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The path for cycling (vision, determination, funding) is clear but bumpy

Seven years ago transport minister Noel Dempsey launched the National Cycle Policy with a vision “that all cities, towns, villages and rural areas will be bicycle friendly” and that 10% of all trips will be by bike by 2020. Progress has been a little erratic.

An ambitious plan for the Greater Dublin Area was then drawn up by the National Transport Authority and finalised in 2014. It aims for a 5-fold increase in the length of the region’s network of cycle lanes, paths, greenways and routes on quiet roads. Under the plan as many people could be hopping on bicycles as they do buses in the Dublin region.

Proposed Dublin City Green Cycle Network
Proposed Dublin City Green Cycle Network

Similar plans for cycle networks on different scales have been drawn up for the cities of Cork, Limerick, and Waterford, while Mayo and Waterford are in the process of building greenways across their counties.

With buses carrying the vast bulk of public-transport users, the chances of bicycle use ever matching it may seem far fetched, but our European neighbours show what’s possible.

Copenhagen has a network of metro, suburban rail and bus routes, yet together they hold a 28% modal share of commuter trips, while cycling accounts for 36%. Meanwhile the Dutch manage to use their bicycles a whopping 26% of modal share of all trips — despite their extensive national and local public transport network, the combined total for trains, trams, buses, and metro line is only 5%.

Ireland’s cycling modal share is around 3%, with Dublin City estimated by The Sunday Times to be at close to 10% — both figures are for commuting, the predominant transport use for bicycles. Unlike the Dutch, Irish people generally don’t, for example, shop much by bicycle.

Many sustainability advocates mainly push for public transport, but mass cycling can replace more car trips than mass public transport.

Cost-effectiveness is a large part of this — cycling done right isn’t cheap but the return on investment in terms of transport, health and longer-term sustainability is larger and can be extended across more of the country. In the Netherlands cycling is part of a system geared up for sustainable planning and allows streets to focus on more than just moving high volumes of cars.

For individuals, cycling boasts advantages in relation to time, costs, mental and physical health, and the ability to carry larger amounts than most people are willing to on foot.

Cycling cultures offer car-less of transport independence, meaning commuters are not slaves to congestion, and teenagers and parents are free from parents acting as taxi drivers. Transport-related social inequality is also lowered as bicycles give low-paid workers in areas poorly served by public transport the means of getting to work and generally getting around without the expense of a car.

Rather than promoting these benefits, councils and other state bodies gets caught up with promoting safety gear, such as helmets and high-bus vests, which most European countries leave up to personal choice. We promote the idea of fixing your own bicycle when most people in bicycle cultures will drop their bike into their local bicycle shop for anything but the most minor of issues.

Listening to the Irish media it sometimes sounds like long-distance commuters are in the majority. According to the 2014 CSO travel survey results 60% of trips taken nationally by people over the age of 18 are within easy cycling distances – under 8km, or a 30-minutes cycle – not using a racing bicycle. Most of those commutes are well under 8km.

Rain is often cited as an excuse not to cycle in our cities, but Dublin has less rain and less extreme cold weather than both Amsterdam and Copenhagen, and Cork has only moderately higher rain than the Dutch capital.

While not everybody is able to cycle all the time, where proper cycle paths are provided, a wider range of people will see it as an attractive option.

The way it should be: Grand Canal cycle route
The way it should be: Grand Canal cycle route

Recently the National Transport Authority allocated €23.2 million for 125 sustainable transport projects in the Greater Dublin Area (which comprises 40% of the population of Ireland) – the bulk of projects funded are cycling-related or have notable cycling elements. The funding might seem a lot, but Utrecht in the Netherlands, a city of around 500,000 people which already has a lot of high-quality cycling infrastructure, is investing around €45 million per year in cycling.

Ireland also has a quality and value-for-money problem. A large percentage of what is planned or under construction is at best of mixed quality. Compromised projects won’t be half as attractive and many of these retrofits will require updating soon.

Central to this is a lack of vision and ambition to roll out segregated cycle paths which make cycling attractive to people of all ages and abilities. Most councils in Ireland, it seems, have an aversion to constructing cycle paths which are separated from both motoring and walking. Cycling is mixed with walking in places and with buses or heavy traffic in other locations. Sometimes routes are mixed with both walking and motor traffic on the same routes — leaving the routes unattractive to users who don’t want to mix with cars and those who don’t want to mix with pedestrians.

These are not confined to the Netherlands or Denmark: cities across the world including London and New York have been building segregated cycle paths in recent years.

A recently published evaluation report covering the “Smarter Travel Areas” of Limerick, Dungarvan and Westport showed that after investment in infrastructure, the “increase in modal share for cycling trips has been relatively small (albeit statistically significant)”. However, the cycling infrastructure in these places, while improved, is still deficient compared to cycling friendly countries.

Dutch research outlines that it’s not cycle routes but networks of routes which can help attract people out of their cars. The evaluation report notes, “little evidence of Smarter Travel to date on many streets within the [three] urban centres”: Westport basically has little more than an orbital greenway, of mixed quality; and Limerick has hit delays in implementing what are, overall, limited changes.

If Ireland wants to attract car users to make some of their trips by bicycle it is likely we will have to put in at least the same effort as the Dutch.

The Westport Greenway
The Westport Greenway

As well as having little more than an orbital route, Westport has unnecessary cycling-unfriendly gradients and narrow widths on shared walking and cycling paths. The evaluation report nevertheless strangely gave Westport a clean bill of health on quality. It said: “An independent audit of the infrastructure in 2013 concluded that the fully off-road greenways had been delivered to a high standard”. This audit, however, used a width calculator for unshared cycle paths and it did not count interaction between greenway users as ‘conflicts’ which would slow users down.

Over on the east coast, cycling is booming with increases recorded by yearly traffic counts and automated bicycle traffic counters. Nevertheless conditions on Dublin’s roads are still off-putting to most people.

Dublin has a lot of plans to change this. These, however, are only very slowly coming off the drawing board and many problems have arisen including mixing cycling with buses and other heavy traffic, pressure from objectors, and difficulties with designers who sometimes don’t even follow the weak national design guidelines.

Mikael Colville-Andersen, a Danish transport consultant who is involved with ranking how cycling friendly cities are, said last June that: “We dubbed Dublin the Great Bike Hope in 2013, but the city slipped into apathy”.

Councillor Ciaran Cuffe, head of the city council’s transport committee, agrees with Colville-Andersen on apathy. As Cuffe put it last year:
“There is no shortage of plans and programmes to improve cycling, but there is a lack of vision and drive to move these plans forward. Agencies have to ask themselves, what are they doing to make improvements happen”.

Cracks in the plans are also obvious — a route planned between the city centre and Fairview went from an initial design of a protected two-way cycle path to being downgraded to having people cycling in space shared with bus stops.

Dublin City Council officials don’t seem too excited that the current city development plan seeks a city where cycling is attractive to people of all ages and abilities. When questioned they claim that there’s not enough space for full segregation. International experts on sustainable transport are quick to point out that the allocation of street space is usually a political issue, not an engineering one.

When Dublin City Council starts to build higher quality routes, there should already be induced demand from commuters on routes which Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council and South Dublin County Council are – more quietly and slightly more quickly – improving. Although these too are suffering from issues of mixing with walking and motoring.

Some cycling campaigners ins Dublin are quick to point out objections from groups which don’t want to divest traffic lane or car parking space, but objections to cycling projects are far wider.

Speaking to IrishCycle.com on the River Dodder Greenway, which his company consulted for, Colville-Andersen said: “We do not advocate shared-use paths except in recreational areas, and even then clearly separated by markings”.

The National Transport Authority and the lead council on the route, South Dublin County Council, both see little wrong with the general practice of mixing cycling and walking in urban areas, but current users of the route fear conflict between fast cyclists and leisurely walkers, while others fear path widening will alter the nature of the current paths.

Proposed Liffey Cycle Route at Croppies Acre: aborted by lobbying
Proposed Liffey Cycle Route at Croppies Acre: aborted by lobbying

The Liffey Cycle Cycle route was originally in danger of never getting off the ground because of city-centre businesses – including car parks – objecting to the route. Now, however, those interests have faded while campaigns against the route have been mounted by local residents and businesses on a section of the route and by the National Graves Association.

Much of the source of lobbying surrounds possible changes to the Croppies Acre park, which is a memorial to the United Irishmen who are said to have been executed on the site in the aftermath of the 1798 Irish rebellion. The true nature of the site is disputed. Some claim there is a mass grave, but others say the bodies were dumped in the river, which looked a lot different back in 1798 when the current quay-line was not formed in front of the Croppies Acre.

A local campaign, under the banners “Stop Road Widening” and “Save Our Neighbourhood D7” is focused on the park and also what they call “a road-widening scheme masquerading as a cycle way”. There is some road-widening in the Liffey project, but when the group posted an image which indicated their view of the extent of the road-widening in the plans, the areas mainly included a mix of road narrowing, a transfer of road space from parking/loading to bus lanes, and even a section of cycle path.

Elsewhere, Cork has tried to tackle one-way streets, which are a major barrier to cycling, and is moving on to look at further changes, Dundalk has taken steps to implement cycle paths but even pro-cycling councillors complain at the lack of integration between routes, and Waterford City has promising plans for Dutch-like segregation in its city centre.

Back in the west, the Great Western Greenway, from Westport to Achill in Co Mayo, has proven how successful greenways can be for tourism and leisure. Built mostly following an old railway, the route has also had its share of issues.

The Mayo route used what is called “permissive access”, where landowners allow the council to build the greenway path across their lands but can revoke permission. Some farmers have over  the last few year blocked the route leading to detours onto busy national roads — some farmers saying because promised fencing was not up to agreement but others in dispute with the council on issues unrelated to the greenway. Council officials also say that maintaining the agreements is an administrative nightmare.

So it’s not a surprise that compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) were kept firmly on the table for the planned Dublin to Galway Greenway. This annoyed farmers in Co Galway who claimed the route would cut their farms in half, and it eventually caused the minister for transport to step in and put the route on hold west of Athlone. From Athlone to Dublin the route is progressing in sections along State-owned land, the banks of the Royal Canal and the old Athlone to Mullingar railway (which is already open as a greenway).

CPOs will be used by Kerry County Council later this year. The council says 95% of 120 landowners have signed to sell them the needed land for the planned greenway in south-west Kerry following the route of a former railway line. The IFA are backing protesters but councillors voted to approve the needed CPOs.

Waterford City and County Council is also currently constructing its 45km Waterford Greenway on the alignment of the disused railway line from Dungarvan to Waterford and hopes to open it in August. It had the advantage that the route was mostly in State ownership, and the council has designed the route to a higher standard than seen in Ireland to date.

A bicycle is a simple machine but for cycling culture to be built vision and determination is needed. And funding.

Cian Ginty is editor of the cycling news website irishcycle.com