Why there is hope for enabling walking and cycling in Ireland

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: After writing about walking, cycling, transport and livability issues for over a decade it can get depressing seeing opposition to basic measures to making people safer, or looking at some of the basic things officialdom in Ireland refuse to change. But there is hope.

Like climate change, the enemy of progress is now not mainly denial, but rather despair and inaction.

A healthy dose of despair when fighting up against what sometimes seems to be an immovable wall of the status quo is understandable. But when left to fester it’s toxic, corrosive and even infectious. In climate change, this is also referred to as “doomism” and those that try to induce it are called “inactivists”.

Climatologist Michael E Mann said the following in an interview with The Guardian earlier this year:

For more than two decades I was in the crosshairs of climate change deniers, fossil fuel industry groups and those advocating for them… But now the “inactivists”, as I call them, haven’t given up; they have simply shifted from hard denial to a new array of tactics that I describe in the book as the new climate war.

Cycling is in a similar position to climate change.

A thing that is important to note here is that inactivism and efforts to discredit do not need to come from large corporations. It can range from your car park owners to pharmacists or even neighbours and family.

It can come from online trolling. From on or offline concern trolling. Or even from people spreading rumours about you because you have reported illegal parking or publically supported a cycle lane or other change in your area.

You need an army of people to fight against this status-quoism. And that’s where the hope comes in — people.

Politicians

For this website’s part, so-far over 150 politicians have signed up to CyclingForAll.ie (which sprung out from IrishCycle.com, with lots of help). It’s a small enough number overall, but it’s quite a detailed ask for politicians to sign to try to shift Ireland away from sub-standard infrastructure designs.

It is also the first time all the main cycling groups in the country have agreed on an infrastructure position like this. A decade ago a large chunk of campaigners in Ireland were focused on “vehicular cycling” (link is to a UK explainer, but it was much the same here).

While councillors and TDs in many cases are blocking or delaying walking and cycle routes, there are more politicians than ever seeking positive changes in their constituencies around the country.

In the capital, DublinBikes alone brought in a huge mind-shift. There’s now a mind-shift change in progress on the segregation of cycle routes including taking space from cars to do so. The shift with councillors can be seen replicated in different parts of the country, possibly at a faster pace. For example, Galway Cycling Campain’s recent success on the Salthill cycle path.

Some politicians who say they are pro-cycling and others on the fence will need support, encouragement and a bit of pushing to do the right thing, both well enough and fast enough. Breaking the status quo is a messy business. But make no mistake mindsets are already shifting significantly compared to 5-10 years.

Public opinion

Survey after survey — including the NTA’s Bike Life report — show that the public supports cycle paths, pedestrianisation and other interventions to make where we live less car-dependent.

There will nearly always be loud voices making claims ranging from the daft to some claims that are attractive because they sound reasonable.

One of the most high-profile and loudest examples of opposition to such measures is the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (aka LTNs) in London. As things calm down a tiny bit, data has shown that LTNs increase walking and cycling while reducing car use, and a whole host of other claims against LTNs have been debunked.

The opposition is fierce but the support for LTNs has been hovering around 50% while the opposition has been only around 16% (with quite a few people indifferent). Opponents even tried to make the LTNs into an issue in 2021 London mayoral election but failed to do so.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, was also reelected despite opposition to her radical programme to reduce the amount of space and priority given to cars in Paris. Similarly in Seville in Spain, with its quick-build cycle network which was heavily opposed but turned out to be popular at the polls.

The same happened in Ghent in Belgium implemented a radical traffic circulation plan. Even neighbouring Dutch experts said that it was “political suicide” one year ahead of an election, but it worked, people liked it and the politicians pushing it were reelected with a higher vote.

Officials

Where officials are in this story is a mixed story around Ireland. In 2019 IrishCycle.com covered how councillors and not officials were the main reason for a delay in progress on cycling. Since the pandemic we have witnessed major progress on action in some areas, but not in other areas of the country.

Better policy set at the national and local level has helped to support officials who want to make progress. There’s many such people from entry-level to senior. Although, as said, there’s a huge mix across the country and even within organisations. Many councils and State bodies are still kind of lukewarm on cycling and will have to make the leap to supporting Cycling For All Ages and Abilities.

It’s the job of politicians, campaigners and just about everybody to prompt officials to act and support officials where they want to act.

Minister Eamon Ryan and the Government has already put in an unpreciented level of funding. Now he is in a key position to help with councils and other state bodies by tying all transport funding to the best international design standards for walking and cycling.

Campaigner and others calling for action

Cycle campaign groups around the country have been renewed, expanded and new ones started. Other campaigners have focused on speed limits or campaigning for local projects, be it cycle paths or filtered permeability.

In Dublin, the Dublin Cycling Campaign has now three decentralised local groups covering the areas of DLRCC, Fingal, and South Dublin. I Bike Dublin has started edgier direct action campaigning protecting cycle lanes (I Bike Dublin is separate from the Dublin Cycling Campaign), and Dublin Commuter Coalition is the first group with a stated aim of advocating for active travel and public transport.

There’s now cycling campaign groups in towns and counties that never had them before, such as the Carlow Cycling Campaign, Waterford Bicycle Users Group, Navan Cycling Initiative, Castlebar Community Cycling, and Drogheda Cycling to name a few.

Cyclist.ie, an umbrella group, has also launched its Rural Cycling Collective, and groups have sprung up in urban and rural areas advocating for greenways. There’s also wider groups seeking pedestrianisation and other measures such as Better Ennis and 15-Minute Westport.

Recently the Active Travel Coalition — a collision of climate and health groups — have also called for action. And just in the last year, school principals in Galway, Dublin, and Westport have also called for action. That call is backed also by businesses in Dublin and Cork.

There is a lot of debate, work, and headaches ahead. But while that’s going on, please don’t forget: There is hope.

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