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Poor cycling infrastructure is solved by building better, not by abandoning cycle paths and switching to “sharing the road”

— Evidence supports cycle paths and related measures to make our urban area more livable.

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COMMENT & ANALYSIS / VERY LONG READ: If cities or towns are building cycling infrastructure with just today’s cyclists in mind, they should stop. It’s a road to nowhere. Building low-quality cycle routes will turn more people against them.

In what seems to be an example of this, Ellie O’Byrne, co-editor at Tripe + Drisheen, has this week published a long-read article titled “I’m a cyclist and I’m against more cycle lanes in Cork.” But what’s O’Byrne solution? A summary: Empower cyclists to be confident road users; educate motorists, cyclists and including children and adults; lower speed limits; and enforcement. These solutions alone have never worked anywhere at any scale to encourage more people to cycle or make things safe.

Any seasoned campaigner in Ireland, the UK, Germany, the US and elsewhere will be familiar with these kinds of arguments.

Up until relatively recently, there was a strong what is called “vehicular cycling” movement within cycling campaigning in many countries, they also thought that cycle paths were not part of the answer. They also said the focus should be on lowering speed limits, education and enforcement (some went to the extreme and said you should be able to cycle fast to keep up with traffic).

Some people within cycle campaigns have changed their views and others have moved on. It might seem like it was always been the way it is now, with campaigners looking for cycle paths, but it took concerted efforts for campaign groups in many counties to change. Some, I’m sure, are still struggling with vehicular cyclists.

“What evidence is there that cycle lanes increase safety?” O’Byrne asked. Painted advisory cycle lanes are generally not a good idea, but there’s truckloads of evidence that segregated cycle lanes and cycle paths are a good idea.

Safety in numbers

IMAGE: Aiming for “safety in numbers” without segregated infrastructure is just providing for cycling for the fit, brave and ultra determined. The reality is few school children will be able to cycle.

Vehicular cyclists sometimes claim that you can have “safety in numbers” without having major interventions like cycle paths. They point out that there’s research to back up their claims. But those using the research in this way are wrong. The research shows an effect of policy interventions that increased the number of people cycling. It did not track some magical event where people just started cycling in greater and greater numbers, which turned out to be safer.

In one of the most quoted bits of research on the subject, a 2003 paper titled ‘Safety in numbers: more walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling’, Jacobsen and others made it clear in their conclusion: “A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.” Many have latched onto the first line without fully reading the second line: Policy interventions make things safer, ie including cycling infrastructure.

Safety in numbers is not a system to be implemented. It is an effect caused by putting in place a system of measures.

We know from the CSO that one single cycle path was so popular in Dublin that it increased commuter cycling in areas around it — the Grand Canal cycle path (which, by the way, campaigners argued against). The same thing was shown using traffic data when just partly-protected cycle tracks were added to the Blackrock bypass in Dublin and the evidence is even stronger again for the DLR Coastal Mobility Route.

But our city is different 

IMAGE: People adapt to safe and attractive infrastructure.

In reply to a response to her article, she wrote: “Cities you mean? My article is about Cork city and specifies that that’s all I’m writing about, quite clearly. Not sure of a city of comparable population, demographic (Cork has highest rate of disability in the country for example), topography, history etc?”

As US campaigners joke as infrastructure is rolled out in there: The arguments have gone from “we’re not Europeans” to “we’re not Portlanders” to “it might work downtown but it won’t work here” and even to “it might work on that street a block away, but not on this one”. It’s always disheartening to hear fellow cyclists use similar arguments.

That our country or city is too wet, too hilly, too full of narrow streets, or that car parking is needed for the elderly are all common excuses against changing the status quo around the world to make cities safer, more livable and environmentally friendly. That’s not to say O’Byrne is saying all of these things or that everything should be dismissed out-of-hand. But the echoes of “our city is different” are very strong.

A huge amount of work has been done in this area including longitudinal studies showing people won’t cycle in heavy traffic. Sure, there are many factors to overcome when you’re trying to change the status quo. But one of the main and first steps is to provide safe infrastructure, including cycle paths on main roads and filtering out rat-running on minor streets.

Mistakes were made

IMAGE: Better design needs to be aimed for, even when things are being done quickly.

Does that mean councils always get it right? Or that no design can be dangerous? No, it doesn’t. But poor cycling infrastructure is solved by building better, not building nothing.

O’Byrne makes some solid points such as “In reality, cycle lanes propel cyclists into contact with cars at junctions where the cyclist is no longer able to apply the rules of the road.” but this is again a case for better design, not abandoning the idea of cycle paths.

A case in point is the Griffith Avenue protected cycle tracks in Dublin — it’s overall an improvement on previous on-road conditions and also likely slows cars down enough that there’s a safety benefit for all road users. But school children still use the footpath because the cycle lanes are too narrow, interrupted at bus stops, poor at junctions, and unfinished.

To be clear: IrishCycle.com supports quick-build infrastructure that’s not perfect, but there’s something deeply wrong if temporary schemes announced a year or two ago still have not been built out their full length. Talk of making the narrow lanes permanent with kerbs before addressing the issues is also worrying. Councils must not confuse people defending some level of temporary improvement with what they need to be aiming for when solutions are being made more long-term.

So, IrishCycle.com shares most of the frustrations from people giving out that things should be better.

It’s also hard to disagree with some other points from O’Byrne, such as: “Cycling is its own specific activity, not glorified pedestrianism. On the flat, I tend to be moving at over 20km an hour. Bikes have gearing mechanisms and momentum, especially if carrying heavy pannier bags, pulling a trailer or transporting a child. Lanes that continually force cyclists to stop their mode of transport and adopt another one result in cyclists ignoring those rules.”

But — again — this is an argument for continuous and seamless cycle routes (which can be a mix of cycle paths and quiet streets etc).

In the short-term, there will be some issues around motorists adapting to change including an understanding that cycle paths don’t go everywhere. But if education could even possibly work to get motorists to “share the road” including busy roads, then shouldn’t it be a simpler task for education to be effective in telling motorists they have to share the road sometimes?

Data goes wrong, causation vs correlation

O’Byrne wrote: “Cyclist fatalities in Ireland reflect the trend line of modal share pretty accurately. There was an 8% increase, year on year, in deaths between 2010 and 2018. This coincided with an increase in cycling.”

Each death is a person and IrishCycle.com tries to go to pains to say that. But if we’re looking at data, the numbers are very small when it comes to the ability to analyse the data. If you want to talk about urban areas, you’ll have to start by cutting the majority of deaths out of the data, as the majority of cycling deaths have happened in rural areas.

There are also other issues relating to causation vs correlation, such as using the data from urban cycling deaths from areas where there has been no cycle paths built and little or no increase in cycling. Such data can not be used to talk about how deaths are linked to infrastructure or increases in cycling for transport.

O’Byrne continues along these lines and then links infrastructure spend in a single year and deaths in that near when it’s unclear how infrastructure covering a small area built in one year could even have an effect on the national picture of cycling deaths.

Regarding injuries, there are well-recorded issues with being unable to track such data over time because of changes in methodology and not being able to accurately record the figures at all because of underreporting to the police. The solution of combining police and hospital data is questionable given that the latter is entangled with sports cycling, and road cycling and off-road cycling is likely to be overrepresented in such data.

Too many of those involved in medical and road safety research seem to have little regard for this mix up of sporting and transport data even when it comes to using it for telling transport cyclists what to do. That’s not to say such data should never be looked at, but it would require far better processes at the stages of collection.

You cannot change cities… or can you?

IMAGES: Utrecht, an example of change and Cork, hardly a city with just small roads.

In her article, O’Byrne said she supports greenways and I think other inter-urban routes. But of urban areas she wrote; “What I’m discussing from here on in is the feasibility and desirability of trying to insert a segregated cycling infrastructure into a pre-existing city road network.”

But we already know it’s feasible because other places of all different shapes and sizes have done it.

O’Byrne said: “When we attempt to control behaviour through design, we can inadvertently introduce new inequalities into our design, especially when we act on assumptions and not evidence.”

But on this point, she offers no evidence for her solutions and the phrasing shows little awareness that our Government at local and national levels have actively controlled behaviour through design that has left us with the car-centric system that we have, which disadvantages a huge amount of people.

IMAGE: We need great mobility options for people with disabilities, elderly people, pregnant women, people caring for small children and others.

O’Byrne wrote — and I think this is worth highlighting — that:

“When you deliberately disadvantage car users, as a by-product, you disadvantage not only disabled drivers in the quantifiable form of blue badge holders, but also the unquantifiable: elderly people, people with temporary injuries or illnesses, pregnant women, people caring for small children.”

No transport options suit everybody, especially not all the time, but providing for Cycling For All offers a wider range of people the option of safe cycling. Including children, elderly people, people with disabilities, parents and others caring for small children. and pregnant women. Cycling is just a mix, alongside walking, public transport and car use, especially for those people with disabilities who need their cars.

But the high car use system we are in is a high-air-and-noise polluting system, it’s inactivity-inducing, it’s high-carbon, and it starves people of independence by restricting mobility options (especially, children, older people, people with disabilities, and parents who are forced to act as a taxi service).

The health issues alone are massive. But there’s also inequality, and blockages to access to work and education. And that’s all before we mention the environment beyond human health in any detail.

The Census shows that 1/5 of households in Cork City and Suburbs have no access to a car — that CSO-defined area is a wide one that goes beyond the city. But it’s not just car-less households, there’s a range of issues from forcing families into needing two cars or not giving people with disabilities the choice of different options outside of the bus or car (remember, not all people with disabilities can drive, so, “blue badge holders” should not be used as a shorthand for everybody with a disability.

People with disabilities are a wide range of people and at the moment many in the media have given voice to those opposing sustainable transport schemes. A number of high-profile disability advocates have tried to brand all “active travel” (ie pedestrian and cycling) projects as “ableism” when they are well aware that many people with disabilities do not have access to cars and even those who do suffer from poorly designed footpaths. It does not help that cycling has been caught up in a type of a culture war in the UK and scaremongering around that has seeped into Ireland. People who already have fear about their access to society are prime targets of that scaremongering, while the reality that many people with disabilities living in cities are in carless households is rarely talked about. 

An impossibly high bar for walking, cycling or public transport

IMAGE: Not ever impacting on anybody is an impossibly high bar for all sustainable transport — with this thinking you get compromises such as an unenforced bus gate and buses stuck in traffic. Aka: The status quo.

In the end, we’re left with contradictions. In a world where the vast bulk of our streets and roads are designed around moving and storing cars to the detriment of all other road users, it’s an impossibly high bar for walking, cycling or public transport that no new measures will “deliberately disadvantage car users”.

In our cities which are mainly designed around cars, things like wider footpaths, cycle paths, pedestrian crossings, planting trees, and a host of measures could be viewed as “deliberately” targeting car users.

So, you cannot honestly say both that and also “Yes, we need fewer cars on the roads”, without sounding like a politician or an AA spokesperson saying they are “all for cycling”, just don’t do anything that might affect cars.

Nearly all policy measures in one way or another which lead to fewer cars can be seen as “deliberately disadvantaging car users”. It’s not about punishing people. But when 95-99% of our streets are mainly designed around cars, any changes will feel like they are being deliberately done to harm car users. That’s not their point or goal.

Even O’Byrne’s suggestions of enforced 30km/h speed limits on roads that are designed for higher speeds could be seen as “deliberately disadvantaging car users”. So would providing the “most regular and cheapest public transport” we could provide… unless you want buses stuck in traffic, in which case, those buses aren’t going to take many cars off the road.

But the line which O’Byrne used which I cannot get over is dismissing building cycle paths as a form of “weaponising ‘active travel’ budgets to make car driving more difficult and pitting drivers and cyclists against each other.” This is as bad or worse than the people who use “war on cars” rhetoric (explained very well by this 2011 article). It is common that many people are opposed to changes to the world around us and changes to society. Cycling ticks both of those boxes. But opposition to change is not a reason against it, both the benefits to the change and the negatives of sticking with the status quo are too great.

In 2017, 93% of the Citizens Assembly voted to suggest to the government that the number of bus lanes, cycle lanes and park and ride facilities should be greatly increased in the next five years and “much greater priority should be given over to these modes over private cars”. They did so because of the evidence presented to them. While care should be taken that people are not left behind, it is society’s responsibility to break from our current destructive status quo. 

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5 comments

  1. The comments that Ms O’Byrne has made, are not only wrong, but if followed, would result in an ever decreasing numbers of people cycling and would continue to reinforce the current car-dominated status quo. Her ‘solutions’ have never been shown to work anywhere and they certainly wouldn’t work in Cork either. She’s woefully misinformed.

    Reply
  2. This is a really interesting article. I’ve been cycling for nearly 50 years in Dublin. I stopped for a while in the early 2000s as I felt increasingly unsafe on the roads due to the massive increase of car traffic thanks to the Boom. Around then we got a car for the first time and I loved driving it – for all the reasons people love driving: the feeling of power, invulnerability and protection. In the late 2000s due to financial reasons and a growing awareness of climate change I began cycling again. Since 2019 I’ve cut down my car usage drastically to once a week max on most weeks, occasionally twice a week. As a kid/teenager/20-30year old I took my chances on the bike, wore lights and a high-vis sam browne but not a helmet, and just accepted that there were no segregated or safe lanes for me as a cyclist. In my 40s I felt less acceptant about this – and less brave/willing to take risks – but felt I couldn’t do anything about it, so I just grumbled and shrugged and put up with the increased feeling that cycling = stress.
    One of the things that got me back into cycling besides climate change in 2019 was a month-long stay in Leuven (Belgium). In the centre of this city here’s a clear road hierarchy: motorists on designated streets always have to give way to cyclists, cyclists to pedestrians. There are no protected/segregated lanes but everyone buys into it. It works. I liked it both as a way of organising traffic and also as a way of organising society. The most powerful take care of the least powerful. If only we could do that in Ireland, I thought. So when I started cycling again in Dublin, I kept an eye out for pedestrians and enjoyed the feeling of looking after them – but I also noticed how rarely motorists would look after, give way to, or make space for me and other cyclists. However I still thought if I was just courteous enough and demonstrated my excellent road behaviour, then all the motorists and bus drivers I was politely getting out of the way of would notice, cop on and start giving way to me and other cyclists. I think is similar to Ms O’Byrne’s view and if so, I get where she’s coming from.
    During the start of the pandemic it became even easier to subscribe to this view as there was so little car traffic. I read articles about ‘vehicular cycling’ and the importance of being ‘visible’ (ie ‘sharing’ the road with motorists), I became an even more model cyclist. I stopped at reds, always gave way to pedestrians, never cycled on footpaths and always indicated if I turned. I felt very virtuous and pleased with myself. The world is changing, I thought. Then the pandemic began to ease, the car traffic increased and my good behaviour led to me being increasingly bullied into invisibility. I I felt increasingly more unsafe and crowded off the road by motorists, including bus drivers passing me (aged 50+ on a tiny folding bike with panniers) too close and with speed. A couple of weeks ago a driver drove straight at me on a road with (unsegregated and unmarked) contraflow for cyclists, shouting at me it was one-way. If I hadn’t got onto the footpath he would have collided with me.
    As I read Cian’s blog and listened to podcasts and webinars I realised this is a structural issue, not to do with inherent badness in any individual motorist.
    I started changing my mind about the efficacy ‘vehicular cycling’ as a strategy, about how far unilateral courtesy will get me and other cyclists in a world which is structurally organised to discriminate against us.
    Now I do what many Irish cyclists do. I turn left on reds when it’s safe. If I have to take a right turn after a busy junction, I cross the junction on the green pedestrian light (after giving way to pedestrians), instead of waiting for the motor traffic signal to turn green. I take up space in the middle of narrow roads, forcing drivers behind me to slow down, rather than risk being rammed into a parked car or against the kerb. I cycle on footpaths on roads where there is no segregated cycle lane, where the limit is 60 km/hour but where the vehicles often go up to 20km faster, and where the lane I am supposed to ‘share’ with buses and taxis (and often delivery vans) is wide enough only for one motorised vehicle. I still indicate all the time before turning. I still give way all the time to pedestrians, even if they step out in front of me on a red to them without looking. I still believe it’s my job to look after those most vulnerable, but I can’t do that at the expense of my own life.
    I’m aware that I am breaking the rules of the road by cycling on footpaths. I stop and/or get off the bike if a pedestrian comes towards me so that it’s clear it’s their space. I get off the bike if someone is clearly disabled and make sure I am not blocking their path. But I’m not kidding myself. I’m aware that my actions are creating some unnecessary stress for them. I dislike that the inadequate structures have encouraged me into choices where I am dumping some of my considerable stress and fear onto people more vulnerable me. But I can’t see myself continuing to endanger my own life by ‘sharing’ a narrow lane with a bus passing me at 70km an hour three inches away.

    Reply
    • @aka & @Cian
      Thanks. It’s something I think a lot about – & live through a lot too :) Great to have a forum like this to share experiences.

      Reply

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