COMMENT & ANALYSIS: If 10 or 20 years ago you were to ask me who would be better for walking and cycling: The former newspaper journalist who made a name for himself with daft and simply untrue stories about the EU banning bendy bananas or a founding chairperson of the Dublin Cycling Campaign… the obvious answer is the latter, right?
The journalist is now the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the campaign chairperson is Ireland’s transport and climate Minister Eamon Ryan.
There’s a lot to criticise Johnson for, his handling of Brexit is a prime example of why he’ll be viewed poorly by history. But as Mayor of London, Johnson, picked up the walking and cycling ideas of his predecessor Ken Livingstone, pushed them and improved them.
Pre-pandemic London had a growing network of improved walking and cycle routes and streetscape improvements. Since Covid — with some mixed results and setbacks — the PM’s officials have pushed local authorities to install a mix of quick-build routes on main roads and streets and Low Traffic Neighborhoods between the main streets. That focus went beyond London.
The UK Department of Transport has issued higher cycle route design guidance and stark warnings to councils that quality is a must follow the guidance, that low-quality projects will not be funded, and that funding will be taken back from councils that stop trials prematurely.
The jury is out on Minister Ryan’s legacy on walking and cycling. An increase in funding is one thing, but spending it effectively on quality projects is another story.
Minister Ryan has promised action on quality, but keeps funding projects which are somewhere between mediocrity and junk. And it’s one thing funding these projects, seeing them as your key projects is another story.
The Government announced its 2022 budget on Tuesday, but besides headlines of a new 19-23-year-old Young Adult Travel Card, there’s little new to celebrate for sustainable transport.
There is once again serious questions around the level of spending on roads vs public and sustainable transport. And the “key” walking and cycling projects listed are not even all walking and cycling projects, some are public transport projects and others seem to be even motoring capacity projects.
In its budget announcement, the Department of Transport listed “Key Cycling, Walking and Greenway infrastructure projects in 2022” and these are mostly at the level of mediocrity or junk. The half-decent projects listed are long-promised or already announced. Here’s the list and a quick overview of the issues:
- Martin Roundabout in Galway: On the face of it, this project is mediocrity but it is really junk. But this will be a main route to a new residential area beside the Galway Clinic. Funding this project shows a huge lack of vision for what cycling can be. This is really a road capacity project just with the label “Conversion from Roundabout to Signalised Active Travel Junction”. A high-quality underpass or bridge should have been the walking, cycling and, maybe also, public transport gateway from the planned area to the rest of the city across the dual carriageway, but instead, sustainable transport will be once again mixed in with Galway’s heavy traffic.
- New Salmon Weir Bridge, Galway (pictured): This is a shared surface bridge in an area between a city centre and its university with no firm plans for connections on any side of it. There were alternatives that would better serve walking and cycling, but Galway City Council ignored them. This is a walking and cycling project, but is it the second to be listed as a “key” project? Or is this a nod to funding in the Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton’s home city?
- Mc Curtain Street, Cork: This is a public transport project and overall it is junk for cycling. Even if the cycle paths included in this were top-notch (and they are not), there’s too much in this project which relies on people cycling mixing with buses and other traffic. It seems a lot of money is going to be used on fancy paving but no real vision for walking and cycling.
- N40 New Cycle/Pedestrian Overbridge (Tramore Valley Park) in Cork: This is one of the more useful projects to enable walking and cycling on the list. It is a shared path but in the context, it is likely realistically all that could have been aimed for.
- Royal Canal Greenway; Royal Canal Phase 3 and Phase 4 (last two phases) in Dublin City: I’ve reported on this project being nearly ready to go to construction so many times, I’ll only be doing so again when work is underway. This feels like a re-announcement — it was approved in 2015 and in 2017 we reported on at least a 6-month delay. After a number of similar false starts, it’ll be welcome to see it start next year, but I would not be putting money on it.
The department’s press release also highlights the “Construction continuing on 8 Greenways around the country, including Midleton to Youghal, Waterford to New Ross, Tralee to Fenit and Listowel to Limerick Boundary, sections of the Grand Canal in Offaly and Kildare, the Clew Bay Greenway in Mayo and the Connemara Greenway from Clifden to Recess.” Construction continuing = re-announcement.
It also mentions “Construction of the Greenway Bridge in Athlone, a key part of the Coast to Coast Galway to Dublin Greenway” but this work is also already underway.
Minister Ryan is a busy man. That’s not to be flippant — Ryan is the Minister for both the Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. Energy is not even mentioned, which the latter also covers. Even with junior ministers to help, that’s a huge task for any person. It is understandable — when climate change is so dominant and there’s also an energy crisis — that Ryan has a lot on his plate.
It is also frustrating but predictable that the first year of funding would be spent on projects that are not really good for walking or cycling like resurfacing 4+ lane roads. But now we see a road capacity project in Galway and a public transport project in Cork are being listed as walking and cycling projects.
And, yes, public transport projects can be cycling-friendly but the MacCurtain Street Public Transport Improvement Scheme in Cork does the bare minimum — there’s road narrowing without enough traffic reduction measures and the cycle paths provided are disjointed and includes shared space on main roads.
Just have a quick glance at the below drawings from the MacCurtain projects. Where cycle paths are provided (green areas), they are poorly connected to anything, have little or no buffers, relies on shared areas at junctions and not a single north-south cycle path that connects to anything.
The Minister — of course — does not need to be getting caught up in too much detail. But he needs to spend a bit of time formally directing officials in his Department, National Transport Authority, Transport Infrastructure Ireland and local authorities that things have to change. If he has already set the memo, officials aren’t listening yet.