In honour of St.Patrick’s Day this year, the team at movmi nominated me (their very own Irish expat! ☘️) to write an article, about my personal experience of transportation and shared mobility living in Ireland. Northern Ireland to be exact. I am from a small town in the North of Ireland, called Newry, which is located on the border, directly between Belfast and Dublin – Irish cities you may have already heard of.
Getting Around Northern Ireland: My Experience of Irish Transportation
Despite being located on the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and has been since 1921. I won’t go into the nitty gritty history of British colonization too much, but partition has played a big role on the governing of Northern Ireland and therefore on public transportation infrastructure and policies.
I have been living in the wonderful city of Vancouver for 5 years and I very recently became a Canadian Permanent Resident. So I am very lucky to be able to call two amazing places, home. It wasn’t until I arrived in Vancouver and started working with movmi that I realized how terribly lacking the transportation options in Northern Ireland are compared to Vancouver. In my opinion, Vancouver has exceptional public and private transportation options. Buses and trains are inexpensive (comparatively), very accessible and run regularly throughout the day and evening, connecting everyone in the city and surrounding areas. There are two carshare operators (which I had never seen before – but I’ll get to that a little later) AND a city-wide bikeshare scheme.
Having worked with movmi for the past 4 years, I now realize that although Vancouver has a great transportation network, it is by no means the best system in the world. Which made me stop and think, how very behind Northern Ireland is.
Owning A Car: Not just part of the ‘Culture’ – It’s a Necessity
For the purposes of this article, I won’t discuss the transportation options in the South of Ireland as I am not very familiar with what was and is currently available. I’m going to stick with where I grew up in the Northern Ireland and my own personal experiences ‘getting around.’ Which is why, with regret, I have to tell you, that owning a private car is pretty much a necessity.
Although there is a local public bus agency (funnily enough, it is also called TransLink) getting around my home town can be challenging. For example, if I wanted to take the bus to a small village just outside Newry, Meigh, I wouldn’t be able to do so after 6pm. This schedule is the same for any of the rural areas just outside the town, which is where a large part of the population lives.
If I wanted to leave Newry (which we did often) and go to the capital city Belfast for the day, the bus fare is £12, roughly CAD $20, for a journey that takes 30 minutes in a car. If I wanted to go via train, that would cost £17 (CAD $28). A similar journey would be from Vancouver to Surrey for which the skytrain fare is $6. So, as you see, public transportation can be very expensive in Northern Ireland, especially when travelling to other places outside your home town.
Why is taking the train so expensive?
Translink, the publicly-owned holding company for bus and train services in the North, currently receives a subsidy of just over £5 per passenger mile for carrying some six million rail passengers a year. This compares with £22 per passenger mile for ScotRail and £41.5 for rail services in Merseyside. Due to this lack of funding, infrastructure, including rolling stock is beyond dated and prices are high to compensate.
In 2017, a Government travel survey found that around one in 30 respondents (3%) travelled on a train once a week or more, and an additional 6% travelled by train at least once a month, but less than once a week. It also found that one in six respondents (17%) travelled on a bus once a week or more. A further 9% travelled by bus at least once a month, but less than once a week, while 44% said they never travelled by bus. When asked what would encourage them to use local public transport more often, the most popular answer was cheaper fares (28%), followed by more frequent weekend services (19%).
Not only can it be very expensive to travel by bus and rail in Northern Ireland, but the rail infrastructure is almost nonexistent in the West of the country. Almost all of NI’s 60 miles of motorway and 54 train stations are located to the east of the River Bann (the province’s traditional mid-point), with the west left very much the poor relation.
As the map above illustrates, the 27% of NI’s population that live in the west have been saddled with substandard infrastructure since their railways were decimated during the ‘Troubles’ in the 1960s (with the promised motorway replacements never transpiring).
It’s easy to see why the car still dominates when it comes to people commuting to work in Northern Ireland. More than four-fifths of survey respondents (82%) said they got to their jobs by car or van. However, despite NI being a car-centric country, it doesn’t necessarily mean that our road infrastructure is much better than our rail. The map above illustrates the 60 miles of motorway available. Again, the West is completely cut off, but it is still the only method of travel available to most of the population.
Are there any carshare & micromobility services in Northern Ireland?
The term ‘carsharing’ when used in the context of Northern Ireland usually refers to ‘carpooling’ or ‘ridesharing’. The only carsharing/rental company available in Northern Ireland is Enterprise Car Club. You can rent vehicles by the hour (around £6 ) or by the day. This service is only available in three cities/towns; Belfast, Omagh and Portadown. My home town, Newry, for example, does not have access to this service. We can rent cars, from a traditional rental agency, but we have no access to free-floating or station-based carshare programs for example. Which is why I was truly amazed that two such services exist here in Vancouver and that they are very successful and greatly utilized by residents of the city.
The only notable bike sharing service available in Northern Ireland is Belfast Bikes – provided by NextBike. The company started in 2015 and as the name suggests, it is only available in Belfast. There are no other bike share schemes available in Northern Ireland. Belfast bikes has a fleet of 300 bikes that you can rent 365 days a year from 6am to midnight only. The bike share scheme was suspended in 2020 during the outbreak of the pandemic, but it now back running once again. However, it covers a relatively small inner urban area of the city, preventing its use by many commuters. Before the pandemic, after starting strongly in 2015, ridership began to slowly decline. With any luck, the surge in active transportation during COVID-19 will entice more users to sign up.
If we take Belfast as an example, it is consistently among the most congested city in the UK – which makes micromobility, such as e-scooters an attractive solution. In 2018, Belfast drivers spent 190 hours each stuck in traffic – second only to London in the UK, costing £1,400 per driver. Bus routes are somewhat limited to corridors running into the city, meaning many of those who don’t live near a stop rely on their cars, and Belfast Bikes. The potential for micromobility, and in particular electric micromobility, to play a key role in commuting, whether by replacing short trips or supplementing public transport as first/last mile, is immense, and could contribute to reshaping the city and boosting accessibility. The main problem for micromobility options to become a reality is a severe lack of bike lanes and infrastructure in general.
What does the future look like for transportation in Northern Ireland?
This is a difficult one to answer, as I am currently sitting writing this from my apartment in Vancouver – not in Ireland. I do know that there is SO MUCH potential in Northern Ireland that is just ripe for the taking in terms of shared and integrated mobility. What we need is more funding and to allocate it correctly into, first and foremost, infrastructure. As far as policy-making and legislation goes, it has always been an uphill struggle for the North due to the political implications in any big-decision making and this has definitely hampered our growth societally and economically. We are in the unique position of having our own government, however, it is ultimately at the mercy of the UK government and with Brexit, it’s hard to say what the next few years will bring – but I am very optimistic.
If you haven’t had a chance to visit Ireland, I can’t recommend it enough. Especially the North of Ireland. Despite our lack of shared mobility options at present, we have the most stunning scenery (you can see most of it in Game of Thrones!) the people are exceptionally friendly, not to mention funny and we have a wonderful selection of bars and pubs you can relax in! So do yourself a favour and the next time you are planning a vacation – choose Northern Ireland!
Article written by Aoife Rafferty, Social Media Manager and Content Creator, movmi.