More Than Transport Delays: What Being a Commuter Really Means

Image Credit: From Isabella's commute

Joshua McCormack interviews Isabella Ambrosio about her experiences as a commuting student from Meath, and discusses the issues facing commuters as the housing crisis offers no foreseeable end in sight.

Under a midnight sky, Isabella’s alarm cuts through her dreams. 5:30 a.m. Outside the weather is arctic, the wind-whipped trees gowned in shimmers of frozen dew. Nevertheless, Isabella drags herself from her bed and plunges into her morning routine; time is short; breakfast and coffee luxuries she can’t afford. Bed made, bag packed, etc, Isabella, bundled in a thick coat, treks into the morning. Fifteen minute crunching along a puddled and pitted country road. Cars shriek past. A clawing chill. The streetlamps burning yellow, still on the night watch. At last, Isabella – based near Ashbourne, Meath – reaches her stop, where a quivering knot of similarly frozen locals are huddled about, awaiting the arrival of the 7:30 a.m. 105x coach which takes Isabella straight to UCD. On a good day the journey is about an hour and a half, just a few minutes shorter than a flight between Dublin and London, time Isabella either spends catching up on sleep or working on pitches. Campus around 9 a.m., starving and desperate for coffee, roughly three and a half hours after the screech of the alarm: This, ladies and gentlemen, is the best scenario.

As any commuter knows, there are a myriad of disasters that could befall Isabella as she travels into college, all of which she’s experienced with crushing regularity. Her coach delayed for upwards of an hour; every seat taken, forced to watch as it trundles on without her; it never showing, forcing Isabella to take the “crappy old Bus Eireann white buses that have loose panels and that cause a lot of racket,” which will force her to change bus in town, amidst the painstaking grind of Dublin traffic. All this before days crammed with lectures, tutorials, study and assignments.

Isabella Ambrosio, currently studying for her Masters in English & Communications and one of the UO’s OTwo editors, originally hails from Chicago and is uniquely placed as an interviewee. Having moved to Ireland in 2016 to attend fifth and sixth year as a secondary school student—before commencing her undergrad in the autumn of 2018—Isabella has experienced on-campus accommodation and off with pleasant apartments and opportunistic landlords, breezy commutes and daily odysseys.

During her first and second year (2018-2020), Isabella travelled from Stillorgan. No tyranny of the timetable here, just a hop down the road. In our conversation Isabella reflected on these years with a sad smile; in those days, Isabella could attend any and all events, hang out on campus from dawn ‘till dusk, avail of the gyms and various clubs, meet with friends whenever. In short, Isabella was free, her college experience unfettered by haphazard public transport and exploitative rents.

Midway through second year, Covid struck: campus life resumed 18 months later in Isabella’s final year where, unable to secure on campus accommodation, Isabella found herself renting a one-room flat from Arkcon Lettings. For Isabella, it was the “worst experience of my life,” with dodgy heating, grime-encrusted walls, sealed windows, all for the inglorious price of 800 euro a month.

Despite all these past hardships and the current challenges she faces, Isabella considers herself lucky: “I’m incredibly fortunate that I’m in a position where my partner’s family has welcomed me into their home with open arms, at a much lower price in rent ... a warm home that I am looked after in, cared for in, and am valued in. I really did luck out.”

It doesn’t work out for everyone. During our conversation, Isabella recalled a story that’s become all too common in Ireland, of an acquaintance who’d secured their dream course and was brimming with excitement at the prospect of starting college. Of course, theirs was a long commute, further than Meath, but it should be alright.

As it turns out, it wasn’t. They dropped out in second year, weathered into submission by chaotic public transport, ineffectual college boards and an apathetic government. Another bright young mind robbed of their education, their future. The anger Isabella feels on behalf of these students is palpable.

“People have to sacrifice the opportunities they’re paying for due to long commutes. Whether it’s working on campus, staying late and having a pint in the Clubhouse, attending society and sports events ... we pay extortionate fees to not even use the facilities that are available to us.”

‘People have to sacrifice the opportunities they’re paying for due to long commutes. We pay extortionate fees to not even use the facilities that are available to us.’

Many prospective students believe that college is a sunlit-idyll, a kind of nirvana where friends spring from the earth and the beer flows as readily as the rain, but for many the reality is a lonely one, especially in UCD with its vast student population. Therefore, it's vital that students, especially first and second years only starting to find their way, are on campus, amongst their peers, engaging in events and societies, forging relationships in class and out.

Outlets that over 17 percent of students in Ireland can not avail of, according to census figures published in the Irish Times, due to spending upwards of 2 hours a day commuting to and from college, are shuttered out of.

Although Isabella believes that UCD should be doing more, she contends that the lion’s share of the blame lies with the government. She says, “as an American, I’m able to see Ireland through a different lens than most. I see a bureaucracy that is completely ineffective and unorganised, leading to issues such as accommodation and public transport infrastructure to take a ‘back seat’ in the important issue.”

During our conversation, Isabella lamented the scores of cranes bearing over the city, devoted to building office blocks destined to go unused; and the many derelict properties scattered through Dublin, both of which, surely, would be better placed alleviating the student accommodation drought.

“It’s taxing, mentally, to sit on a bus anywhere from 3 to 4 hours a day. I have cried on campus after rough days, frustrated, because all I want to do is crawl into bed, but instead, I have to sit on a bus for two hours before I can do that. It’s discouraging, and causes a bit of hopelessness. It’s really changed the way I view my college experience.”