Can Waterford become Ireland’s cycling capital? And why would it want to?

IMAGE: Construction of the Dafne Schippers Bridge -- built to better connect two parts of the city of Utrecht by bicycle -- included rebuilding a primary school which now forms part of a ramp up to the bridge.

I was in Utrecht for a couple of hours before I figured out what the strange noise was. It was silence – city centre at rush hour, and I couldn’t hear the sound of a single car, much less traffic. All around, the buzz and bluster of people heading home from work on a Friday evening, but no motor running, no horn blaring, no exhaust belching out fumes.

And everywhere, everywhere the whirr of bicycles.

Utrecht is a city of some 330,000 people in the centre of the Netherlands. It has a beautiful, compact medieval centre and its fair share of sights to see, but it’s an unprepossessing place and not on many people’s radar. Except for one thing – each year, when the world’s top cities for cycling are listed, Utrecht vies with Copenhagen for the top slot. The bike is king in Utrecht, with more journeys made by bike than any other form of transport, including the car.

IrishCycle.com had invited a group of cycling campaigners and politicians to travel to Utrecht to see how the city has become so successful in promoting cycling as a mode of transport. Our guide was Utrecht native, André Pettinga of Cyclemotions, who had been instrumental in many of those changes. Over the course of the weekend, we covered over 100km in and around the city on our rented bikes, getting a real sense of what makes Utrecht such a special and safe place to travel by bicycle.

IMAGE: Utrecht is undergoing some drastic changes — such as converting a former city moat turned motorway back into a canal with water and extra greenery — but the smaller changes are possibly as importance.

In common with many other cities, from the 1950s Utrecht had designed itself around the car, building motorways through and around the old medieval centre. By the mid-nineties, the city was choked in traffic, and council officials decided there had to be a different and better way to allow their people to move around. They looked to the Netherlands’s rich history of cycling and decided to invest heavily in infrastructure that would make the bicycle a safe and enjoyable way to get from A to B.

Some of these projects were amazingly ambitious. A school was rebuilt to accommodate a cycling bridge of the Amsterdam–Rhine Canal – the cycle track is now the roof of the school. The world’s largest bike parking facility, with spaces for 12,500 bikes, was recently opened at Utrecht Central Station and is already fully subscribed. But most of the changes were small, thoughtful and made in consultation with the residents.

Fully segregated bike paths keep cyclist safe on busier roads, and smaller streets are redesigned as fietsstraads, or bike streets, where cars are allowed but treated as guests. These and a many other simple but clever changes make the streets of Utrecht a pleasure to cycle down.

And it’s difficult to overstate the effects. Bikes are everywhere and are used for everything. From ladies in high heels and skirts to families in cargo bikes, from eight-year-olds heading to school to eighty-year-olds with crutches strapped to the carrier, we saw every type of person using their bike to get around.

IMAGE: Segregated cycle paths with safe crossings give people of all ages greater mobility — including teenagers who don’t have to rely on their parents as taxis.

And despite the numbers of people moving, everything feels very human – people duck and weave with a touch of a brake or the ring of a bell, with a nod and a smile. There’s no aggression, there’s no snarl, it all just flows.

Research shows more tangible benefits as well. The Healthy Urban Living Program has estimated that the health benefits of cycling prevent 6,500 premature deaths per year in the Netherlands with huge savings in health expenditure to boot. Less air pollution and reduced noise levels add greatly to the liveability of the city, and city centre businesses are thriving with increased footfall. In fact, city officials estimate that cycling saves the city just over €250 million per year.

Are there lesson here for us to learn that can be applied in Waterford? When I observed to André that Waterford wasn’t Utrecht, his reply was “30 years ago, neither was Utrecht.”

The transformation was made through brave decisions, clever design and the support of the people of the city. With the development of the North Quays, our city is set to expand dramatically over the coming decade. We need to come to a decision about how we plan for that expansion – do we continue to design for the car and keep our thinking rooted in the 20th Century, or do we look for a better way forward?

Waterford Council’s ‘Transforming Waterford’ document, published just recently, shows an ambitious plan to make large parts of our beautiful city centre more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists.

We have seen the sea-change that the Waterford Greenway has brought about since its opening earlier this year, and the council’s plan is to join this world-class amenity to an extension to New Ross through an integrated transport hub in the North Quays.

The possibility exists for Waterford to emulate Utrecht and to become the cycling capital of Ireland. Having seen for myself what that might look like, I hope that’s a vision that can be brought to pass.

Marc Ó Cathasaigh is a teacher in Glór na Mara NS in Tramore, and was the organiser of the #SafeSpaceforCycling event that took place in June of this year. He travelled to Utrecht in August as part of a study tour organised by IrishCycle.com.

5 Comments

  1. Since Waterford already has an outer ring road it is already set up to create a system of Utrecht style traffic cells and start reallocating space away from cars and prioritising other forms of transport. However, unless Waterford starts by accepting that they need to restrict and manage private cars for the benefit of others, you are unlikely to get very far. In that respect André Pettinga provides a useful warning from history. If I remember correctly in the 1990s André was involved in the original attempt by Grontmij to adapt Dutch facilities design guidance for Ireland. This was problematic since the fundamental Irish problem was car promotion and not simply an absence of facilities. However, even within its own terms, what happened with the Dutch design manual was illustrative. The Irish oversight committee deleted road markings intended to protect cyclists at junctions and rearranged some side road treatments to remove priority from cyclists and give it to cars. So a Dutch system for facilitating cyclists was watered down and adapted to manage cyclists for the benefit of motor traffic. This was in the context of an underlying philosophy of road design that was already extremely hostile towards walking and cycling (for an example see the roundabouts on the outer ring road above). The Irish institutional attitudes that created this outcome have not gone away and are still alive and well twenty years later. What this means is that simply throwing money at cycling facilities in Waterford may have little effect if the underlying intent of those spending that money is still to promote and facilitate motor traffic.

  2. Not a single helmet in sight – love it. Reminds me of my days in the 90’s working around Berlin and Dusseldorf – I’d be walking along the footpath briefcase in hand when I would hear the tinkle of a bicycle bell, look over my shoulder and see a whole family – two kids, two adults and two elderly all on bicycles and as they passed me they would say ‘guten tag’ – good day. As I now approach 80 years of age, out on my bike this morning I had to take to the footpath several times to reduce the risk of getting side-swiped by passing vehicles. My recommendation is to widen footpaths developing a cycle lane thereon like the Clontarf Road – normal cyclists and pedestrians are more compatible than cars and cyclists. Why allocate valuable ground space to a vehicle capable of carrying 5 or 7 people but with 1 person on board whereas a cycle taking up a fraction of that space has one person on board

  3. Marc….we need Dreamers!…..and dreams can become reality! Thanx for posting this article.

    Waterford City’s SDZ proposals from earlier this year are an attempt to envision a better transport future for the city, and to get more people on bikes….as well as out walking! As we know from tales passed on to us many people who would never have thought of geting on a bicycle have been enticed by the success of the Waterford Greenway….and the spell is spreading far and wide!

    We in Cyclist.ie are hopeful that, under the guidance of a visionary CEO, and some dedicated staff, Waterford will show the way to other Irish regions to invest to move people to a healthire lifestyle and provide real transport alternatives!

  4. @R Mc Gowan — the Dutch offer a third type of solution, which is to generally keep people on foot, people on bicycles and motorists all separate on main roads.

    They do this especially at junctions — we get this backward and mix cycling randomly with pedestrians or cars at junctions.

  5. I wonder how André would address the complaints levelled against most if not all attempts to put in decent cycling infrastructure here.

    What about disabled people, how will they get in to town? (although when it comes to parking on the footpath apparently disable people can go screw themselves). People apparently can’t bring their kids to school and still make it to work without using their car. People apparently can’t do their shopping without a car. Dublin Town (and other similar lobby groups) seem to think that businesses can’t survive if people can’t drive their cars right up to the door. Hotels seem to think that it is unacceptable for taxis to go the long way around.

    The level of resistance to what should be a pretty uncontroversial change in Clontarf makes it pretty difficult to see how anything like Utrecht could come about here.

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