The number of cars on Irish roads has hit pre-pandemic levels, but there are fewer people travelling on public transport.
This comes as ESRI behavioural research shows that while public levels of worry over contracting Covid-19 are decreasing, people consider public transport as a “high risk” activity when it comes to catching the virus.
Data from Transport Infrastructure Ireland’s network of national traffic counters and cameras show cars levels on the Irish road network are as high as before the pandemic.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Sean O’Neill, Transport Infrastructure Ireland’s Head of Communications said: “We are seeing that we are back at pre-pandemic levels.
“Regionally, for example, when we compare last Friday to the same day last year, we see in Galway on the N6 our traffic levels are up 31%.
“In Limerick on the M7 they are up 85%. In Waterford on the M9, they are up 76%. In Cork on the N40 car traffic volumes are up 60% on the N40.”
Comparisons between last Friday, 4 November and the same day last year show +65% on the M1 at the M50 to Dublin Airport, +60% on the N7 at Citywest, +84% on the M11 at Bray and +63% on the M4 at Celbridge, Maynooth.
The M50 [N3 Navan Road to N4 Galway Road] shows a +59% change. Car traffic south of the Northern Ireland Border on the N1 at Jonesboro shows a +82% change.
Transport Infrastructure Ireland commuter and traffic data, which is collated between 7am and 10am, Monday to Friday, also shows a dip in traffic feeding Dublin city centre from the M50.
The amount of car traffic on commuting corridors leaving the M50 and feeding into the city centre is 10% less than before the pandemic.
Complicated picture of changed commuting patterns
Mr O’Neill said this represents a complicated picture of changed commuting patterns and shows 10% of workers have not yet returned to the office.
“There is a good indication that this is about remote working. Remote working is having an impact on the core commuting corridors and being down 10% would be an indicator – to say the least,” he said.
“We are going back to where we were. There were high commuting traffic hours. There was a lot of traffic. The last two years we had forgotten about that and now we are getting back to that and it’s not good,” he added.
Figures from the National Transport Authority show public transport – which includes companies like Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann, Luas, Irish Rail and local link services – is at about 60% of what it was pre-pandemic.
Pre-Covid there were one million passengers per day compared to about 600,000 presently.
NTA Director of Public Transport Services Tim Gaston said overall figures are encouraging and while pre-pandemic levels have not yet been reached there is growth at weekends and in regional areas.
“Passenger numbers in many of the regional city and towns across Ireland are now back almost at pre-pandemic levels and in some cases they are exceeding those,” said Mr Gaston.
“Weekends are also much busier. We are averaging between 80% and 90% of pre-pandemic levels. That gives us real encouragement because people are using public transport for leisure purposes, for shopping, for visiting friends (at the weekends in particular).
“We think it is only a matter of time until people will also then be coming back in to work more frequently and using the services Monday to Friday as well,” he said.
In Dublin city centre passenger numbers remain static. Last Friday there were 353,000 passenger trips. In November of last year, after people were requested to work at home because of increased Covid-19 numbers and infection fears, the number of passengers were the same.
Some individual transport operators say there are gradual increases in the numbers using their services. Luas had 92,000 passengers last Friday. Its daily figure before the pandemic was 120,000
“We are seeing on the Luas a steady increase in passenger numbers. It is not just in the morning peak but now it is right across the day.
“Night time travel is picking up too. When you see the night economy opening up and when you see people beginning to use the Luas at night time you can see it’s a steady increase,” Transdev spokesperson Dervla Brophy said.
The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) said the TII and NTA figures reflect what its research has shown.
“Our activity measure shows slightly sharper rise in use of private vehicles than public transport as social activity increases; any declines in transport use we’ve seen tend to be driven by declines in public transport,” Dr Shane Timmons, a research officer with the ESRI’s behavioral research unit said.
“The ESRI research shows that when asked about positive changes in their life since March 2020, working from home is cited most frequently followed closely by less time commuting. Many of whom report that they like being able to avoid crowded public transport.
“What’s probably driving the low numbers is perceived safety. When asked how risky people perceive multiple locations [for example the gym, shops, restaurants, having friends over] public transport is tied with pubs as the place they feel most at risk.
“This is despite the fact that they report almost everyone else on public transport wears a mask,” said Dr Timmons.
“International research shows that commuting patterns are difficult to shift. Efforts to encourage walking or cycling for example tend to have small effects if any.
“However if external factors force a change in commuting pattern, these can stick. So those people who fell out of the habit of using public transport due to worries or reduced capacity on transport may be unlikely to shift back to using it.
“International research also shows work from home patterns mean people no longer have the benefit of buying weekly or monthly commuter tickets, since they might only be in the office two days a week. They’re then opting to drive to work,” said Dr Timmons.
“People perceive public transport at the moment to be risky. We have seen an increase in social mobility and we have also seen levels of worry – overall about the pandemic – come down.
“Worry is one of these psychological variables that we’ve recorded since January 2021 and it has consistently been one of the predictors of peoples behaviour,” Dr Timmons said.
“We have noticed in recent data that worry is starting to come down. As people become less worried about contracting Covid they might be more likely then to use public transport or visit locations that might have been riskier before,” he added.