Damien Ó Tuama finds it difficult to believe the Dublin Cycling Campaign has been going for almost 20 years. Back in 1993 he and a few like-minded friends set it up more as a protest than anything else.
"I think there was a bunch of people who were just sick of decades of car-centric transport planning," he recalls. "The bicycle had pretty much been forgotten by serious transport people. There had also been decades of awful cyclist and pedestrian casualties, on the quays in particular.
Horr ific casualties
"I think it was just an outrage that something so awful as people being squashed on the quays was happening so regularly by mainly heavy goods vehicles, many of them turning left. There was, I think, a horror at that."
Since then the number of cyclist casualties has declined dramatically, going from 250 a year in 1998 to 90 in 2007, and fatalities are now “a very rare occurrence”. The Port Tunnel took heavy vehicles out of the city centre and the laying of 200km of bus and bike lanes “of varying quality” gave cyclists more room.
“Dublin is improving but it still has a long way to go,” says Muireann O’Dea, current chairwoman of the campaign. She joined in 2004 and thinks Dublin city has made good progress, but that the suburbs are lagging behind.
At the moment about 5 to 10 per cent of journeys in Dublin are done by bicycle.
“We want to see a lot more cyclists out there and we want a nicer, more social city. Having a lot more cyclists will help,” she says.
For inspiration, Ó Tuama says Dublin should look to northern European cities where cycling is “an everyday normal thing: parents bringing kids to school, people of all ages, all backgrounds . . . it’s part of the everyday way of organising your city”.
O’Dea says the standard of cycling here is “not great” but improving. The usual complaints remain: running red lights, cycling on footpaths and without lights, weaving between vehicles, going the wrong way up streets.
“When I went to Copenhagen I noticed the standard there is very high,” she says. “Motorists and cyclists really respect each other and it makes it a much more pleasant environment to cycle in.”
The difficulty with emulating the Europeans and improving cycle infrastructure is negotiating with the plethora of organisations involved in Dublin’s transport policy.
"It's not just Dublin City Council ", Ó Tuama points out. "You have the National Transport Authority, you have the National Roads Authority, the Road Safety Authority, then you've Irish Rail and Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann and the Railway Procurement Agency.
“If you ask who’s responsible for transport in the city there’s no single answer. Whereas in London you’ve Boris Johnson, in Paris you’ve the mayor of Paris and that makes a big difference.”
Car-focused urban planning in the post-war years – urban highways, multi-lane roundabouts, higher speed limits – led to a decline in cycling. But as cities became clogged with cars, urban councils started to lean towards public transport.
"Cycling kind of piggy-backed on that," Ó Tuama says. "Dublin Cycling Campaign was represented on various committees in the Dublin Transport Office and we were there going: 'Look, if you're putting in a bus lane don't make it 3½ metres wide: make it 4½ metres wide so a bus can pass a cyclist and a cyclist can pass a bus."
Now, he continues, cyclists in the city make up a "community of communities" spanning dreadlocked bike messengers, lycra-clad speeders, commuters, and "more parents bringing kids on bikes . . . it's a loose type of association between different cyclists".
As local authorities face increasing financial pressure, Ó Tuama believes, cycling will become more important. “Councils have less money, but in terms of return on investment you can shift a lot more people out of cars and on to bikes and buses by investing in bikes than you can from invest in 10km of motorway.”