In late January, the Irish Times reported that the Fine Gael Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe was pressing ahead with the privatisation of a number of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann routes. This is a proposal that has been doing the rounds for years. It has been part of at least three government programmes since 2007. Having failed to convince the drivers’ unions of his plan, Donohoe is now putting 23 Dublin Bus routes and 5 Bus Éireann routes out to private tender. From a geographic perspective, this plan is of interest because part of the proposal is that no privatised route will “terminate in the city centre and are primarily orbital routes, or services carrying commuters from rail stations or large shopping centres to suburbs”. Why is this? What is the rationale for doing it this way? It will not take long but this is part of a plan for wholesale privatisation, working inwards from the city’s periphery to the centre.

In this post, we want to briefly examine the geography of the Dublin Bus routes considered for privatisation. We examine the demographics of these ‘orbital’ areas. It is an attempt to understand the politics of this transport policy and to see if there is a relationship between these routes and specific socio-demographic indictors. We use CSO/AIRO maps at small area and electoral division levels to examine what public is served by public transport. These districts are generalised census units which aggregate a large amount of information in a single measure. All of the routes proposed for private tender serve suburban locations, albeit very densely populated ones. In the absence of route-specific passenger load data (a vital part of commoditisation), it can be argued that some of the routes proposed for privatisation have been in decline since the early part of this decade. For example, routes 63 and 75 serve many of south Dublin’s affluent areas where travel by private car is more usual. The map below shows a part of Dublin’s suburbs alongside the percentages of Professional Workers in each area.

map 1The map shows how the routes proposed for private tender travel through areas of relative affluence in terms of social class. A map for private car ownership (a basic proxy for affluence) yields broadly similar results. Routes 63 and 75 travel through this affluent and car dependent part of south Dublin.

Map 2How will private tenders operate in areas of higher car dependency and among those in higher social class groups? If the imperative is to profit and not service, what attracts a private operator to these routes? Looking at Blanchardstown, a western suburb, a number of routes are proposed for privatisation. The map below shows the percentage of an area’s population in the skilled manual social class. Areas that are soon to have privatised bus services have up to 20% of their population in this class, arguably those most in need of mass transport.

Map 3Finally, and in the same area, the areas with many households with access to two cars is relatively higher in the south when compared to the area north of the main road (indicated by routes of the 270 and 17A). Using the All Island Deprivation Index data for the north city area, we can see that the 17A and 220 routes serve areas of high disadvantage but that these are served by other bus routes. In Blanchardstown, the 236 and 200 routes proposed for privatisation serve areas of relatively high disadvantage.

Map 4While the routes proposed are said to be ‘orbital’ they serve tens of thousands of people travelling to and from work, retail and education every day. To whom they are orbital is only a consideration to a network and its planners that makes the city centre the terminus for most routes.

What is being achieved by the proposal of these routes to be sent for private tender? At an initial glance, it seems that there will be differential effects across the city. In the southern suburbs, where two car ownership is higher than other parts of the city, a less frequent privatised bus service will matter relatively little. In areas where the bus is the only form of frequent transport, operating routes on the basis of something other than profit is a social good. It forms part of a social wage. Along with the recent contraction of schedules and the number of vehicles, certain areas of Dublin are now more dependent on this service when compared with others.

A privatised route will have to generate income and to do so can only increase fares and / or lower wages. We have seen this for refuse collection since 2001. Taking the city as a whole, the private tendering of these ‘orbital’ routes is a testing ground for more extensive privatisation on other, more lucrative, routes in the years to come.  A private operator is not going to want to compete on one route but on many across the entire network. If a route is operated by a profit-driven company, the license to service the route will need to stipulate the regularity of the service. A route that runs at peak times only and does not operate outside of this peak defies categorisation as a social good. Ours fears for privatisation is that there will be a focus on running a bus only on that exact slot in the schedule that will be busy. There is little assessment of the route within the system as a whole. Having operated a route for perhaps two years, private operators will be back at the minister’s office door arguing for access to these more lucrative routes.

Eoin O’Mahony, Assistant Lecturer SPD/DCU & Omar Sarhan, GIS and data enthusiast