Why Dubliners are right to be sceptical about the new metro plans

A tram in the snow near Cherrywood, south of Dublin. Image: Getty.

Dublin’s transport plans bemuse and befuddle me on a daily basis. The transport authorities appear to chop and change proposals with abandon – and without fully explaining why they’ve made certain choices either (apart from the standard issue “the economy went bust and it costs too much” excuse, of course). For anyone living in this city, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether those in charge of our daily journeys are just making it up as they go along.

Over the past two decades, government proposals for a fully integrated transport network have included a new two-line electric train system – expanding the existing DART service outwards from the coast – as well as a tunnel underneath the city centre connecting major central stations. But this scheme, known as DART Underground, does not appear in the new transport strategy for Dublin, part of the national development plan announced last week. 

Some proposals – the Luas tram network, the Port Tunnel, Docklands station – have been realised, either in full or reduced form. The more costly and ambitious ones, however, have until now been left dead in the water. That includes Metro North, a plan for an underground train system connecting Dublin Airport and the swathes of commuter hinterland beyond it to the city centre. 

For those of you who may not be familiar with the excruciating history of Metro North, it’s the phantom transport plan that haunts the city’s dwellers to this present day – a carrot frequently dangled in front of us and then abruptly snatched away by our representatives.

The proposal was first made public to great fanfare in 2005, put on hold by then transport minister Leo Varadkar in 2011, and subsequently reannounced in 2015. And it’s gone through a head-spinning number of permutations and combinations since it was first proposed by the Dublin Transportation Office some 17 years ago back in 2001.

The latest plan for ‘Metro Link’, as it’s now known, sees much of it move underground. It will also extend beyond the city centre, and connect up with the Luas green line to serve the suburbs of south Dublin: a portion of the southbound tramline will be upgraded to overground metro track as part of the scheme.

If the work had commenced as originally planned back in 2010, our city would now have had a metro for several years. As it stands, Metro Link is currently set for completion in… 2027.

Click to expand: one of the many out of date and misleading maps of the Dublin transport network you can find on the internet. The Luas Green line has now been extended; the other dotted lines are mere phantasms. That no up to date version of the map is available feels telling, somehow. Image: Wikipedia.

Transport proposals for Dublin change so fast it’s hard to keep up. So much so that many have just stopped caring, and instead sigh, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

So the people of Cabra, Broombridge and Phibsborough must have been pleasantly surprised in December last year. They had been singled out from other suburban northsiders, to benefit from a newly extended Luas green line towards well-connected south Dublin. Perhaps it was simply down to the helpful existence of an old railway track. Maybe it was a nod of approval towards Phibsborough’s creeping gentrification. Either way, what a treat that it actually got finished.

 Of course, for all other northsiders  – apart from those lucky enough to be in and around the financial district on the Luas red line – commuting across the River Liffey became a nightmare overnight. The introduction of trams along this route meant they faced delays of up to seven minutes crossing the city as their buses, now jostled for space with the Luas, cars, taxis and cyclists. Near O’Connell Bridge and into D’Olier Street towards College Green, traffic slowed to a tortoise-like trickle during peak hours.

There appears to have been a distinct lack of foresight when it comes to Dublin Cross City, as this extension of the green line is known. The month after it opened, 17 buses had to be routed away from College Green, the area worst hit by the subsequent chronic congestion. This month, authorities were forced to divert 10 more.

Indeed northside dwellers would be forgiven for thinking they’ve drawn the short straw when it comes to public transport over the last two decades. After the announcement of LUAS Cross City, many asked, “Why don’t they just build a metro?” or, “Why is this being prioritised over a link to the airport?”

As Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole recently pointed out, of the 20 busiest airports in Europe, Dublin is the only major city that still lacks a direct train to its city centre.

Large working class and lower middle class areas such as Swords, Dardistown, Finglas and Ballymun have also been completely ignored by all recent public transport developments. This is surprising when you consider their size: Finglas is a rapidly growing, socially deprived area with a population of over 30,000 people, many of whom are young. Yet it still has no rail or tram links.

But this is likely less to be an actual conspiracy against the northside’s inhabitants, and more likely to be simple absence of planning, future proofing and general consideration for citizens north of the river. Indeed, it seems as if their exclusion from recent projects has been depressingly incidental – and largely due to a move away from more expensive and complex projects.

We can hope the new metro plan has been more carefully evaluated so as to take into account the way these particular areas have been overlooked. But on this, some understandably have doubts. A Dublin City University professor recently complained to the Irish Independent that the public were yet to see a cost-benefit analysis for any of the metro project’s three feasibility studies. One of the main changes to the route since 2015, notes the Irish Times, is to eliminate two stops on the airport side of the city.

North or south, all any of us in this city really want is a well-connected, comprehensive and efficient transport network. Fingers crossed, a decade from now, that’s what we’re finally going get. But you can’t blame us for being a little sceptical.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.