according to Jarrett, only the C, G, and H spines have been rolled out, and it's the prefix, rather than the suffix that identifies the spine: ie, C3 is a spine route, while 77A is normal service.) On the extremely legible map, red indicates those lettered spines, while cooler colours show less frequent routes. If your trip allows connections between between lettered lines, between an A and F spine, for example, it will be just like changing between trains on a subway or metro system, in terms of how long you're likely to wait to make the connection. I was impressed by how smoothly and quickly the buses moved on the spines: this thanks to sections of bus-only lanes and signal priority, which in some places makes you better off riding transit than being in a private car or a taxi.

As Jarrett has pointed out to me, the plan is far from complete: the roll-out has been going slower than initially planned, and some of the biggest changes are going to come at the end of the multi-year process. But it's already leading to a big increase in ridership and customer satisfaction. Dublin Bus carried 145 million passengers in 2023, a 20% increase over 2022. Jarrett goes into more detail on the redesign in this blog post.

The bus network revamp is turning Dublin from a transit runner-up to a model. It also shows what can be done without spending billions on new rail systems, but merely by rationalizing an old and illogical bus map, where routes have remained unchanged for decades. Jarrett and his associates have undertaken similar redesigns in Houston and Miami, leading to comparable increases in ridership. In all these cities, more people can access far more places—jobs, school, medical care, train and bus stations for intercity trips—thanks to the redesign. Well-conceived transit like this is democracy in action: it increases opportunities for all.

Sure, I was just a visitor. But it was clear that something great was happening with buses in Dublin. And, after a few days, I didn't even give a thought to the Irish capital's lack of a metro—I was enjoying the view from the top deck too much.

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