How looking at Dutch cycling has convinced me: Ireland is primed to make cycling mainstream again

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: I’m just finished Unraveling the Cycling City, an online course by the University of Amsterdam’s Urban Cycling Institute, and what’s surprised me is how much it made me look back on cycling in Ireland.

In the course conclusion video, Marco te Brömmelstroet (aka the Cycling Professor), said that the course was designed to confuse. But by forcing me to evaluate international experience and my own country’s cycling past, I now have clarity that Ireland is now primed to make cycling mainstream again.

Cycling was not just mainstream mobility in Dublin, it was such for most of Ireland, including rural areas. The bicycle helped to enable everything from wider social contact to rebellion in 1916. Cycling was so much part of country life that the National Museum of Ireland’s Country Life has a permanent “Cycling the Country” exhibition. The museum explains: “By the 1930s bicycles became the key mode of transport in every parish in Ireland, dramatically changing the social life of ordinary people.”

However, as with most of Europe, cars took over. Ireland’s economy developed late, and the switch to the car happened later. Car culture and development started to grip from the 1980s. For example: in 15 years from the mid-1980s to the turn of the century, the cycling modal commuting share for third level students (ie university level) in Ireland shifted from above 25% to under 5%.

In looking back at our history we have to look at the shared history of the story of transport. As outlined by Oldenziel and de la Bruhèze in ‘Contested Spaces Bicycle Lanes in Urban Europe, 1900–1995’: “How then do we explain the general conceived notion that cars rather than bicycles were the most important innovations on  the road in the twentieth century? The  distorted view of history comes  from the U.S., where bicycle production figures plummeted from sky-high levels while car sales  increased dramatically.”

Oldenziel and de la Bruhèze stated: “Almost everywhere, municipal traffic engineers portrayed bicycles as dangerous and as  obstacles to more modern modes of mobility.” While more progression is now evident in some attitudes toward cycling in Ireland, distracting arguments in the debate on cycling need to be faced down. For example, as Marshall et. al outlined in ‘Scofflaw bicycling: Illegal but rational‘ (2017): “When including driving and pedestrian scenario responses — such as how often respondents drive over the speed limit or jaywalk—100% of our sample population admitted to some form of law-breaking in the transportation system (i.e., everybody is technically a criminal).”

Oldenziel and de la Bruhèze covered how in the interwar period that “policymakers, traffic engineers, and urban planners  were all convinced, that even though bicycle use was booming in most cities, cars would inevitably be the dominant mode of transport in the future. Blueprints were sketched accordingly…” Advocates of a system of sustainable transport and liveability need to be relentless in making sure the same mistakes are not echoed again.

Even some cycling advocates need to be reminded that in the Netherlands, as Oldenziel and de la Bruhèze puts it: “The success had less to do with Dutch DNA or the country’s flatness than with a combination of factors, including  bicycle-friendly representations, strong bourgeois cultures, urban-planning choices, late automobility, and governmental policies.”

When talking about Dutch cycling, Kuipers, G. (2013) in ‘The rise and decline of national habitus: Dutch cycling culture and the shaping of national similarity’ states: “Habitus is our culturally and socially shaped ‘second nature’. What we learn as members of a society, in a specific social position, is literarily incorporated – absorbed into our bodies – and becomes our self. This incorporation we see in the ease with which Dutch cyclists move through busy traffic…”

Ireland was ahead on this analysis. Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien), in his novel ‘The Third Policeman’ (1967), explained the “atomic theory” of how people become part bicycle as cobblestones streets shake the bicycle and person together. O’Nolan wrote: “When a man lets things go so far that he is half or more than half a bicycle, you will not see so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls…”. O’Nolan was, of course, writing humorously. But his outlook — including humor – is one way of fighting against those who wish to derail cycling.

Liu et al in ‘Practitioners’ perspective on user experience and design of cycle highways’ (2019) quote practitioner ‘NL2’ as stating: “I’ve got no clue. I’ve been working for 10 years in it, I’ve got no clue, but it really depends on who you ask. I think that’s a proper answer.” This is refreshing to hear from a practitioner. It’s a message that there’s still an ‘undiscovered country’ in terms of cycling potential for routes which will help grow the distances where cycling is practical and enjoyable. The lesson can be applied wider.

Too many people have singular notions of what “Dutch cycling” is, but we have to let go of some prevailing ideas such as it being just short trips or just cycling and train combos. The reality is that it’s a range of potential.

It can be claimed that lack of cycle paths or parking or that driver behaviour has held Ireland back, but a decade of writing about cycling in Ireland has made it clear that the overall reason is lack of political will and vision to change the status quo. We have to open our minds to an ‘undiscovered country’ of the potential of cycling. The question is: Can we?

On top of the pending climate crisis and our mounting inactivity health issues, will the unfortunate current COVID 19 crisis be the catalyst for enough people to demand change and say they don’t want the status quo much like how the oil crisis and high child deaths sparked change in the Netherlands?

WATCH: How the Dutch got their cycle paths:

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.

2 Comments

  1. I agree, it’s political will. At all levels of government, nationally and locally, elected and civil service they’ve heard the arguments for it, and in many cases probably agree, but they haven’t the balls to face the backlash from the vociferous minority. instead they skirt around the issue, getting more and more studies done, reports commissioned, all to postpone the ‘terrible’ day when something will just have to be done. That’s why they’re so in favour of greenways – they know it’s the right thing to do, but it avoids annoying anyway. Hopefully greenways can be Trojan Horses, prompting the development of connecting infrastructure, seeping further and further into our communities.

  2. Leinster Wheeler June 11, 2020 at 11:38 am

    Political support is stronger now than previously although it has a bit to go to reach Dutch levels. The big problem is lack of support by officials in both the DTTAS and most local authorities. Greenways are the flavour of the month because they don’t discommode drivers. Minimum or substandard widths, poor maintenance and surfacing and problems at entry points only suppress use by cyclists.

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