COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Covid has vividly shown us the absolute importance of caring for public health at all levels of society, but current arguments and legal actions over the Sandymount Strand trial cycleway show that we in Dublin aren’t yet really joining the dots.
The proposals, billed by Dublin City Council as a six-month trial, are for a two-way cycle lane along Strand Road and Beach Road, which will entirely remove the northbound general vehicle lane. Motorists will be limited to a one-way system. The cycleway is intended by council to link up with the ‘Coastal Mobility Route’ recently built along the seafront through Dun Laoghaire and Blackrock.
Uproar has resulted in some quarters of Sandymount, culminating in last Friday’s order by Justice Charles Meehan halting work until a judicial review has been completed. The review is sought by two individuals who claim it would breach EU environmental law. Opponents of the trial also say that building the cycleway will cause traffic congestion to increase, north-bound motorists to lose access to Dublin’s Port Tunnel, and traffic — including heavy trucks — to traverse nearby residential neighbourhoods and Sandymount Village itself.
The review is likely to be heard in April. Meanwhile, in parallel to the legal actions, submissions have been made to An Bord Pleanála to seek intervention from a planning perspective.
Disruption of the status quo around transport is often the subject of controversy; changes to established transport patterns will inevitably suit some and inconvenience others. Examples of this are seen in the arguments of cycleway protestors, such as this quote from their principal website: ‘Our senior citizens are … absolutely entitled to visit their grandchildren by car…’. Council traffic models do show Merrion Road suffering a 114% increase in traffic northbound on foot of the trial and, despite legal restrictions on 5-axle HVs, a number of heavy vehicles do use Strand Road to travel northbound; these vehicles will likely still need to travel in future, and will require an alternative route.
But the effects of extra traffic through the Village and the likelihood of rat-running are amenable to well-established mitigation measures if needed. Many journeys can be re-routed, delayed, or taken by different modes: this area is one of the best served in the country by rail and bus service. Indeed, international evidence repeatedly shows that displacement of traffic isn’t a simple numbers game, that the somewhat wide-eyed sounding concept of ‘traffic evaporation’, cited by supporters of the trial, is well-founded. That’s why major cities like Taipei, Seoul and San Francisco have been able to remove whole urban sections of motorway, and keep their citizens moving.
We know from worldwide experience, too, that rolling out good cycle lanes separated from motor traffic will encourage people to use them, which in turn of course reduces car trips and their associated congestion and pollution.
Dublin’s own Grand Canal route, when finished in 2013, saw a 220% increase in cyclists around and across it, and car commuter traffic in this quarter dropped significantly. We know that most of our car trips in Dublin are less than 5km, a distance that hardly lets a car engine get up to its working temperature. We know that a car going at 50km/h needs thirty times the space of a moving cyclist. We know that even a major switch to electric cars won’t fix the congestion problems or climate impacts of our transport system. We know that, pre-Covid, 9% of people commuted by bike in Dublin and 2% by Luas, despite the roughly €1.1 billion poured into Luas, and the pittance spent on cycling.
But the strongest argument in favour of trials such as Sandymount is the immense positive impact it could have on our public health. Covid is not the only ongoing pandemic: A 2019 DCU study found that Irish children take so little physical activity that 25% of our kids ‘cannot run properly’, that one in two cannot kick a ball properly, and that less than one in five can competently throw a ball.
Our transport system with its unthinking dependency on private car use, our ‘entitlement’ to use cars for even short trips, bears much responsibility for this. Students are forbidden to bike or walk even short trips to school, for fear of their parents and classmates’ parents’ cars zipping past on the school run. Redressing this dependency means reallocating road space.
The World Health Organisation has had a major focus on this prior pandemic of physical inactivity, citing cardiovascular and diabetes effects in particular. WHO publish a tool for assessing the economic effects of cycling and walking plans like that on Sandymount Strand, and such diseases count for the biggest economic impacts. Running such an assessment at UCD’s School of Geography recently, the WHO tool indicated that potential health benefits of the Council’s long-planned Liffey Cycle Route could amount to over €200 million.
This figure was based on the route encouraging a growth from quite low bike-commuting numbers to a proportion of trips just above what were seen in the central city — all in pre-Covid figures. Of the 100,000 or so commuters entering the western Liffey district daily, 10,000 new cyclists could be generated by providing a high quality of service for cyclists, the figures indicated. Over a projected 20-year cycleway lifespan, those 10,000 Dubs taking regular exercise and fresh air would account for a huge amount of healthcare savings.
The WHO assessment tool combines Irish data for average distances cycled, mortality rates, fiscal values for mortality, etc. Health is, of course, not a value we like to put cold, monetary prices on: mental health benefits, avoidance of minor illnesses such as a bad back, and bumping into friends along the route — issues more important than ever during lockdowns — are all part of getting out on a bike, and near-impossible to accurately cost.
But if sound, evidence-based decisions are to be made on how we invest in and manage our shared public roads and spaces, economic assessment of health impacts must logically form part of the process.
Sandymount Strand currently presents a hostile, scary experience for cyclists — parked cars sprawl off the footpaths, the lanes are narrow — but not narrow enough to put hurrying motorists off overtaking — and there’s a plethora of tricky mini-roundabouts. Despite this, almost 1 in 10 residents in the encompassing Pembroke Ward biked to work or school pre-Covid. The Strand’s 5km radius is crammed with schools, social centres, businesses and amenities, so there’s huge potential for cycling growth.
That’s to say nothing of its proximity to the city centre and Docklands, or its function as a through-route: once 5km restrictions end, the trial cycleway will encourage thousands more cyclists from southern suburbs to bike into the city along a safer, quieter Strand: Council tallies showed a doubling of cycling levels during the first lockdown along nearby Rock Road, and the increase in bike numbers on the since-completed Coastal Mobility Route from Blackrock to Sandycove has been, literally, phenomenal: Weekly cycling numbers jumped from 4,000 or so to 20,000 at the peak last September.
In the absence of health economic figures for Strand Road, we can only look at the above factors and say that, if an increase of cyclists along the Liffey would engender €200m in benefits, it’s well worth considering what the figures might look like for Sandymount, and making them part of the debate.