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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.