“As 1950s 12-year-olds, we cycled from Dalkey den to Powerscourt to camp… That’s a measure of how much we have lost of active childhood since”

Who are Ireland’s cycling campaigners and what motivates them? Week 11: Dr Mike McKillen

We often hear people talk about cycling campaigners abstractly, despite all of them being volunteers, they are regularly called “cycling lobbyists”. But who are these people and what motivates them? In a new series, each week a cycling campaigner from somewhere around Ireland tells us a bit about themselves and why they campaign for safer and more attractive streets and roads.

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Who are you and what group are you involved with?

I’m Dr Mike McKillen a retired academic biochemist and immunologist, and safety specialist.

I have been every-day cycling all my life, using both pedal cycles and motorcycles. I was a competitive trials-bike rider on a Bultaco 250 cc in the ’70s-’80s. I rode an ‘Africa Twin’ motorbike until 2004. At Trinity, I was an active member of the DU Motorcycle & Light Car Club. All through the ’60s I commuted by motorbike to college. I own a hot-hatch car.

I was a member of the Cyclists’ Action Group (CAG) established by Carmencita and Dr Billy Hederman in the early ’80s. This folded and so I then joined the Dublin Cycling Campaign in 1998, as I had considerable safety concerns about the evolving bus lane system in Dublin and the standard of driving of the Dublin Bus, taxi and coach drivers using the lanes and with an ineffective roads policing effort directed at keeping bike users safe in these lanes. I acted as chairperson of the Dublin Cycling Campaign for three years from 2007-09.

In 2008 a number of urban cycling campaigns around the country decided to form Cyclist.ie, and I was proposed as the first chairperson, a position I held until 2016, when Colm Ryder took over.

I acted as chair of the Trinity Active Travel committee from its foundation in 2010 until June 2022. I am a member of IBikeDublin. I am a member of the European Cyclists’ Federation’s Scientists for Cycling group.

What was your earliest memory of cycling?

My first bike was a Sturmey-Archer hub-gear Raleigh bike, which I got for my 6th birthday. It was a bit big for me, but in those days you grew into everything. I learned to ride in the garden. I started by rolling along with one foot on the pedal until I got the feel of balancing it. Along with local pals, my younger brother and I cycled to our primary school about three miles from our home in Glenageary. It was not the school run by car!

We went everywhere on bikes and played bike polo on quiet local estate streets and cul-de-sacs. A friend of my father was a wood-turner and he made us beautiful polo sticks. Sometimes we towed roller skaters to get them going really fast. Later on, I was a sea scout, and we all cycled to the den in Dalkey and Bullock Harbour by bike.

Parents weren’t around with a car to drop you to the harbour during the summer holidays to match the high tide times — there was at most one car per household! We cycled from the den to Powerscourt to camp at Whit and Easter, with some parents carrying the heavy gear and our kit bags. What parent would permit a 12-year-old to cycle to Powerscourt today? That is a measure of how much we have lost of active childhood in the decades since the mid-’50s.

When I was 11 years of age I plotted with my brother and two pals to mitch off school for the day. We headed off at a normal commuting time with our sandwiches and cycled all the way to Calary plateau, via Bray and Kilmacanogue, and climbed the Sugar Loaf mountain. We returned home by about 4pm and acted as if nothing had happened. I only told my parents about this epic adventure at my late father’s 90th birthday party.

After childhood, why did you start cycling yourself?

I finished with cycling by the time I went to Trinity, preferring fast motorbikes for commuting and socialising (you could offer lifts to girlfriends!). I did not return to commuting by bike until my stint at Princeton University in the early ’70s and my return to Dublin and Trinity. I commuted by bike to my lab for 42 years. I had one bike stolen during this period. I was the first rider on the Ballsbridge-TCD axis to wear a helmet. I used to get stares from commuters standing at bus stops, as it was a bit dorky.

What motivates you as a cycling campaigner?

I see cycling as one of the few remaining freedoms in our constrained lives. I want others, particularly young people, to have this experience too. Far too much of our lives revolve around trips made by car. Our roads are not safe for unprotected everyday use of them by bike riders. Cars dominate our shared public roads.

Cars have become significantly bigger and heavier in the past decade, so their drivers pose more of a threat to bike users. That is the physics of both momentum and footprint size. Our road and safety authorities and judiciary seem to be blind to this existential threat to the lowly bike user. I believe that they are blinded by the windscreen-view of road safety and motornormality.

How did you get involved in campaigning in the first place?

I spent two years teaching and researching at Princeton University in New Jersey in the early ’70s, I returned to a position at Trinity. I had seen how the USA was car-dominated. We thought we could live there without a car, but after a month we had to go and buy one. We could no longer rely on the kindness of colleagues to take us to do our grocery shopping. The shopping centre was only accessible by car.

What’s the most effective way you think that more people will hop on their bikes in Ireland?

Car use for footling short local trips has to be made more difficult! I would like to see the end of the school run by car. The success of local authority traffic management and cycling infrastructure should be measured by the proportion of students going to school by bike and walking. Schools should have to report on this to local authorities and the Department of Education on an annual basis.

Without a major improvement in how roads policing is conducted none of this will happen.

And if people are looking to get involved, what should their first step be?

They should contact Cyclist.ie to be put in touch with a local campaign group near to them and if there is none then consider forming a group! Gorey Cycling and Walking Campaign is the latest to join Cyclist.ie.

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