Is Ireland’s National Transport Authority’s commitment to cycling now in question?

— BusConnects is positive for cycling, but it also shows a lack of a vision for Cycling for All within the NTA, and has way too much old-school road engineering over transport planning.

COMMENT & ANALYSES: The advent of the National Transport Authority was seen as positive for walking and cycling, but the authority’s commitment to active transport seem to be hanging in the balance. There’s many committed people in the authority working on active travel, but the over focus on buses while keeping committed to major road improvements in its strategies seems to be suffocating. The practical and planning results are starting to show.

Recent news of the NTA’s transport planning does not show an institution which is focused on cycling — examples include: NTA’s 2040 vision for commuters in Cork: 50% in cars, just 4% on bicycles, and NTA claims bicycle share use fall due to switch to bus, but users report system in disrepair. The NTA’s sustainable transport credentials have been further weakened by its involvement in the Galway “transport plan”.

IMAGE: While BusConnects disrupts cars on some routes, the NTA’s new thinking for BusConnects includes roadway widening in Dublin City Centre so they can give bus priority without disrupting cars in places like the Docklands.

The slow speed of implementing any cycle routes both along roads or along greenway in any city or town is a stark example of the lack of progress. After over a decade of operation of the NTA, not only is there scant progress of cycle network, there’s not a single continuously segregated city centre to suburbs in any Irish city. That compares poorly to the first decade of the National Roads Authority (now part of TII) where there was substantial progress on motorways and bypasses.

While there’s disagreement among advocates on the route or design options for the planned Liffey Cycle Route, few disagree that the process has taken far too long. The NTA strangely took over the route selection process just before councillors were to vote for one of two options and claimed to be taking over because the city council was taking too long. Then the NTA’s own review was delayed and now its selected route option — which cannot accommodate existing levels of cyclists on the quays — is delayed for years.

The Liffey project is also split, with the Docklands section now coming under BusConnects, this is despite the NTA for years resisting city council attempts to built part of the cycle route before dealing with the controversial pinch point.

The slowness and “everything or nothing” approach is also taken with infrastructure part of BusConnect, which promises cycle routes with the bus routes. This delays progress and opens the whole project to major planning risks. It’s heavily influenced by the NTA’s flawed thinking of over use of CPOs to fit everything in rather than dealing with the politics of space. It has come come way to dealing with this but is still far off from where it needs to be be.

The NTA might claim that it needs one big process because it cannot do it otherwise. But Section 46 of the Public Transport Regulation Act 2009 shows otherwise — it widened the 1994 Road Traffic Act to allow for more bus and cycling measures to be built quickly under the Sections 37 and 38 of the 1994 act, which includes traffic calming and traffic management measures. It allows the NTA use this with consultation with councils, and stops councils from just changing things back afterwards.

The suggestion isn’t to try to squeeze everything into the existing road space, it’s to look at what can be done to make better use of the road space. An over reliance of bus lanes to provide bus priority is a prime example — even more use of bus gates is needed on some routes and that means freeing up space for decent sized cycle paths. Continuous cycle routes is something the NTA continues to undervalue — not helped by that fact that no continuous routes of any decent length have been built.

The NTA has previously said that Greater Dublin Area Cycle Network will carry more people than buses. Where did that vision go? This isn’t fiction — Dutch cities with metro rail and tram networks still carry more people on their cycle networks than all of their public transport combined. Questions about the Dutch being different mostly fall under cycling fallacies.

On the patchwork of cycle routes which have been built to date by councils, the NTA has also failed to improve standards of cycle routes. This again is in contrast to NRA which installed local offices in each county and tied following its design guidance to funding. The NTA has furthermore been a blocker to following best international standards on cycling — while the BusConnects team seems to be correcting this, outside of BusConnects, the National Cycle Manual opts for shared solutions disliked widely by both people on foot and on bike rather than following proven Dutch designs (as per CyclingForAll.ie).

The apparent ideological barrier of not following Dutch cycle route design thinking is echoed in BusConnects or the NTA more broadly having another apparent ideological barrier of not using central running bus lanes on the routes in Dublin which allow for such. Central running (or one-side-of-the-road) bus lanes are better for bus priority, better for road safety, better than four lanes for the public realm, and better for cycling. With both cases of ideological barriers there’s little or no public debate or transparency. Even when the NTA were planning routes called BRT in name they avoided central running without explaining why.

The Greater Dublin Area Cycle Network Plan overall was a fantastic plan but the NTA now seems to both want to override it where it suits them for BusConnects while also using the network plan to argue against cycle paths on some streets.

What’s the reasons for the lack of progress and other questionable issues regarding cycling at the NTA? I honestly don’t know for sure. Much like at council level, the lack of strong political support likely plays a big part of it. But the issues with the NTA seen to go beyond political support and the NTA is supposed to be a body which strong follows policy. Maybe the political influence or lack of support has been overwhelming?

What part does not enough funding play? Or is it part of the slowness that affects systems of governance in Ireland and other places?

Like most organisation of its kind, NTA’s includes contradictions and differences. Some advocates point out that having Fred Barry, formally of the NRA, as NTA chairperson isn’t exactly the best choice for what was supposed to be a sustainable transport focused body.

At other levels in the authority, it also took on a influx of staff at different points. Some are “bus mad” (ie way too focused on buses alone) and others are cyclists but don’t quite get Cycling For All. It’s not clear where the NTA’s CEO Anne Graham stands on cycling, but she seems to lack the vision and leadership for faster on-street changes such as that shown by Janette Sadik-Khan, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation.

Like with most things in life, it’s likely a mix of things. But it becoming clearer that the NTA commitment to cycling is not as strong as once thought.

Nobody said or thought moving Ireland towards more sustainable transport was going to be easy but it never should be this hard or take so long for even small steps to happen.

Back on April 1 — while not at all joking — I wrote how the “current crisis needs to be wake up call for radical change to tackle other crisis” — thank kind of things should now apply to BusConnects and other transport planning in not just Dublin but also Cork, Limerick and Galway. As that article covers in more detail, our starting point cannot be “where do the cars go”.

To add to that: The starting point also cannot be “where do buses go” — our streets should be reshaped for sustainable transport but we need to remember that our streets are more than just for transport and that’s more and more important if we want to enable more housing density in our towns and cities. For this to happen, mindsets need to change inside agencies as well as at political level.

The situation we’re in now and what is facing the economy might force a change of thinking, but it should not have needed to come to that.

I am editor of IrishCycle.com and have reported on and commented on cycling in Ireland for over a decade. My background is in journalism -- I have a BA in Journalism from DCU and HDip in Print Journalism from BCFE. I wrote about cycling for national newspapers, and then started CyclingInDublin.com for overflow stories. Later the website was re-branded to reflect a more national focus.

4 Comments

  1. Are the NTA or Dublin City Council (or other Councils) consulting with non-standard cyclists to discuss their needs on design of cycle routes? Non-standard cyclists include disabled cyclists, cargo bike users, small children, Cycling Without Age trishaw operators, and similar cyclists? Many cycle paths have lamp posts in the middle of them, end suddenly – tipping the cyclists into the road space, end in barriers at junctions, or are too narrow. Most are not segregated from motor traffic. Why are we not being consulted by planners and engineers? Cycling is for all ages and abilities, and we want equal access to safe cycling routes.

  2. A measure for me of its lack of crusading committment to cycling is the requirement for public bike renatl schemes to be reliant on sponsorship.

  3. cormac mac gearailt April 20, 2020 at 5:42 pm

    Great article Cian. The only problem is that the truth in this case is very demotivating. As a committed bike commuter – I look at the barriers to cycling in Wexford and can’t imagine ANYONE deciding to take up cycling as a mode of transport. We are trying to influence the Council here through WexBUG – but you get crumbs or less – and then a new multi-million bridge opens, with no cycling provision. We proposed a 5km segregated route from a satellite village into town and it was dismissed. The fact that there is not a single segregated route in Ireland to a suburb in 2020 is a shocking failure of state.

  4. Good article Cian. I think you are absolutely correct about the inability of the NTA to change its mindset on roads and engineering. They seem overly committed to CPO of gardens when what they should be looking at is what can be done with existing road space. There seems to be no real commitment to reducing traffic to the city centre of Dublin.

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