A group of Irish councilors, campaigners, officials and engineers visited the Netherlands on a cycling study tour between September 15-18, today we publish the second of a number of personal perspectives from that group in a mini-series which aims to capture what people from different backgrounds brought home:
Barbara Connolly is the Cycling Standard Development Officer at Cycling Ireland and is currently tasked at developing a cycling safety training standard for Ireland. She writes:
So, what were the lessons I brought home? What we heard over and over again, from city to city, is that cycling is part of a lifestyle choice.
It is not just about deciding to cycle because of the benefits of the pursuit – health, economic, environmental – but how cycling as a mode of transport can help build a vibrant environment for people to live their lives in.
The Dutch are not anti-car – not at all, in fact. It’s just that they believe that motorised transport is not always the best option, and that methods of transport should fit the journey, and critically, should fit with the lives of people. 30 – 40% of the journeys under 7 km in all of the cities we visited were made by bike. In the Netherlands, the goal is to have living environments where children are always safe – safe enough to run out the front door to play with friends and safe enough to cycle to school at a young age.
Key to this aspiration are a number of points:
- Extensive, safe networks, often segregated, always favouring the vulnerable road user, the cyclist and the pedestrian
- Plentiful bike parking, often free and often with added benefits such as free buggies for cycling families with young children
- Education and communication – constant dialogue with communities and users on how facilities work and how changes will benefit the wider society, and, critically, a willingness to compromise
- An openness to trying new ways of doing things, to adopt them if they work as envisaged, to go back to the drawing board if they don’t
- Less reliance on legislation – and a recognition of the futility of enacting laws that are basically unenforceable
- More reliance on introducing simple measures to encourage road users to act in the right way – lots of speed bumps and road narrowing measures in built up areas, bike roads which allow cars, but establish the primary position of the cyclist
- The absolute need for political buy-in from officials who see the longer view and are willing to plan for it, trusting to communities to give them support in building environments people really want to live in.
So can we apply the Dutch model to the Irish way of life? We already know that lots of people want to. All those who travel into our cities by bike to work each day, in spite of what are often very poor bike facilities tell us that. All those, who would cycle more, if the environment was more cycling friendly like that in the Netherlands tell us that.
Children, who jump at any chance to get on a bike, but who don’t have a road structure to use that puts their safety and independence first, despite conference after conference telling us how this generation could be the first to live shorter lives than their parents due to inactivity, they tell us that.
And the key is the Dutch model:
- Better, much more extensive, cycle friendly networks
- Places to park when we get where we want to go – 12 bikes can park where one car can and we have plenty of carparks in our cities
- Education and communication – especially for those who see cycling as a threat. Letting them know how cycling can benefit businesses and retail, showing them how different rules on the road should apply to different road users to the mutual safety of all
- Being ready to try new and novel ways to use shared road space in harmony
- Top down buy-in – every official we spoke to strongly emphasised the need for genuine, sustained, long-term commitment from the highest government level
Getting this message across is not easy, but thanks to Cian and André Pettinga with this study group, like-minded individuals came together and got to see how cycling-friendly environments can benefit everyone.
Hopefully, going forward, this group will work together to forward ideas and support each other, because, with certainty, together we will be stronger.
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On a personal note, I have never felt as relaxed and happy cycling. Even when we were caught in some extreme weather and I was ringing out my clothes and wishing I had windscreen wipers on my glasses, I felt secure and unthreatened and happy to be out on the bike. It was just marvellous to get that sense of what things could be like here.
Cycling Standard Development Officer