April 22, 2009

The tricky transition to two wheels

The Government recently announced plans to increase the number of cyclists on our streets four-fold by 2020 – but what changes need to be made to encourage more people on to bicycles, FIONA McCANN .

IT’S GOOD for the environment. It’s good for your health. More people are doing it than ever before. So how come cycling in Ireland is still such a hard slog?

The Government on Monday launched the National Cycle Policy Framework, with the aim of increasing the number of people in Ireland who cycle every day from 35,000 now to 160,000 in 2020. Recent figures released by Dublin City Council reveal the number of cyclists is steadily climbing, with 8 per cent more on the road last year compared to 2007, and a total increase of 30 per cent between 2003 and 2008.

Yet the amount of bicycle journeys taken in Dublin amounts to 3 per cent of total trips, whether by car, bus or tram. This compares with 30 per cent in Amsterdam.

So why aren’t more of us on two wheels? It can’t be the expense, given that bicycles are cheaper than cars or public transport, and even more so following the incentive in last winter’s Budget offering tax relief on purchases of bicycles up to €1,000. Admittedly the weather is less than ideal, but Dublin is relatively low on steep inclines, and covers a small enough geographical area to make for ideal cycling. Yet if the Government is serious about increasing the numbers on bicycles more than four-fold, the first question to ask is: what’s stopping us from getting on our bikes now?

“Our biggest barrier to getting people cycling is perception of risk,” says Ciaran Fallon, Dublin City Council’s new cycling officer, the first of his kind in Ireland. “What we want to do is make cycling safer and make it feel safer.”

CYCLE LANES SEEM like a good place to start. According to Fallon, there are already 209km of bicyle lanes in Dublin alone, though a quarter of those are shared with buses. The problem is, they’re often on the roads that least require them, have an alarming tendency to disappear without warning and are prone to potholes, which can wreak havoc on a cyclist’s sensitive areas. Having to share them with double decker buses renders them largely ineffectual.

“They’re not ideal bedfellows,” agrees Fallon of buses and bikes. “There are lots of difficulties, in the sense that buses are stopping very regularly and they’re awkward for cyclists.” The Government’s new policy promises to retrofit roads and bus lanes to accommodate cycling lanes, but it’s no mean feat in a city like Dublin.

“In an ideal world you would segregate the lanes and give everyone their own space,” says Fallon. “But we’re dealing with a road pattern that evolved without planning, so we have to work with what we have. If we want cycling to grow in the city, we must reallocate road space for cycling.”

Fine sentiments and a welcome initiative from the Government, but cycle lanes won’t solve all the problems facing those braving it by bicycle. And Dublin is only the start. According to Shane Foran, regional spokesman for the cycling campaign group Cyclists.ie, the problems facing cyclists are countrywide. “Certainly in Galway the purpose of cycling facilities is to benefit motorists rather than cyclists,” says Foran. “The cycle lanes that are being put in are dangerous, do make cycling inconvenient, and do make cycling unattractive.”

GETTING TO AND FROM your chosen destination by bicycle can be difficult enough, but finding a place to park is often close to impossible. In Dublin, the few available parking spots are almost always already taken on any given day, nearby fences are festooned with “Bicycles will be removed” signs, and there’s usually already a bike or two wrapped around a nearby tree or knocked to the ground. This, Fallon says, is about to change – the council has plans to increase parking facilities for bicycles by 20 per cent by the end of the year. Not only that, but the location of the new parking stands will be decided by cyclists, or indeed anyone who cares to add their suggestions to the forthcoming website Dublin.ie/cycling.

“People can click on it and tell us where they want the cycle stands to go, and we’ll aggregate those points and see where the demand is,” says Fallon. Part of the National Cycle Policy Framework also includes a provision for new secure bicycle parks in bus and train stations, as well as adapting trains and buses to carry bicycles.

Such initiatives are welcome and much needed, as are plans to reduce speed limits in certain urban areas and around schools, and to provide shared bicycle schemes. Yet they’re unlikely to resolve the biggest problem faced by cyclists: motorists.

“The real problem [for cyclists] is their fellow citizens in cars,” says Fallon. “Most drivers are careful and courteous, but a minority are careless and a really small minority are reckless.” It’s the minority that make some cyclists feel that taking to the roads is taking their lives into their hands. How to deal with drivers who simply don’t look, or notice, cyclists on the city roads? One solution is to educate potential drivers about how to behave around cyclists, while at the same time ensuring cyclists – currently not required to undergo any formal training before they take to the roads – are trained to use the roads correctly, an initiative outlined in the National Cycle Policy Framework.

As Foran sees it, “there needs to be acknowledgement that the roads infrastructure is there for the entire community and not just as a private race track for those who have bought motorised transport”. According to both Foran and Fallon, the single biggest thing that can be done to increase safety for cyclists on Irish roads is to get on your bicycle. “There’s a thing called the safety-in-numbers effect, which argues that the more cyclists a motorist encounters, the more cautious they become in the presence of cyclists,” says Foran. “The rate of accidents among cyclists will go down as the number of cyclists increases.”

THOUGH THIS MAY not resolve the conflicts that arise from motorists and cyclists sharing the roads, it’ll certainly sway things in the favour of the pedal-pushing cohort, and might go some way towards making Ireland more cycle friendly, especially given how far we lag behind our European counterparts, say in Amsterdam, where the motorist is automatically deemed at fault in the case of an accident involving a car and a bicycle, or Copenhagen, where more than a third of commuters cycle to work every day.

We even fall behind US cities such as Portland, Oregon, where a reported 3.5 per cent of commuters cycle to work. In fact, such is the popularity of cycling in that city that one lawmaker even proposed introducing a registration fees for cyclists, though without success to date. Is that what the future holds for Irish cyclists? Not if Fallon has anything to do with it. “My thinking is, when I see a cyclist on the road, they’re freeing up road space for other motorists, they’re reducing congestion, and they’re reducing pollution,” he says. “There’s a case for paying them rather than penalising them.”

Test run: my journey to work

LIGHTS ON? Check. Helmet? Check (despite some research that suggests it might do me more harm than good). I head out along Oxmantown Road through the side streets of Stoneybatter, most of which have no cycle lanes, but boast little traffic and plenty of room for bicycles.

A passing car pushes me towards the kerb, and forces me to negotiate a ramp that I suspect causes me more discomfort to roll over than the driver in his car seat, but I’m not complaining. Yet.

Once onto Manor Street, I’m in a bus lane, and a bus overtakes me to pull in ahead. Do I stop behind and wait in the exhaust fumes or try to overtake it again? I choose the latter and sweep around the bus without incident (if you discount the broken glass).

Turning the corner onto North King Street, things get hairy. It’s one-way traffic but feeding in two different directions. I end up on the left hand side of the right lane, cycling a wobbly line as cars whizz by on both sides. The knowledge that I’m relying on the oncoming driver’s visibility is scary, but on the curve into Queen Street I see a bicycle lane. Hurray! Except it ends about 500m later, just where the road narrows and a bit of space would come in handy. Traffic is heavy, and cars press to the kerb, too close to pass until I turn onto Arran Quay, which is one long cycle lane of joy, if you discount the buses and taxis. There’s even a fellow cyclist or two, and it finally feels like there’s a place for us.

That is until the road markings at Church Street confuse the issue, with the emergence of a third lane for left-turning vehicles. There’s a bus idling there without an indicator on, so it’s anyone’s guess what the driver’s intentions are. Reminded that 75 per cent of fatalities involving cyclists are caused by heavy vehicles turning left, I bide my time behind the bus.

Lights change, we’re off, and the bus is ahead, pulling in just past the Four Courts to offload passengers. I go to pass it on the outside, but the driver decides to move out as I approach, clearly unaware of my presence, and I’m forced to brake and swerve back in behind it.

I continue to O’Connell Bridge, where in order to turn right I have to get across three lanes of heavy traffic. Putting one hand out to indicate is all very well, but I have to steer as well. A motorist pauses to let me cross in front, and I become better disposed towards cars again. The good cheer lasts until I cross on to D’Olier Street and then it’s bus havoc again, and a mystery as to where a cyclist is supposed to be.

I finally make it to the left turn on to Townsend Street, where the road narrows again and I am forced to suck up bus exhausts as I wait for the lights to change before I reach the Irish Times building.

Plans to continue around Westland Row and across the canal to compare the behaviour of drivers and the presence of cycle lanes on both sides of the river are abandoned: I’ve inhaled enough bus fumes for one day.

Cycling stats

35,000 The number of people who cycle daily in Ireland

3 Percentage of total daily journeys in Ireland that are taken by bicycle

209 Kilometres of bicycle lanes in Dublin

25 Percentage of bicycle lanes that are shared with buses

1.9 Percentage of adults that use a bike to go to work, according to the 2006 Census

Maps of Dublin’s bicycle lane network are available at www.dto.ie/ctbl
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