Ciara Curran was cycling into work in Galway last Monday. Her route took her from her home in Knocknacarra along the Salthill promenade, or “the Prom” as it is known.
She had just reached a junction along the seafront when she experienced one of the scariest and most dangerous things that can happen to a cyclist: she was “doored”.
“A driver who had parked his car opened the car door. I was already at the car when he opened it. The bike and I were sent out to the middle of the road. A double decker bus was coming up behind me. I don’t know how close it was to me when I came to a stop,” Curran says.
Curran took a hard fall. She is a GP and initially thought she had broken her hip. “Generally after a trauma like that, your adrenaline is pumping and your instinct is to walk. But by doing that you can do more damage. So I did not want to move.”
A woman, Rachael, came to her aid and called an ambulance. In a state of shock, Curran was crying uncontrollably. She was hurt with “plenty of soft tissue injuries, a few abrasions, a painful neck akin to a whiplash injury” and marks where she had crashed against the handlebars and where her hip had hit the ground.
By chance, her husband – who is also a doctor – came upon the scene and was able to confirm that her hip had not been broken. It was a frightening and painful experience, and also a close call.
Curran says she is a private person by nature but felt compelled to speak publicly about the incident to highlight how dangerous cycling can be in Galway.
“I sometimes bring my daughter in with me. I have a baby-seat that she sits [in] on the crossbar. It could have been the day we were bringing her to school and that could have been a different outcome,” she says.
Curran says Galway, which is small, compact and flat, should be a perfect place for cycling: “Yet there is nothing.”
She cycles in by the Prom each day. “It is notorious in that cars will pull in front of you, pull out in front of you, or open doors on that side of the promenade.
“On the way home (travelling west), it’s the whole length of the Prom. It’s parking all along. During tourist season from May to the end of September it’s just an absolute nightmare. You are running the gauntlet. Tourists, people step out on front of you, doors opening, cars on top of you. It’s a toxic experience to be cycling through Salthill.”
Toxic is a good word to describe the emotional debate around cycling infrastructure in Galway.
A two-hour cycle in and around Galway on Monday, when traffic was light, was an eye-opening experience. There is a lack of cycle lanes, or safe cycling junctions, throughout the city. There is one long cycle lane that has been there for decades, which goes from the Distributor Road in the west of the city across Quincentennial Bridge, and up along the Headford Road on the east of the city.
Besides that single route, in a city with a population of more than 80,000, there is little else – a short cycle lane near the docks and another 250-metre cycle lane on Threadneedle Road. Galway City Council says there is a total of 20.45 kilometres of cycle lanes in Galway at present. However, there are no cycle lanes in the city centre or on any of the roads leading into the centre.
On one of the main routes, Lough Atalia Road, I watched a group of people cycling on the footpath because the road is too narrow and busy to accommodate bicycles alongside cars, buses and lorries. The really busy junction between University Hospital Galway and the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) has no segregated space for bicycles. It’s the same at Nile Lodge, Cooke’s Corner, Fr Griffin Road and at other junctions.
It reminds me of what Dublin was like in the 1990s. Other cities such as Limerick, Waterford and Cork are not perfect for cyclists, but they have all built up impressive cycle networks in recent years. Galway appears to have stood still. A planned Galway to Barna cycleway along the coast is not proceeding as the regulations have changed since the draft route options were proposed in 2016. The Galway to Oughterard Greenway is out to public consultation but – if past experience is anything to go on – it is likely to take some time.
The Galway Transport Strategy provides for a network of 14 cycle routes in the city. One of those new routes on the east side of the city at Renmore and Ballyloughane has run into trouble, partly over removing parking spaces. Nobody can say for certain when the rest will be delivered.
The result is Galway, at this moment, is a city where the car is king, and it seems the majority of the population support that status quo. Not alone has Galway attained a reputation of being a traffic-clogged city; there is also a perception growing that it is anti-cycling.
That has been illustrated by the row last February over a temporary two-way cycle lane along the Prom. Initially there was a majority of councillors in favour but that changed when residents and businesses complained about the loss of parking spaces and the reduction of the road to one lane for motorists. Detractors said it would force motorists on to other busy routes. The emergency services also said it would impact their work, which was a deciding – and important – factor.
Councillors such as Donal Lyons (Independent) and Alan Cheevers (Fianna Fáil) both opposed the temporary route in Salthill for the reasons cited above. Both agree that cycling facilities are inadequate and both say they are strong advocates of better cycling infrastructure. But they say changes need to happen consensually. They also say that cycling lobbyists in Galway have been, at times, too militant and too assertive.
“We are lagging behind other cities when it comes to cycling infrastructure, there is no doubt about it,” says Lyons. “There could be an accommodation though there are some people in the cycling community who, instead of working with people, they are driving people against them,” he says.
Lyons points out that he himself cycled in and out of work for 14 years. He, like many other politicians in the city, are convinced that a new bridge across the river Corrib and outer ring road – itself a matter of controversy – will be the catalyst for change.
“We need to have the outer ring road. It’s not going to be utopia. It will solve part of the problem. Then you can introduce far more cycling lanes inside in the city centre.”
Niall Murphy is a Green councillor in Galway. He says that nothing is happening for cycling in Galway. “Staff and councillors in Galway are very conservative. They are terrified of change and what might happen,” he says.
“Galway has a history of voting against cycling infrastructure. The Salthill experience shows that if you are a resident anywhere in Galway and you don’t want a cycling lane on your road, tell the councillors to block the cycle lane and they will do it.
“The ability to push them through is diminished. In Dublin they push pretty hard to get cycle lanes in. They take the heat for it but they got them in. In Galway, you don’t have that bravery. Unfortunately we are going to be a car city for quite some while.”
The Galway Cycling Campaign (GCC) was set up in the late 1990s to lobby for separate and protected cycleways. One of its initiatives has been “cycle trains”, where a long snake of parents and children cycle to school together in the mornings, essentially overcoming the lack of cycle lanes by creating a moving one.
GCC spokeswoman Martina Callanan claimed councillors who supported the Salthill initiative “withered and shrank” in the face of particularly noisy “bike-lash” from people who do not want convenient car parking to be replaced by efficient and healthy modes of transport.
“When are we going to have cycleways to Barna and Moycullen and connecting our hospitals and the universities and the schools?” she asks.
She says the Government has provided a huge amount of finance for active and sustainable transport, and cycle routes are obvious candidates.
GCC chairman Kevin Jennings said it went to great lengths to conduct its campaign in a respectful manner.
Since the Salthill temporary route fell in February, no alternative has been proposed. The council has said “any new proposals can be considered by members in the context of the 2023 Annual Work Programme”. The GCC and Murphy believe nothing is going to happen, despite the unsatisfactory situation along the Prom at present.
Donal Lyons, for his part, is more hopeful. He has said it is possible that a two-way bike lane could be up and running within two or three years as part of the development of the new sea defences. Callanan is not so sure. “Glaciers move faster than Galway City Council,” she says.