New guidelines on trialling cycle routes: Anti-democratic or highlighting a lack of leadership?

Comment and Analysis: In the latest episode of the sarcastically named War on Cars podcast “America’s Bike Mayor”, John Bauters, is interviewed and he focuses a lot on political will to get cycling routes built, the contrast is stark compared to politicians in Ireland who have delayed action.

Bauters is the mayor of what is described by the podcast as the tiny city of Emeryville, which is wedged between Oakland and Berkeley on the shores of San Francisco Bay. He is known for pushing cycling infrastructure forward in his town and while Emeryville is more car-centric than Irish cities, the key factor in making change quickly is the same: Political will.

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On the podcast, Bauters that when other mayors reach out to him he asks what degree of political will do they have. They are a bit shocked when he asks “Are you willing to lose reelection over it?”

Bauters said that a large part of leadership and politics will is: “Engaging and educating the public — not from a top-down approach but one in which I simply share my values and articulate the reasons behind why we do things so people have time to sit with that and evaluate it for themselves.”

“Democracy is a messy contact sport” he said, and, if you want to be a leader, you have to choose to engage. Too many elected officials start from a negative, he said, and there’s often too much of a focus on the people who shout the loudest.

Bauters’ approach reminded me of the opposite from Cllr Dermot Lacey (Labour) to new guidelines covering how cycling infrastructure is rolled out as some kind of threat to democracy. He made the comments at the Dublin City Council’s transport committee meeting (you can watch the full segment below or on YouTube).

Cllr Lacey claimed that a Ministerial circular which supports the guidelines “removes powers from local communities removes powers from councillors gives the authority to the [council] executive”.

He said: “I absolutely find it incredible I just find it extraordinary that the Green Party in pursuit of one agenda, which is the active of travel one, have totally abandoned totally abandoned their commitment to local government in supporting bureaucratic measures…”

In fairness, Cllr Lacey is not alone on this, with, for example, one of his fellow area councillors, Cllr Anne Feeney (FG), calling the guidelines “very worrying”, and Cllr Mannix Flynn has been complaining about the related law since 2014.

The section in the guidelines on trials is likely what scares Cllr Lacey, Cllr Feeney, and Cllr Flynn the most. It would mean that if the Court of Appeal clears the way for the Strand Road trial, there would not be any requirement for there to be yet another round of pre-implementation consultation before the trial went ahead.

When it comes to trials and cycling, it would be hard to see how Strand Road would not be at the forefront of their minds. All three were against the trial as proposed even if they all had their own ideas or what could work as alternatives.

All three councillors — Cllr Lacey, Cllr Feeney, and Cllr Flynn — have all said that they support cycling generally. And it’s true to some degree that they do on some level support cycling. The former two far more than Cllr Mannix Flynn, but they have been involved in a very conservative approach to delivery. An approach that hardly allows for solid progress, never mind the radical change we need.

The speed of change in the South East Area of Dublin City Council does not service safety, mobility or the environment. The smallest of modal filters and other measures are debated for hours at several local area council meetings.

Cllr Janet Horner (Green Party), a transport committee member and councillor for the North-Inner City, said she needed to come to the defence of her party colleagues who feel have been “quite spuriously attacked” and said: “Trials are not anti-democratic.”

She said that as well as decision-making at the lowest possible level, a core of the Green Party value is evidence-based policy which there has been a “complete absence” of in recent years.

Cllr Horner said that has been “Damaging for the Dublin City transport overall and it has damaged the vast majority of Dubliners who are suffering with congestion who are suffering with poor air quality who are suffering at a very basic level with the number of injuries and the number of deaths that we see in our roads which are just horrendous.”

She added: “We need to do something different… taking an approach where we say let’s allow space for evidence-based policy making to come through and let’s allow councillors to still have a say and have a vote on what goes through and what doesn’t but let’s not be led by what has happened up to this point which has been what’s popular and ultimately what has been deadly for people on our streets that needs to end.”

What do the guidelines and regulations say?

As this website covered at the end of October, the new guidelines clarify Irish councils’ powers to install cycling and bus priority measures permanently or as a trial.

Brendan O’Brien, executive manager covering traffic and transport at Dublin City Council, told members of the council’s transport committee that Section 38 has not been changed and the Minister for Transport has just issued guidelines for the first time.

So, to be clear: There are no new powers, just a circular and guidelines that add clarity to the existing powers set out in Section 38 of the Road Traffic Act 1994, and amended by Section 46 of the Public Transportation Regulation Act 2009.

The lack of guidelines was a criticism from the Justices of the Court of Appeal in the Strand Road cycle route trial case. That case was last heard in February and the written judgment is still yet to be published by the Court.

O’Brien said that Section 38 covers changes to the full road from “within the boundaries of a public road” or street. A different process, Part 8 should be used if the project expands beyond a road or street, such as into a park or into gardens or other lands that do not form part of the public road. While if a full environmental assessment is needed projects must go to An Bord Pleanála.

But if the project is within the road — the definition of a road includes not just the carriageway but from boundary to boundary — then Section 38 is used.

Section 38 includes installing “bollards, posts, poles, chicanes, rumble areas etc etc” and he said the “whole gamut of things” which are carried out by traffic departments, including making streets car-free, filtered permbilty schemes, or installing cycle paths or bus priority measures.

O’Brien said that one of the newer things in the guidelines is how to implement a trial of measures.

Paraphrasing the guidelines, he said: “What [the guidelines] are really saying is the core rationale for trial is to allow a particular proposal to be implemented on a temporary basis for a defined period of time allowing the impacts of the proposal to be monitored this then informs a subsequent decision whether the proposal should or should not be retained on a permanent basis.”

It’s recommended that trials are between 6 to 12 months but cannot be longer than 18 months. There is no requirement for pre-trial public consultation, although the Gardai should be consulted and, if the direction of travel of a road is changed or restrictions implemented, other emergency services too.


  1. I think – with all due respect – that local hostility to the extent of court cases being taken, should be a red flag with regard to local support or not. Perhaps it might be wiser to not expend large amounts of rate and LPT payers money to fight to build infrastructure they perhaps might not actually want. Perhaps that effort might be better expended on other active travel projects that might actually be in line with what local stakeholders actually want?
    Its easy to blame local reps for what sounds like dogged hostile reactions to change, but generally they are responding to the views of their constituents, however much that might be hard to hear?

    • Court cases are often taken by a small number of people.

      Trials allow councils to try out something and for people to see what it’s like rather than fear and what ifs to rule over evidence-based sollutions. 


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