Cities for living

tl;dr: read this Intelligent urban transport systems

When I left Brussels for Dublin in 1999, I was operating under the assumption that Dublin was becoming a better place to live. The bus system was still catastrophic, but the Luas was under construction, and there was a buzz around the place which suggested there was a focus on how people could live more easily in a city which to be honest, had been a bit of a disaster when I was in college there in the early 1990s. People from Dublin do not tend to like hearing this but fine.

However, against that any time you as a returning emigrant highlighted things that could be done better (and were elsewhere), there was still a prevailing attitude of “Well here’s the Ryanair website, off you go if it is so much better in France”. Most people would take the view that health care in fact was better in France. In general.

I spent 17 or 18 years in Dublin before eventually escaping again. It took about 5 years of planning, battling, thinking about stuff and trying to catch opportunities before it all came together and I got out. The thought of growing old in Dublin depressed me and when I look at debates around certain aspects of living in Dublin still going on I reckon I would be old before Dublin reached a stage where in fact it was an attractive city to live in. Essentially, it can be very difficult to create a healthy life style in Dublin – I managed it for around 12 of the years I lived there and when it went bad, it went quite badly. In the end, I was losing 2-3 hours a day in commuting over a commuting distance of 7 km. It’s one thing to lose that sort of time if you’re travelling 60 km each way. It is ludicrous if the distance is 7km. I walked it one day. It was deeply unpleasant as well.

I’ve long been of the opinion that people in Dublin would be a lot healthier if the place had a coherent, dependable, integrated public transport system. It doesn’t. Not only that, it isn’t getting one any time soon. There is a current project in place which will displace 13 million bus journeys to facilitate something like 1 million bike journeys. There just isn’t an integrated consideration of the question “How do we make this place a good place to live”. Symptoms are attacked piecemeal, other problems are not addressed at all. All in all, if I had to pick one word to describe trying to navigate Dublin, the word Stress would line up.

I whinge at length about public transport in Dublin, but in particular I want to highlight a key problem in that particular city – I am not sure that it is unique to Dublin but my experience is that it is particularly bad in Dublin. It is a city and society in which the default is an unhealthy lifestyle rather than a healthy life style.

For more than 10 years, I worked somewhere that was a guaranteed 20 minutes from where I lived. Every single morning, that’s how long it took me to get there and that’s how long it took me to get home. This meant I had more time to do things like go swimming three times a week, cook in the evenings when I got home without being utterly exhausted, go climbing, do more needlework, go to more concerts. The logistic reality of my life was not all that stressful in the grand scheme of things. When I started working in the city centre I attempted to make public transport work for me because really, it’s more environmentally sound, and in theory it should be a bit cheaper. In reality, the transport times across two jobs in two different city centre locations were either completely unreliable, or consisted of a mode of which one was completely unreliable. I eventually went back driving because the journey times were generally more reliable, and came in at shorter than the public transport options. Again, that was for 7km, and one of them was sa point to point bus service.

People cannot live healthily like this. And yet in Dublin we just took it for granted? Appointment at 7pm? Travel wildly early because travelling on time didn’t guarantee you’d be on time. The amount of time wasted in inefficient travel in Dublin for me was just beyond calculable and it was utterly depressing.

Time wasted like this has all sorts of knock on effects. It puts stress on parents trying to collect kids from childcare, arriving home later from work cuts into time for doing stuff like oh preparing and cleaning up food, doing any sort of a hobby, getting exercise. I can clearly flash back to having spent a crazy amount of time figuring out how best to fit swimming into my schedule and still failing because an 8km journey could take up to 2 hours. Arriving home at 8pm with a need to be up at 6am has a fairly desperate impact on your ability to manage things like a regular healthy eating habit, a reliable sleeping patter and any sort of relaxation. We have increasing rates of burn out and our health indicators are pointing towards obesity and diabetes and other environmental issues in the area of air quality.

As a society we create an environment where the default option is to be unhealthy and to be in an unhealthy environment. It’s a macro level problem. And we expect people to fix it on a micro level. Individuals need to fight hard to sort out diets and eating habits, and getting enough exercise even as they still don’t have time for either and are trying to operate in a lifestyle which is designed to counteract every effort they make. It doesn’t have to be that way.

When you move outside the public transport side of things, there is also the general social issue of presenteeism. Where people work crazy hours and make a virtue of it. Despite the fact that it adds to their stress, adds to the amount of time they don’t spend recovering, doesn’t necessarily add value to their working day. And then they complain about people who they perceive to have easier lives and instead of working on the premise of improving life for all, they look to disimprove life for all

It’s corrosive and it is something we will have to address urgently particularly in the wider context of things like minimum basic income and especially automation of jobs and moves to replace workers with intelligent systems (for a given value of intelligent anyway).

It is clear that we need things to be sustainably financially for things to operate without causing war or catastrophe. But against that, we need to ensure that the benefit of things are shared relatively fairly. We don’t tend to have this debate either and ultimately, it is not going to be healthy to have an increasing number of people unable to find work while another sector overworks itself to an early grave.

I suppose, the point I’m making is we don’t ask whether the way our society operates is healthy and whether our objectives are sane and sensible in terms of enabling people to live healthy lives. I’m not sure how we start that conversation. But I do know that reliable transport would make people’s lives a lot better.