The sort of national media attention usually reserved for murders and natural disasters focused on Galway this week for a local authority vote on 3km of temporary cycle path.
Last September Galway city councillors voted overwhelmingly in favour of a segregated cycle path along the promenade in Salthill. On Monday night they reversed that decision, voting 13 to four against the two-way coastal path.
The reversal followed almost 7,000 public submissions, more than 60 per cent of which opposed plans which would have involved the introduction of a one-way traffic system for at least part of the route.
Most submissions cited the restrictions on cars, removal of parking and the displacement of traffic, while the Garda and the fire services said the path could affect their response times.
On the same night, Cork City Council voted to cut a 120m chunk out of a planned cycle path from Curraheen Road to Melbourn Road – about 1.5km – to avoid the removal of parking outside a pharmacy, doctor's surgery and physiotherapy practice.
While this received less attention, Eoin English reported in the Examiner the comments of Independent councillor Paudie Dineen, who questioned whether Cork city was "dynamically built for cycling".
Instinctively, a majority of people accept that encouraging cycling is a good idea, but the Galway vote shows how quickly political opinions can change in the face of sustained opposition on the ground.
Dublin has no reason to be smug about the less-progressive attitudes of regional local authorities, since the capital has not always covered itself in glory when it comes to the pursuit of "active travel" schemes.
The trials of the Sandymount cycle route are well known, but to recap briefly, Dublin City council proposed a two-way coastal path of less than 3km which would have resulted in traffic being made one-way.
Opponents of the scheme took their case to the High Court and won, with Mr Justice Charles Meenan ruling the council could not go ahead with a six-month trial and would have to secure planning permission for the project. The council is appealing the decision and expects to be back in the courts in the summer.
Even protecting existing cycle paths by erecting bollards has, extraordinarily, proved controversial in some locations in the city, with objections that they prevent motorists from parking on them (which is illegal), or from parking on footpaths (which is also illegal).
However, the cycling wars – if the term can be used, since the passions ignited are often so fiery – are set to become more, not less prevalent as the State emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The National Transport Authority (NTA) and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan last month announced almost €300 million in funding for walking and cycling projects – 200 of which should provide protected paths for cyclists.
The Galway and Cork schemes, which have been abandoned, or restricted, were among those listed by Ryan, with €1 million and €100,000 allocated respectively.
The Sandymount scheme was not included this time, because of the High Court case, though it had been funded under the previous year’s active travel grants.
The difficulties encountered in progressing these schemes raise questions about how effectively this very significant amount of money will be spent, or if it will be spent at all.
However, one project, in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, which did involve taking road space from cars, and did meet a degree of opposition, could point the way forward.
In the summer of 2020, the council installed its "coastal mobility route" from Blackrock to Sandycove. On several long sections a one-way traffic system had to be introduced to accommodate the cycle lane.
"It was designed and built in two to three months, which was record time," Robert Burns, who was at the time the council's director of infrastructure, told The Irish Times.
“It was done in response to Covid; because of the public health issue and increased numbers of people walking and cycling, we felt we had to move quickly, so we couldn’t use the traditional model of a long, drawn-out design process.”
The council instead used a “dynamic design model”, Burns says. “We designed it 80-90 per cent of the way, and then opened it to engagement with stakeholders – residents, community groups and emergency services,” he says. “We were very much focused on making it work; we didn’t wait for problems to arise – we went towards them. We knew if we allowed issues to fester they would become bigger problems than they might have been.”
Council staff visited homes along the route, he says. “We went to people’s houses and talked through how they would get in and out of driveways, made tweaks to the location of bollards where it was needed.”
On-street parking spaces had to be relocated, though none were lost and a number of extra disability spaces were installed. “Householders to their credit didn’t make a massive issue of it; we provided alternatives and engaged as much as we could.”
Early talks with the emergency services were vital, he says. “The Garda, the RNLI [Royal National Lifeboat Institution] – these are very important stakeholders, people who are dealing with life-and-death issues, literally. We met on multiple occasions to get an understanding of each other’s issues.
“The gardaí took a really interesting approach, they implemented mountain bike units on the route. It was a brilliant initiative that gave an added level of reassurance for people using the route.”
Concerns that emerged in Galway in relation to delayed emergency response times do not hold water for Burns.
“I would really contest that. Emergency services are, by law, entitled to use cycle lanes. The idea that a cycle lane would hamper the emergency services doesn’t hold up for me.”
These are issues that can be dealt with early in the design process, he says. “Some problems may be down to what happens when discussions don’t take place in advance of design. We had the fire services undertake trials on the route to make sure they could make all the turns.”
Traffic, and the issue of displacement of cars onto adjacent roads, was a concern from the start. So, in addition to its own traffic modelling, the council undertook to have the scheme independently assessed. TU Dublin is conducting ongoing studies on the route. So far at Blackrock it found a 40 per cent overall decrease in traffic and no impact on the parallel Frascati Road.
Having the ability to try things out, and adapt them where needed, is vital to the success pf these schemes, Burns says.
“The UK has a system of experimental traffic regulation orders. Trials are for 18 months. A project gets a chance to live. It provides a framework, a clear process, and it’s particularly useful where there’s a contentious issue, such as the removal of a traffic lane or the introduction of a one-way system.”
Announcing the €300 million in funding last month, Ryan said legislation would be brought before the Dáil within weeks to empower local authorities to trial “experimental” cycle schemes without seeking planning permission, a measures which could have prevented the Sandymount case.
This could make all the difference to the implementation of “contentious” schemes, Burns says.
“Not everything has to be made permanent – some schemes may not work as intended, but you give it a go. Trials are a way to nudge things forward and removes the risk for politicians and for the executive. No scheme is perfect – the key thing is that when problems arise you try to resolve them as soon as you can.
“Engage early and often.”