It was a figure that couldn’t fail to make headlines: the Government planned to invest almost €1m a day on walking and cycling infrastructure. The pledge in the Programme for Government represented 20pc of the transport budget and would put us on a par with countries like the Netherlands and Denmark in terms of per capita spending on cycling.
t hasn’t quite worked out that way. While local authorities have claimed €180m of this budget this year, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan last month called on them to fast-track projects to spend the remaining €129m.
Councils’ failure to spend these millions has provoked an angry reaction from cycling advocates, and many are asking what the funds have been spent on so far. Has the money produced any useful and lasting measures?
Martina Callanan, deputy chairperson of Galway Cycling Campaign, says not enough is being done.
“Galway city residents are crying out for safer streets. Quite literally — people who have been injured are speaking out about the shocking danger experienced every day when doing something as normal as cycling to work,” she says.
“We’re begging councillors to push the council to spend the millions and millions of funds available and to hire new staff. We can’t understand the lack of urgency. Glaciers move faster than Galway City Council.”
As of May, the council had spent less than 10pc of its budget for active travel — defined by the Government as “travelling with a purpose using your own energy”. Despite €250,000 allocated for improvements to cycleways, Callanan says there is very little to see for the money.
Plans for a Salthill cycleway, a 3km stretch along Galway’s coast road, were revoked by councillors in February due to concerns over the loss of parking and disruption to businesses. Local opposition to cycling infrastructure projects is a common feature not only in Galway but nationwide.
When contacted, Galway City Council outlined it plans for improved cycling infrastructure and said that it intended to start construction on some of these routes this year.
It’s not only Galway residents who are frustrated with the slow pace of change. Ed Moynihan, vice-chairperson of Navan Cycling Initiative, describes cycling in the Co Meath town as “unsafe, unpleasant and downright nerve-racking”.
“My son is five and just started school this year, yet at present it isn’t safe to cycle to school or to the town centre or other amenities” he says.
Moynihan is frustrated by the local authority’s failure to introduce the planned cycling network.
“Even though Meath County Council has spent €11m of its €12.8m from the 2021 active travel grants, we have seen very few cycle lanes completed in Navan or throughout Meath as a result. Almost half of the €12.8m was spent on footpath and road improvements for ‘Navan 2030’, a scheme to upgrade the town centre, which contains no cycling infrastructure.”
About €3.5m of the allocated funds for Navan have been spent on plans and consultant fees for cycling schemes, but these have been bogged down at various planning stages. There is only one active scheme, which, despite going to public consultation in 2018, is still a year or so away from construction.
Meath County Council confirmed to the Independent that only a fraction of the grant had been spent on cycling infrastructure in Navan last year but there are projects in the planning process. In the meantime, the council said it was spending large sums to deliver other active travel initiatives.
Many councils have been unable to fill their active travel staff quota. These include roles for engineers and urban designers with expertise in developing high-quality walking and cycling facilities, and staff with experience of stakeholder consultations.
A similar situation exists in Navan. “Funding isn’t a problem. We’ve been told the main issue is a lack of staff, even though Meath County Council filled its 12 positions for the new active travel team,” Moynihan says, “but more crucially it is a lack of priority to focus on active travel measures rather than road projects. The money is there, but the will is not.”
But not all bike paths are created equal. Angela Harrington lives in Dundrum village in Dublin and has been commuting to work in the city centre for 12 years. In the past year, there have been essentially no improvements to her route, a road through Dundrum and Ranelagh with heavy traffic.
“Very recently, some plastic wands have been placed on the Clonskeagh Road/Sandford Road for a very short stretch,” she says. “The wands have made the cycle more dangerous as they trap you in a narrow channel that is full of defects. So overall on my 7km cycle to the city centre, the two very short stretches of supposed improvements have made my journey more hazardous.”
Another issue is the lack of continuity of segregated lanes — situations where they simply disappear to accommodate an extra car lane, making it acutely dangerous for cyclists, particularly inexperienced riders.
Much more needs to be done to make cycling accessible to all, particularly in the context of an ageing global population, says Clara Clark, Irish founder of Cycling Without Age.
“The barrier to cycling for all, but especially for older people, is the lack of safe, segregated cycling infrastructure. Lines of paint are not cycling infrastructure,” she says. “My husband is 80 and has Parkinson’s; he cycles a pedal-assist trike 7-8km every day. Age or ability is not the issue — access to safe cycling infrastructure is.”
Cycling needs to be accessible, achievable and ultimately realistic for everyone, but getting people to take up cycling after a long break — or who have never cycled before — can be difficult.
It’s a challenge for someone in their 40s or 50s to learn to cycle. It’s best to start young but we have disappointingly low figures of children cycling to school compared with our European neighbours. We risk losing generations of cyclists, as many parents are fearful of letting their children cycle on busy roads.
In response to a lack of safe cycling infrastructure, Anne Cronin and Conor Buckley set up the Limerick Cycle Bus in January 2019. Inspired by a similar initiative in Galway, they started as a group of two to three families living on the northside of Limerick city who needed to cross the river and the city each morning to take their kids to school together. They now accompany 20 to 30 children each day to the Limerick School Project and An Mhodhscoil.
“We meet each morning at a few different points on the route at selected times, and parents lead the bus and marshal it,” Cronin says. “While many Limerick motorists recognise the kids now and expect them at different times, we still regularly encounter unsafe passes when drivers don’t realise the length of the bus.”
Cycle buses are only a temporary fix, though. Cronin would ideally like children to be able to cycle independently to primary school on a safe, segregated route and hopes that things will improve as a result of the increased funding.
“There is still more to do in terms of connecting pockets of infrastructure — €18m has been spent in Limerick in the past 12 months, and so we look forward to seeing the outcomes of that funding on the ground in the coming weeks and months,” she says.
Jo Sachs-Eldridge, founder and organiser of the Leitrim Cycling Festival, believes lower speed limits on rural roads are crucial for cyclists. Rural roads have higher speed limits than urban roads and are often narrower, with sharp corners and blind bends. They are also where more than 70pc of all road deaths this year occurred.
In response, she started Rothar Roads, a national rural cycling collective looking for councils to designate quiet rural roads as routes where people on bicycles are “expected and respected”.
“There is huge potential for more people to cycle in rural Ireland,” she says. “Greenways and blueways are wonderful, but we don’t need to wait for them to be built. We already have these beautiful, nature-rich, low-trafficked roads that weave across the country connecting many of our homes to the places we want to go.”
It’s not always about infrastructure; sometimes it’s about driver behaviour. “I cycle with my little one, Georgie, who is six, and I would say 99pc of the time it feels safe,” she says.
“People driving are respectful of us and our need for space, and we have a lot of fun. For the other 1pc of the time that it feels unsafe, it’s worth pointing out that it’s not the infrastructure that makes it unsafe but the humans we share it with.”
The pace of progress differs widely nationwide and there is a disparity in how the allocated funds are being spent, from poorly designed cycle lanes to resurfaced footpaths. In addition, some councils appear reluctant to reallocate road space to sustainable modes of transport.
It’s worth noting that the planning process can be a lengthy one. There are prime examples of considerable time lags from concept to realisation, including the proposed Liffey Cycle Route. The project was mooted in 2011 and is still only partially constructed on a temporary basis, having gone through several design changes. The Waterford Greenway is another. The campaign for it began in the early 2000s. It finally opened in March 2017, but the final short link to Waterford city is still under construction.
Dr Damien Ó Tuama, the national cycling co-ordinator for Cyclist.ie, cautions that the recent funds for cycling and walking should be regarded as “seed funding that is just beginning to bear fruit”.
On a more positive note, he adds that “there are also examples of quick-to-build Covid mobility schemes advanced over the last two years, some of which have been transformative in promoting cycling for all ages and abilities”. One example is the contraflow cycle track and widened footpaths in Nassau Street in Dublin.
For councils to step up, staff need to understand the standards required to bring Irish active travel facilities up to levels that will enable people of all ages and abilities to cycle. The Government, with the support of the National Transport Authority (NTA), is fast-tracking training and support schemes for existing staff in local authorities, mainly through online training and fact-finding visits to countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark.
Ireland has ambitious plans to reduce transport emissions by 50pc by 2030. Key to this is drastically cutting the number of journeys we make by car. Cycling and walking can take up a considerable amount of this slack.
But not everyone is convinced that allocating millions to active travel is the best use of resources. A recent letter to the Irish Independent described as “shameful” the Transport Minister’s insistence that councils spend their unclaimed €129m at a time when life-changing scoliosis and spina bifida surgery for children was being cancelled.
Given the difficulties faced by local authorities in introducing cycling facilities, there is an argument that Ryan’s mandate is unhelpful. Councils should be encouraged to create long-term active travel infrastructure plans and not quick fixes in reaction to political pressure.
Ultimately, investment in cycling is not just about reducing emissions; it’s an investment in health and wellbeing. Many studies show that those who commute by bike have a significantly reduced rate of mortality from any cause than those who drive. The potential annual savings to the HSE budget that cycling delivers are considerable.
So, yes, investment in cycling benefits everyone, but mandates to spend money before the year end for the sake of it increase the risk of ending up with substandard infrastructure that neither encourages people to take up cycling nor protects those who do. And it does even less to champion the cause of cycling among the general public.
Disabled cyclists ‘invisible’ to society
The needs of people with disabilities who want to cycle are seldom accommodated. This is often due to the notion that they don’t want to or do not cycle. Yet for many, riding a bike may be easier than walking, and some disabled people benefit even more than most from safer active transport options.
Mary Caufield from Dublin, who has a neurological and orthopaedic disability, believes that disabled people are often invisible to society.
“Walking causes me injury, whereas cycling is therapeutic. So I cycle a cargo trike to accommodate my rollator walker and medical alert dog Scamp, who accompanies me 24/7,” she says. “These are the aids I use to assist me in managing my disability.”
Many of the newly installed cycle lanes around the capital fail to accommodate the non-traditional cycles needed by disabled cyclists, while additions like flexible wands to older cycle lanes prevent disabled cyclists from using them.
“Where previously a non-traditional cycle could fit badly in these lanes, the wands now prevent entry, meaning a disabled cyclist would need to use the general traffic lane — risking the ire of motorists who can’t see why the cyclist won’t use the cycle lane and placing them at risk of retribution.
“An example of this is where Parkgate Street in Dublin meets Wolfe Tone Quay at Croppies’ Acre.”