LONG READ: COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Westport is talked up as some type of exemplar for providing for cycling in Irish towns, but then, as the Irish Independent puts it, it’s also an example of how “getting commuters out of their cars and onto their bikes isn’t as simple as building cycle lanes” — can both of these be right?
Westport Town Council and Mayo County Council officials should be commended for getting greenways in place in the town and in the wider county, but the concept and value of greenways are now well-proven, so it’s time to address the quality and details of the routes.
Westport values its urban and rural greenways so much for tourism and leisure that there’s a large level of blindness to the major gaps and flaws in the infrastructure in terms of daily cycling which is attractive to most people.
Even when the town’s cycling infrastructure is highly criticised in a consultant’s report, the authors still somehow come to the conclusion that the town’s routes reach a “Level B” quality of service standard. Based on that report, the Department of Transport Ex-Post Evaluation of Smarter Travel Areas then echoes the idea that there’s little or nothing wrong with the quality of infrastructure in Westport.
The Westport Town Greenway is mainly a walking and cycling ring road-like route around the town but here are five core reasons why Westport falls short of promoting everyday cycling.
1. A ring road cycle route is not a network
If you want to radically increase the number of people cycling as a means of transport, you need an extensive high-quality network. Westport falls on this. Even putting aside the more subjective issue of quality (which we talk about below), Westport only has one long route with a link off it — that does not amount to an interconnected network.
The Westport Town Greenway (shown in a dark green line on the map below) has few segregated or cycling-friendly traffic calmed connections into the town centre, none across the town centre, few to outlining areas and fewer again to nearby villages and clusters of rural or semi-rural housing.
The Westport Town Greenway is made up mainly of old railways — to Westport’s quays and the start of the Great Western Greenway route to Newport and onwards.
The map below, as found on westportsmartertravel.ie, gives an overview. It is slightly out-of-date as the greenway was extended into the grounds of Westport House (the large green area in the centre-left of the map) and other minor works were completed. The map still gives an overview:
What the map does not reveal is that the town centre street network is defined by two-lane, one-way streets with heavy traffic; and there is nearly no cycling infrastructure of any kind within the greenway ring. The town can be very busy with tourism and it is a market town too.
There’s also no segregated cycling or low-traffic connections to many areas on the outskirts of the town. For example, to the railway station, the housing on the Ballinrobe Road and Westport Industrial Estate on the Newport Road.
The Department of Transport Ex-Post Evaluation of Smarter Travel Areas says: “Both Dungarvan and Westport have completed most of their proposed cycle network infrastructure, and in both areas, the networks provide good connectivity to the main trip generators within the town.”
But what the report says clearly isn’t the case. The network is far from complete and is flawed (see below).
2. Mixing walking and cycling isn’t best practice for promoting cycling
Nearly all of the infrastructure in Westport includes mixing walking and cycling on shared surfaces. The image at the start of this article shows the typical red and green surface colouring which can be found at junctions and at other conflict points such as sharp gradients.
Some people think the two colours mark segregation between walking and cycling — but that’s impractical and unrealistic given the widths and it has no legal backing.
Mixing walking and cycling on greenways can be fine outside urban areas where you would not expect high volumes of people walking and cycling. Mixing the two transport modes inside and around urban areas increases conflicts and kills any competitiveness cycling has — not so important for leisure but highly important if you want to attract people out of their cars.
Mixing is made more unsuitable due to the often confined widths, blind turns, and the crazy gradients on some sections — and sometimes all three mixed together.
Mixing waking and cycling isn’t just an issue we have. Under the heading “Poor perception of safety”, the Ex-Post Evaluation of Smarter Travel Areas states: “There is a perceived lack of dedicated space for cyclists and pedestrians, which generally relates to a lack of segregation between motorists and vulnerable road users, but in some cases relates to shared space intended for both cyclists and pedestrians.”
Most elected councillors in high-cycling areas of Dublin, and in towns and cities around the world know this is an issue, and it will become a larger and larger problem for towns like Westport if they are successful in continuing to increase the numbers of people cycling.
3. Widths need expanding
There’s very little that can be done to increase the width of the greenway and links at railway bridges in the short term, but in other areas there’s loads of potential to eat a small bit into green areas, widen ramps, and, where needed, compulsory purchase orders of space from private land.
In a report titled ‘Cycling Infrastructure Audit of Westport’, funded by the Department of Transport and released after an FOI request, the following passage was basically repeated to cover all sections of the Westport town route: “The width of the greenway from outer edge to outer edge is greater than or equal to 3 metres in the main which provides ample room for cyclists to travel 2 abreast or carry out overtaking manoeuvres in addition to accommodating pedestrians. The resulting QOS is greater than or equal to Level B.”
This references the Quality of Service Evaluation in the National Cycle Manual — but the manual is referring to cycle lane or paths, not shared paths or urban greenways.
According to the manual’s width calculator, if there are walls or fences on both side of a cycle route (as there often are with the greenway) than 3.05 metres is needed just for a “basic two-way” cycle path. This does not include pedestrians, or people walking dogs etc. The manual also recommends extra width for hills and for sharp bends and for larger tourist bikes — that alone would mean much of the greenway would have to be over 3.5 metres just to accommodate cyclists.
The consultants also conveniently did not seem to count cyclist/cyclist and cyclist/pedestrians interactions under the number of conflicts measure in the evaluation system.
4. Crazy gradients
Westport is a hilly place, there’s no getting away from this. There’s little question that it’s the hilliest of the three larger towns in County Mayo.
In regards to gradients, nobody is saying you can level hills, but connection ramps can be made longer and less steep, main greenway path can often avoid hills, and embankments and cutting can be formed where’s needed.
Some people claim that Ireland can’t learn much from the Netherlands because that country is so flat, but that’s misunderstanding the make up of Dutch cycle routes which often go over or under large roads, motorways, wide shipping canals and railways, but they use gentle gradients to make such connections cycling friendly.
Here’s an example in Westport of where a house (circled in blue in the image below) was built on the old railway alignment and the chosen detour route (shown in yellow) goes up what we referred to as a crazy gradient for an urban cycle route.
Even most people using this as a leisure/tourist route towards Newport or further will dismount to go up this hill, so it’s not suitable for an urban commuting route. A route something like the red line as an alternative (which runs close to the old railway route but avoids the house) would have (1) kept gradients to a minimum, (2) connected the greenway directly with residential areas, and (3) connected with sports grounds including a local GAA club and all weather pitches:
The only problem is it would have likely required compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) of land and, probably, more funding.
Our above example is just one of many. In the Cycling Infrastructure Audit of Westport (mentioned above), the word ‘steep’ is mentioned 64 times and ‘very steep’ is mentioned 12 times.
Sadly these audits are all too often focused on cheap fixes. So the audit team said it would “welcome any measures to reduce this risk and has proposed a number of potential options in this report including providing hand rails, guard-rails, and fencing on or at the bottom of steep ramps”.
While there are some links to the greenway which may never be suitable for cycling and, in some cases, cycling should be blocked on these, there are better solutions than many of the current designs. The consultants were highly overzealous in recommending guardrails rather than recommending that ramp and general path gradients and other details be fixed.
Here’s one of many examples where space is not an issue: This ramp could have used more of the green space to create a ramp which was easier to cycle and walk on:
A common issue is connections from housing estates and apartments to the greenway, like this one to the Westlands housing estate. It may not be clear from the first look at the satellite image but the houses and the greenway on the old railway alignment are both at distinctly different levels. Instead of doing something like following the red line (which we’ve roughly drawn), the council just tarred over the previous walking connection — hardly suitable for everyday cycling for all ages.
5. Image is important
The Ex-Post Evaluation of Smarter Travel Areas highlights image issues, including the perception of cycling as purely a leisure activity as opposed to a mode of transport; the link between car use and socio-economic status; and the perception that cycling requires special gear.
The evaluation says that while projects are funded under the Smarter Travel banner, “facilities are generally perceived to have been introduced to encourage leisure and tourism cycling as opposed to commuting ” and it adds: “Intercept surveys on the greenways in Dungarvan and Westport have also indicated that they are used predominantly by tourists and locals making leisure trips.”
Is that surprising given, for example, the many extreme gradients on the Westport greenway unsuitable for commuting everyday, commuting for most people and the big push politically seems to be largely tourism focused?
The report also states: “Walking and cycling for commuting purposes are still associated with negative imagery, as commuting by car is closely related to socio-economic status and travelling to work on foot or by bike is stigmatised. In addition, there is an alternative image of cycling as an activity which requires a special ‘look’ and ‘gear’, which can also alienate people from taking up cycling, despite a recognition that in the past it was undertaken without any special clothing or equipment.”
It added: “Focus groups undertaken as part of the evaluation confirmed that women and girls in particular are self-conscious about wearing clothing associated with cycling, especially helmets.”
The above quoted section of the report does not mention high-vis vests by name but these are also commonly promoted across Ireland. The fact is that no town, city or country seems to have managed to focus on promoting high-vis and helmets as much as Westport and Ireland does and also foster mass everyday cycling. Low, single percentages of people use such gear in the Netherlands (usually tourists and other foreigners), and heavy promotion of helmets in Denmark was linked by some observers to a few years of stagnation in cycling’s growth in Copenhagen. A greenway is exactly the last place you should require high-vis anyway – the expectation is that it is full of cyclists.
Car manufacturers spend millions on promoting cars as luxury lifestyle items. If we really want people to at least sometimes leave their cars at home, maybe it’s advisable not to promote often unnecessary cycling gear? We should start promoting cycling, and leave gear up to individual choice.
Westport: The cycling town of Ireland?
Westport, with its more than average hilliness, was an unlikely candidate to be a cycling demonstration town to start with, but it has been a surprising (even if limited) success in commuting terms. In terms of tourist and leisure cycling it has excelled.
If Westport wants to get more people of all ages and abilities to cycle regularly it needs to up its game. Westport and Co Mayo generally will be up against strong competition for cycling tourism from the Waterford Greenway which is due to open officially in August and appears to be of a very high quality. In the coming years, there will also be competition from other routes too.
Westport and Mayo County Council needs to build on the successes to date — it will need more funding and for people to look beyond short-term politics to make some difficult decisions around the use of space in the town centre and, if needed, the use of CPOs for improved urban greenway connections.