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John FitzGerald’s views on cycling don’t align with facts or good transport planning

Comment & Analisis / long read: Not only is the economist John FitzGerald a columnist for The Irish Times, but he also until recently enough chaired the Government’s Climate Change Advisory Council.

FitzGerald has been accused by myself and others of focusing too much on electric cars as the main form of reducing emissions in transport. Back in 2020, I also wrote: “a lot of what FitzGerald says on transport seems to be based around pricing [ie congestion charging] with little concept of modern transport planning, active transport and means of modal change”.

In his article in The Irish Times today, he doubles down on that and he gets it more horribly wrong — the article is titled: “Congestion charges vital to get people out of cars and on to public transport”, and standfirst has the subtitle: “Road space is a scarce resource that can be used most efficiently by buses, so bus lanes are more valuable than cycle paths”.

Without getting into views, it’s amazing how many facts FitzGerald gets clearly wrong.

According to CSO Census data, 24% of households in ‘Dublin City and Suburbs’ do not have cars — that’s 96,963 households. ‘Dublin City and Suburbs’ is the CSO area for the continuous urban area of Dublin, it includes most of the DLRCC area, South Dublin and areas like Dublin 15 and Howth in Fingal. When looking at the Dublin City Council area alone, the figure for households without cars jumps to 36% or 71,325 households (Source: Cencus 2016, table SAP2016T15T1CTY via SAPMAP).

FitzGerald starts his article with the line that “With almost universal car ownership, over the past half century our cities have become increasingly congested.”

As shown above, this is verifiably untrue, there is not “almost” universal car ownership in our cities. And, more generally, Ireland’s car ownership levels are still lower than in the Netherlands.

Car usage, not ownership, is what most transport experts say should be the focus to reduce carbon emissions. But car ownership in urban areas declined between the Censuses 2011 and 2016. The 2022 Census data is due out later in Q2 of this year to see if that might start to make a trend, but Amsterdam shows it can be a trend.

He hints at the idea that there’s no policy about or even thinking behind which routes get priority for buses or cycling etc (ie “individual schemes of this kind that have been delivered or are in the pipeline are piecemeal”). It’s just not true.

Later in the article, he confirms that he is talking about the “Dublin City Council’s plan to close a bus lane in Ranelagh to facilitate more bike travel” which he says “seems like madness”.

Greater Dublin Area Transport Stragicty does not include Ranelagh as a core bus route corridor, but it is a primary cycle route. Why is this?

The Ranelagh route is too narrow to provide continuous bus lanes, a very small percentage of the route can include bus lanes, it’s not a core bus corridor, a higher level of service is provided by the Luas green line route, it is flanked by core bus corridors, Rathmines will get bus priority via bus gates so it would be too much to apply that measure also at Ranelagh, and the current sections of bus lanes are part-time lanes, part-time car parking and even the section of bus lanes near the city aren’t continuous.

On the other hand, a continuous cycle route can be provided. A better level of service for cycling could be provided than what’s currently planned, but, the point is, there are sometimes choices between different sustainable modes of transport and sometimes other sustainable modes take a bit of a hit.

For example, sometimes buses and bicycles are pushed out to the next street for a pure pedestrian street, sometimes buses are pushed out for trams, or sometimes a footpath isn’t as wide as it should be to provide a continuous bus lane. The politics of space on our streets is a balancing act that does not just involve cars and sustainable transport.

FitzGerald’s thinking on this is closer to ideological thinking rather than reasoned transport planning.

Writing about a survey on transport, FitzGerald said: “Not unexpectedly, the data show that the prevalence of cycling is much higher for young adults, and that it falls off rapidly for the growing demographic aged over 50. An alternative to car transport must cater for all of the population, including the elderly or disabled.”

To borrow the phrase ‘madness’ from FitzGerald, his ideas are mind-boggling madness coming from somebody who should be data and evidence-driven. It’s well-established that countries like Ireland have more younger cyclists because the condition of our streets and roads for cycling is so poor. The falloff isn’t just (or maybe not significantly at all) age-related but rather due to conditions.

Where there is a network of safe cycling routes provided, a more diverse range of people will cycle. In the Netherlands, for example, cycling accounts for a higher share of trips for older people than those in their primary years of employment. A reverse of what happens in Ireland.

FitzGerald writes: “The reallocation of street-space between pedestrians, cycling and public transport should be determined, not on the basis of ideology, but rather using evidence of what works best in reducing car journeys… While a further increase in cycling should be facilitated and encouraged, it cannot provide an alternative for the bulk of car journeys.”

But what is this theory with no backing by FitzGerald based on? Evidence or ideology?

Dutch cities have more advanced public transport networks than Dublin’s, yet, the modal share of cycling is much higher than the share of public transport. Despite the Dutch also having an extensive intercity and regional rail network, cycling accounts for more trips nationally in The Netherlands than trips by bus, tram, metro and rail combined.

To be clear: This is not an argument against public transport, but an argument for call for an actual evidence-based debate. Cycling and high-frequency public transport, both at a city and national level, complement each other.

After FitzGerald spends most of his article claiming it is madness to remove a relatively short section of a non-continuous bus lane for a continuous cycle route, then he turns his attention to a range of measures and determines on them without explaining how he got to the conclusion he does.

“Reducing options for car travel or for parking in the city is one way to drive people out of their cars, by making car journeys more miserable even at off-peak times” — there’s a lot to unpack there and after spending the article in a round about way bashing the case for cycling, the electric car supporter within FitzGerald is shining here.

Nobody is setting out to “just make driving more miserable”. In my previous article, I accused FitzGerald of what I called “AA-level shadow boxing”. This kind of rhetoric, claiming somebody is “just make driving more miserable” is exactly the kind of sound bite which we commonly hear from former AA spokesperson Conor Faughnan.

Cities like Amsterdam, Paris and Utrecht have set about reducing car parking spaces in a systematic way. These cities have made a case for it on public health, environment, and transport grounds, and then set targets to reduce the number of spaces.

Dublin isn’t doing that — it is only removing parking spaces where there is a need to positively provide for an alternative mode of transport, including not just cycling, but buses too, or liveability measures such as trees and outdoor dining in a relatively small number of locations. The other cities are taking a far more pro-active approach.

Bus lanes have and are being made 24/7 as part of the active travel schemes… and that brings us to the phrase of FitzGerald’s of “even at off-peak times” — this idea that bus or cycling provision should be time-limited to peak hours will not get us the reduction in emissions we need. It is something that’s often said by pro-car city centre retailers but really doesn’t make any sense.

The highest number of trips per hour are made on-peak, but more trips overall are made off-peak. In other words, peak commuting trips are only a minority of overall trips. If we want people to drive less, we need them to be able to embrace that at all times which suits them, not just at commuting times. Planning just around rush hour sustainable transport is planning for car dependency.

FitzGerald writes that a better way is for the use of congestion charges and a second best would be to have a big increase in parking charges — he claims that these measures would mean that “most essential car journeys are undertaken” and would reduce car committing (again a focus on commuting). Little space is given to explore these claims because he spent it bashing cycling provision.

Congestion charging is one of many tools in the toolbox, anybody advocating for it or anything else alone (including cycling) as a silver bullet should be a red flag that they don’t understand transport planning.

This image shows London’s congestion charge zone in the centre, surrounded by the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) boundary and the soon-to-be expanded ULEZ boundary — the congestion charge zone is tiny. In Dublin, 72% of trips are already undertaken at peak times by sustainable modes to the equivalent area, the city centre inside the canals. There’s a case for a congestion charge in that area, but a much wider approach than the city centre is needed to reduce car use and emissions across Dublin.

The “experience of London with congestion charging is instructive” he said, and then writes that routes “through uncluttered side-streets are now the way to travel. Dublin should learn from London”.

This is utterly maddening stuff because it has little place in reality. Again: This is not factually correct.

The reality is London spent decades routing cycling via side streets, and it failed. Then congestion changes were introduced in London and also a new push for the side street concept for cycling, a little more successful this time, but it was still hit-and-miss. The more successful routes were down to modal filters, not congestion charging. As above, only a small percentage of London is in the zone.

There was a huge political battle to get congestion charging in place but there was an even larger battle to, make side streets more liveable generally and safer for cycling.

But even if you dismiss all of that, another reason why he’s factually incorrect is that London has not just focused on side streets for cycling. Compared to Dublin, London now has a large network of cycle paths on main roads and streets. Learning from London means cycle routes both on filtered side streets and segregated cycle paths on main routes.

So, how did he get it so wrong? It seems like personal bias over facts about what actually happened in London. Regarding Ranelagh, he wrote: “When I lived near there, I travelled by bike into town every day, but using tree-lined side streets for a more pleasant, safer, and only marginally longer journey. Those alternative bike routes are still available.”

The idea that there’s also a load of untapped side street routes into Dublin City Centre is also incorrect — there are a few and they should be utilised, but permeability into the city centre is determined by features such as the canals, and the layouts of buildings and rail yards etc.

If somebody says we should follow an evidence-based approach, it’s worth checking if they researched what they said before writing an article for a national newspaper. The road to reducing car use does not have silver bullets — traffic management measures and sustainable transport modes complement each other. Tools for this transition aren’t standalone and no city has been successful in thinking that way.

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4 comments

  1. That’s an amazing article! Loads of evidence and reasoning. If we had that in the national newspapers we’d be much better off

    Reply
  2. I agree with Helen. Well done Cian (again).
    Instead of getting in ill-informed, controversial, opinionated people on radio stations, why don’t the radio stations get Cian into the studio once per month to rationally and reasonably offer explanations to cycle issue questions (like they do with e.g. environmental experts?)

    Reply
  3. I can see a congestion charge coming but more along the lines of limiting access to city centre for example Capel Street been traffic free no turn from Dorset street to o connell Street for cars things like that work better and don’t need huge resources either. Maybe more one way systems as well eventually to free road space up its easily done in the city centre it would currently mean about 8 streets becoming one way rather then 2 but still allowing access to homes business etc

    Reply

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