Cycling in Dublin: The next stage

The European Cycling Federation will hold its agm in Dublin next week. The number of cyclists in the capital has doubled in 10 years, but the city has a long way to go before it can encourage nervous commuters to get on their bikes

Olivia Kelly on the problems that face cyclists in Dublin


Next week, what has been billed as the “largest gathering of urban cycling advocates in the northern hemisphere in 2014”, will be in Dublin for the annual general meeting of the European Cycling Federation.

Dublin seems an appropriate choice for the event, which comes just a couple of weeks after the publication of figures showing that commuter cycling in the city increased by 14 per cent last year and has almost doubled in the past 10 years.

This follows the success of the Dublinbikes rental scheme. Year-on-year growth in subscriber numbers, since its introduction in 2009, has made it the most successful such scheme in Europe, and it is undergoing a threefold expansion.

For six years, the numbers of cyclists’ deaths in Dublin has declined, following the city council’s decision to ban heavy goods vehicles from the city streets during the day. Before this, the majority of cyclists who died were hit by left-turning lorries. Cyclists’ deaths in Dublin now average one a year.

Dublin sounds like a cyclist’s paradise.

Except it’s not.

Hugely impressive though the increases are in percentage terms, in actual numbers they are small, coming as they do on the back of plummeting rates of cycling for some 20 years since the mid-1980s to the middle years of the last decade. The National Transport Authority (NTA) puts the proportion of people travelling into Dublin city by bike at about 5 per cent, or just over 9,000 cyclists. The proportion using private cars is 36 per cent. In Copenhagen 36 per cent of people use bicycles.

Car is king
In Dublin, the car remains king. So why is the federation, which is based in Brussels, holding its agm in the Irish capital?

“Dublin is regarded as an up-and-coming cycling city,” says Kevin Mayne, the development director of the federation.

“Dublin’s cycling numbers are coming from a low base and it’s a good place to illustrate the need to keep investment levels up. It shows that, even in an economic crisis, investment in cycling represents exceptional value for money.”

Dublin is also a good place to illustrate the areas and issues that require improvement. For example, in northern European cities where participation is high, the balance between men and women cycling is fairly equal. Where the percentage of cyclists is low, far fewer women than men cycle. In Dublin, women account for about 25 per cent of cyclists.

“Where we see low levels of women cycling, research shows that it’s due to a perception, whether it’s a reality or not, of danger.”

There is also the need to normalise cycling, he says. In Dublin there is a good deal of hostility towards cyclists. “This doesn’t exist in European cities where there are far more cyclists. In terms of relations between cyclists and other road users, it’s time to grow up.”

The Dublin city engineer and director of traffic, Michael Phillips, agrees that there is a certain hostility from pedestrians and motorists towards cyclists in the city.

“There is a lot of anger out there at the moment towards cyclists and a feeling that they are not paying due respect.”

While some of this is down to some cyclists’ bad behaviour and a failure to follow the rules of the road, many problems in the relations between cyclists and other road users, pedestrian and motorists, are a result of poor infrastructure. These problems can be resolved though good engineering, Phillips says.

“You have to remember we’ve only really had cycling infrastructure of any sort for about 20 years, so we are still learning. But there are problems with the first phase of cycle lanes that were put in the in 1990s.”

Most of these lanes were just a narrow strip separated by a dotted white line, many of which still exist around the city and often end abruptly. Others were similar, but were painted on to footpaths. These caused the most problems as they gave cyclists the impression they should cycle on footpaths. They too often end abruptly and leave the cyclists at the edge of a kerb, or sometimes suddenly merging with road traffic.

“These older ones on the footpath cause a dilemma for us. If we put them back on the road, will we deter new or inexperienced cyclists?” says Phillips.

A second phase of cycle path began to be installed around 2005-2006. These are commonly recognised as the red asphalt paths. They are wider, and give a clearer indication to motorists to keep out, but a few hard winters have led to a degradation of the surface, with many now in a serious state of disrepair.

The jewel in the council’s crown is its newest cycle path, along the canals. “These paths are entirely separate from the road and the footpath. That’s the type of cycle lane we are looking at now, where cyclists are segregated from traffic and from pedestrians.”

Phillips recognises that maintaining exclusive space for cyclists is not always practical, particularly in the inner city where roads are narrow, so he says the council is seeking other solutions to making the city safer and more attractive for cyclists.

“We found at the start that even painting a white line, just making that level of delineation, makes motorists more aware of cyclists. But what we are looking at now is the notion of alternative routes: of taking minor streets parallel to bigger roads and designating them as the cycling routes and giving over significant space to the cyclist.”

While this idea could work well in the centre, it has met resistance in residential areas, Phillips says. “When we talk about the idea generally, people like it, but when we talk about specific areas, people in suburban residential areas say they would be worried about their children’s safety if there were more cyclists on their roads. We have to overcome that fear: the perception, rightly or wrongly, that cyclists break the rules.”

Changing attitudes towards cyclists requires early intervention, according to Cllr Andrew Montague of the Labour Party, who is the chairman of the council’s traffic committee.“Getting kids cycling, in primary school, is the big thing. The fear of cycling is bigger than the risk. In reality, the biggest risk to people is inactivity.”

The council has started a cycle-training programme for schools, where independent trainers funded jointly by the council and the school give cycling lessons to fifth- and sixth-class pupils. Montague cites its success in St Fiachra’s in Beaumont.

“There had been 10 children cycling to school. After six weeks there were 110, and even the next year 70 were still cycling.”

Not only does this scheme create a new generation of cyclists; it makes their parents as drivers more aware of cyclists, he says.

The NTA wants to see at least 10 per cent of trips in Dublin to be made by bicycle by 2020. It’s a high bar, but it is reachable, says Phillips. “In a very short period already we’ve got a lot done and now is the right time to do it with enthusiasm for cycling high and construction costs low.”

To undertake all the cycling projects the council has planned during that period, from installing new lanes, to upgrading old ones, would cost some €70 million up to 2020. It sounds like a lot, but Phillips points out it is significantly less than the cost of a new Luas line. The existing Luas lines cater for about 6 per cent of commuters., the national cycling lobby group that is hosting the federation’s agm, is supportive of much of what the council is doing, but says more ambitious cycling targets are needed for Dublin.

“The 10 per cent target is a national target, but to achieve that nationally you need to be achieving a much higher mode share in the cities, and in Dublin you would like to see it at 20 per cent, maybe 25 per cent,” says its spokesman, Damien O’ Tuama.

The figure is not an outlandish aspiration according to Colm Ryder, the secretary of the Dublin Cycling Campaign, who says studies of the city show cyclists represent 15 per cent of daily traffic on Dame Street.

The growth in cycling numbers is down to a “clatter of things”, says O’Tuama, from the success of the Dublinbikes scheme to the growing international popularity of sports and leisure cycling. But to sustain and build upon this popularity requires more effort at the top.

Regenerating cycling
“Any type of serious social change requires political leadership and the willingness to dedicate resources, human and financial, to regenerating a cycling culture.”

These efforts are not just the responsibility of one local authority but of several agencies and Government departments, says O’Tuama.

“The different forces in transport, public health and tourism need to be behind this. It’s only recently health officials have come to the realisation that we are becoming an obesogenic society, but they haven’t yet twigged the importance of cycling in combating that. In Seville, doctors are beginning to prescribe cycling.”

Ryder points out the importance of environmental concerns in promoting cycling. “We have to bring down emissions from commuting and increasing cyclists is an obvious way of doing that.”

One of the lobby groups’ principal jobs is to ensure that the impressive policies and plans devised are implemented.

“We would really like to see the proposed Liffey route put in place,” Ryder says. This plan would see a full traffic lane on the north quays given over to cyclists.

And if he’s compiling a wish list, O’Tuama would like to see a “space-age bike park” under Busáras or Heuston station, so that people would feel comfortable about leaving their bikes in the city. Bike theft is high in Dublin , with about 4,000 reported incidents a year, but crime-victim surveys suggest the rates of theft are more in the region of 25,000 bicycles a year.

Echoing Phillips’s point about how even a white line makes a difference to cycle safety, O’Tuama says he would like to see a “giant bicycle logo” painted on streets to make drivers aware that they are also used by cyclists. He would also like to see cycling training, not just in schools, but for everyone, including pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.

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