1 of 6 excuses why Ireland can’t copy cycling in the Netherlands

IMAGE: A bus and bicycle only street in the city of Utrecht. Making space for cycling is mainly a matter of the politics of space.

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: The Netherlands is just over 1,000km from Ireland. So, why are Ireland’s attempts at building cycle routes continue to fall desperately short compared to a country so close to us? Myths around our differences don’t explain the full story, but they hamper progress. In this mini-series — one published each day this week — we explore seven of the main myths:

1. “They have wider roads”

There’s some element of truth that Copenhagen, the Danish capital, has overall wider roads than Irish towns and cities, but it’s harder to say the same thing about Amsterdam and most of the Netherlands. The issues is really the politics of space.

To take Amsterdam vs Dublin as an example: Amsterdam’s profile of streets and roads is very comparable to Dublin. If anything, central Amsterdam might have more very narrow streets and Dublin might have a few more wide street. Amsterdam has more canals but Dublin has some blocks of buildings and land with little permeability.

Amsterdam has some wider roads in its inner suburbs but hardly every seems to have duplication of close-by parallel routes as Dublin does — for example, the Royal Canal and the South Circular Road are only around 300 metres apart and many arterial routes are close together.

Overall Dutch and Irish street networks are not a million miles away from each other. The issue is rarely of actual space but a matter of what we choose to do with that space — the politics of space.

The politics of space in road and street design dictates what’s included on streets and roads, and how much space is used for what: How many traffic lanes? Are motorists/cyclists/buses allow to travel in both directions? Is there on-street car parking or loading or taxi bays? Are turning lanes included? Are bus lanes included? A green strips or trees included? How wide are the traffic lanes / footpaths / etc?

Small changes in designs, such as narrowering traffic lanes to 3 metres or lower can given you a surprising amount of space to play with.

The first photograph below of Amsterdam is a prime example of the politics of space: This street could be designed as two-way with two general traffic lanes, instead the city of Amsterdam just installed a single traffic lane and a decent two-way cycle path.

The same principle can be adapted to many streets in Irish towns and cities. Some people call for the dismantlement of our one-way streets and roads systems, but in many cases this could mean less space for cycling. Adapting the Dutch approach to Ireland would see many streets retain their one-way nature but become more cycling friendly by providing two-way cycling on segregated cycle paths.

Dutch two-way cycle path in Amsterdam

Two-way cycle paths also have their use in rural and suburban areas (especially on roads with few major junctions). Below is a two-way cycle path between Wassenaar and the Hague, while it is narrow enough, it allows for cycling beside a friend (and moving in if needed when you meet somebody coming in the oppsite direction). 

Providing single directional cycle paths and a green buffer on both sides would take up far more space.

Cycling between Wassenaar and the Hague

For very narrow streets, an approach common enough for short section of streets in Dutch city centres is a bicycle-only street (like the one pictured below in Amsterdam). This approach could work, for example, on a part of Camden Row or on Kings Street South (beside Stephen Green Shopping Centre) in Dublin, and on many city and town centre streets across the country.

It allows for two-way cycling on streets which would only otherwise be one-way for all or which would be pedestrianised without legal cycling access.

Dutch cycling only street in Amsterdam

Where streets are a bit wider, contra-flow cycle lanes or segregated contra-flow cycle paths can be provided, as per this example from Amsterdam:

Dutch contra-flow cycle lane in Amsterdam

An even more common approach in the Netherlands is allowing contra-flow cycling without cycle lanes on streets. This design should be restricted to low-volume, low-speed and single-lane streets in town and city centres. Like the example pictured below in the town of Wassenaar, the main thing needed is an “except bicycles” sign at both ends of the streets.

Despite some in officialdom claiming otherwise, this has been provided in Irish law for decades and there are a number of examples of it working in Dublin. If they feel a law change is needed to clarify the matter, then they should change it.

Cycling friendly, contra-flow streets in Wassenaar, the Netherlands

A mix of some of the above examples gives us what the Dutch call “bicycle streets”. These streets usually make up part of a larger cycle route but only allow bicycles to use the full street as a through route, as is the case in the city of Utrecht pictured below.

The street is one-way for motorists and the direction alternates after a junction or two, which directs motorists to back to a main street — this allows for access, while stops rat running. The sign with the red car reads: “cars are guests”, although in the Netherlands this is not backed by a specific law (as it is in some other countries).

Dutch bicycle street in Utrecht

A sub-type of bicycle street are those which use service streets (access streets which are to one side of larger roads). While these mix cycling with cars accessing the local area, they are still a good way of providing for space for cycling away from roads which have large volumes of and fast moving traffic.

Some people might think there’s few service street in Ireland, but so-far we’ve found 100 stretches of roads around Ireland where the design has potential.

Bicycle street in 's-Hertogenbosch Den Bosch, the Netherlands

Sometimes the choices are not straight forward for cycling supporters — chopping a few trees down or narrowing a footpath may be the only answer in some cases to provide safe space for cycling.

Making the space for high-quality cycling routes can be difficult even on some of our wider roads but overall it is down to the politics of space. We have to make the difficult choice of providing space for cycling, just as the Dutch have done and contuine to do.

9 Comments

  1. Barbara Connolly November 14, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    Cian, great piece and the term “politics of space” really catches the core of the problem we have here

  2. Fear of the backlash in the reallocation of space to create vibrant urban centres!

  3. And a backlash there would be. Look at the whining about the Clontarf Road. I’ve seen “Now it’s like a cycle path with a minor road attached!”, which seems to be rooted in the idea that this goes against the natural order where cyclists are inferior to motorists, morph in to “What will happen if someone breaks down along there? The whole coast will be blocked!”, which at least has the merit of sounding reasonable.

    Look at the laundry list of objections so the North Quays cycle route.

    Cycling issues are a great demonstration of the problem of the tyranny of the majority. The councillors note accurately that the majority of their voters do not care about cycle facilities and they do care, almost entirely, about themselves. Anything that takes resources away from them (and their cars naturally) and gives them to someone they have been primed to think are law breaking parasites (“They NEVER stop at the traffic lights Joe! They don’t even pay road tax!”). Trying to tell them that this will make things better for them in the long run, even if they personally never get out of their cars, is largely a waste of time because the electorate doesn’t due nuance or long term. Once again because they are primed to think that way by car centric bodies like the AA.

  4. People are certainly selfish, but most of them also know that cycling is the right thing to do and as is unfortunately typical of human nature, they resent cyclists as a result as they remind them of one of their own shortcomings. Interesting article on this phenomena as it applies to ethical consumers here:

    https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/apr/22/oliver-burkeman-change-life-ethical-consumers

    Perhaps we should appeal directly to their sense of . I’ve said it before, mostly joking, but a well-publicized national cyclists drive-to-work day where an extra couple of thousand drivers enter our cities on a given day could help to focus minds on the benefits to drivers of not having so many people drive. I really am starting to think that this might be a useful exercise. If people could see the problems we are helping avoid, perhaps they would be better disposed to cyclists generally, at least for a while.

  5. “the tyranny of the majority”..and the fear (or just the dislike) of change.

    Take the example of closing a residential road to motorised through-traffic (perhaps with a couple of bollards). Many residents will spit out their dummy about having to drive a slightly longer way round to get to their local corner shop, without ever considering that it would be far more pleasant to walk or cycle down to the shop with a lot of the traffic gone.

    Of course if you took the opposite example of a street currently closed to through-traffic; less noise and pollution and where kids can play in relative safety, and higher house prices. If you told those residents you were going to open up the road to rat-runners using their street as a short-cut I’m guessing that would also be pretty unpopular, and deservedly so.

    People are completely irrational. It’s up to campaigners to sell the benefits, and point to real life examples, whether in the Netherlands or closer to home. This is a great post:
    https://aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com/2016/09/22/closing-routes-to-motor-traffic-is-uncontroversial-if-it-has-already-happened/

  6. Good points there, Tim. A good example is the discussion around an article in the news section from last March called “”Neighborhood greenway” could link Kimmage to Donnybrook” . We had infuriated residents posting here because bikes were to be allowed through their soon-to-be former cul de sac.

    They claimed it would make their road dangerous to vulnerable pedestrians and provide escape routes for criminals. But, if you check Ashdale Gardens in Google Streetview (Don’t think I can post links here), you will see that this concern about vulnerable people does not exist when they park their cars, leaving no space for wheelchairs, buggies or other vulnerable users.

  7. Connectivity in general between residential areas seems to be contracting. A lot of the older housing estates in Dublin had pedestrian laneways and connecting paths which seem to be less common in newer estates. My own estate had several pedestrian exits that were closed off several years ago due to objections from nearby residents citing “anti-social behaviour”, which was really just a couple of bored kids hanging around and not up to anything serious. Now, with social media it is very easy to drum up a “campaign” against just about anything with a couple of like-minded righteously indignant types based on a very blinkered version of the reality on the ground. The objections to the liffey cycle path are a case in point.

  8. Some good observations above.
    The reality of selfish motoring habits can be seen here: #Freethecyclelanes.vool.ie
    A significant cohort of drivers will park on footways so as to block them to fellow citizens. Without compunction and with almost zero detection/enforcement.

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