Rural Ireland on two wheels
A national Greenway cycling route would cost the same as a few kilometres of motorway, and transform how tourists and locals travel through the country
Co Mayo’s Great Western Greenway route
For decades, the number of cyclists in Ireland was in decline. In the mid-1980s, 7 per cent of commuters still cycled to work but by 2009, 78 per cent of all journeys were in a car, van or truck, 16 per cent were on foot, 5 per cent were on public transport and only 1 per cent were on a bike.
The figures for rural Ireland were even starker, with 91 per cent of all journeys in a private vehicle. The sample of cyclists was so low it was hard to measure. In some counties more girls were driving themselves to secondary school than were cycling there. If you were on a bike, you were the poor relation. You were a bit odd.
And it wasn’t just Irish people who were turning away from cycling on our roads. A 2007 Fáilte Ireland report on developing cycling tourism noted that the number of cycling tourists had fallen from 130,000 in 2000 to less than 60,000 in 2006. Only 50 per cent described themselves as very satisfied; 9 per cent described their visit as an unhappy one.
Five years later, things are starting to turn; cycling is again on the rise. You could put it down to the Bike to Work tax break, the Dublin Bikes scheme and the interest in getting fit in a recession, where a lot of us have less money but more free time. One of the stories that turned things around was the dramatic success of the new Greenway cycle route to Achill. It was one short section of the 3,400km network of country road tourist routes recommended in that 2007 Fáilte Ireland report. The 27km section from Newport to Achill was different, as it was to be built on an old rail line that could be converted at a cost of €3.5 million.
The timing was right because, at the same time, the Government published a Smarter Travel Plan that aimed to have 10 per cent of all journeys in 2020 done by bike. The Mayo route opened in 2010 and by 2011 it was already bringing 23,000 visitors and €6.3 million into an area that had been declining for years. Suddenly, every county wanted one.
Fáilte Ireland did some more analysis and came back with the view that overseas visitors will come in large numbers only if we have a larger network of high-quality routes. The shape of such a network was set out in a 2010 scoping study, and it was recommended that we start by building a route from Dublin to Galway, which is also one of two cycle routes being planned at a European level.
That route could be ready to be built next year. It could start at the Dublin docks and follow the Royal Canal to Blanchardstown. The other option would be to take the existing car traffic off the north quays and to create our own version of the High Line project that has dramatically improved Manhattan.
Imagine such a “Greenway” running through the city centre, connecting Dublin Bay to the Phoenix Park. Our best traffic engineers know that it is perfectly feasible. By diverting traffic on to a new two-way system on the south quays, we would create a safer road network, and there would be little or no loss of accessibility. The cost of the switchover would be small. The only missing ingredient is the right political will.