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
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.
From the Phoenix Park, the route could rejoin the Royal Canal and at Blanchardstown it would need a new cycle bridge to cross the N3/M50 intersection. It would be a spectacular span across our biggest spaghetti junction, with a rail line, canal and flyovers running above and below.
Once across that gap, it is plain sailing along the banks of the Royal Canal all the way to Mullingar. From there, you switch to the disused rail line, which would bring you to Athlone and the Shannon. Once again, we would have to build another cycling bridge across the river. The benefit to Athlone would be immense. Of the three existing bridges across the Shannon, only one can be used by pedestrians or cyclists.
The rural sections could be built for less than €50,000 per kilometre and would involve minimal disturbance. Every town and village along the route would be a winner, like those places where Shannon cruise boats tie up overnight. Pubs could be reopened; cafes, shops and B&Bs could start to make a living.
The route west of the Shannon is not yet decided. There is less publicly owned land, other than the Bord na Móna bogs, so an arrangement would have to be made with private landowners. The success in Mayo and the resolution of some of the more contentious issues around walking routes make it likely we could get a solution that benefits everyone. In the end, it might come down to a competition between communities who want the route to come their way.
The final stretch along the seafront into Galway City would be spectacular, but it should not stop there. Restoring the old Clifden rail line as a cycle route would add a further 80km to the 230km it would take to get from Dublin to Galway. Joining the two projects together would create an international bestseller in the growing world of cycling tourism. By connecting from Clifden to Westport and from Oranmore to the Burren, we could then start building the second big European route that would give the whole west of Ireland a lift.
These tourist routes are for our own people as much as for visitors. Getting people back on a bike on a Sunday will start them thinking of cycling rather than driving to the shops. The health and social benefits are immense, even if it would be hard to put them down on any Department of Finance balance sheet.
Leo Varadkar will be considering around now whether this project is included in his capital budget for next year. For the price of one or two kilometres of motorway we could start a national “Greenway” network that would help turn our country around. We have already passed the point of no return. There is a nice downhill spin ahead if we can get over the next rise.
Eamon Ryan is leader of the
Irish Green Party