Last year, I was one of hundreds of thousands of people to cycle along a greenway on this island. Most of us did so as tourists and we brought immense benefits to local economies. The Great Western Greenway for example is worth €38m locally and supports 200 direct jobs.
Greenways can be both a great day out or part of an active weekend break. Nearly everyone who can cycle a bike feels safe on a greenway and they are a great way for new and less experienced cyclists to enjoy cycling.
Ireland’s approach to greenways is largely tourism-focused. Build a path, market it, and welcome the visitors. The problem is, however, that not all greenways are used by tourists and not all users of greenways are cycling.
When we drive on roads, we all have a remarkable degree of similarity. We all usually tend to drive just below the speed limit, we all have similar levels of protection offered to use by the vehicle we are travelling in, and we all have similar levels of power at our disposal.
When we use greenways, we contain multitudes. We walk, we cycle, we stand, we scoot, we wheel, we bike. Even within cycling, a family of two adults and two kids have extremely different needs and abilities on their bikes compared to an experienced cyclist. Go to any greenway tomorrow and you’ll see people are travelling at different speeds, with different levels of confidence and awareness, and for different reasons. This can lead to conflict.
It’s becoming apparent that the Government is putting too many eggs into the greenway basket and not expecting any to crack. The main solution being offered at the moment seems to be providing some more baskets. If you follow the news, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Greenways are coming thick and fast in recent years but in reality, progress is slow. Many greenways ‘openings’ of late have been upgrades and rebrands or opened in small sections. Others meanwhile are stuck in the courts or being opposed by elected representatives who previously supported them.
Given the significant economic benefits that greenways have brought to some areas, in conjunction with the health benefits they offer communities living nearby, you would think that the Government would be writing blank cheques. Unfortunately, only €53m was allocated for greenways over a four-year period from 2018 to 2021.
The “more baskets” approach has merits but is being hindered by the fact that we don’t seem to want to spend more money on baskets and we’re happy for partial baskets to be announced in anticipation of completed baskets in coming years.
Another solution is to provide different types of baskets in appreciation of the fact that not all eggs behave the same. We only have to look to Europe to see what sort of baskets they are making.
In the Netherlands, there is an ambition to build 650km of fast cycling routes (‘Snellfietsroutes’) by 2025. The goal of the routes is to provide better accessibility to people cycling between commuter locations and incentivise people to choose the bike over the car.
In Denmark, 27 local authorities are working in partnership to develop 45 cycling super-highways (‘Supercykelstier’) that will run for 746 kilometers. The goal of the routes is to offer a mode of transport equal to public transport or the car.
In Germany, the Fast Cycle Route (‘Radschnellweg’) will link many cities and urban areas in the Ruhr region and is expected to take 50,000 cars off the road.
Closer to home, there have been calls for ‘Rothar Roads’. These would be minor roads where bikes are expected and respected. People would be free to drive on these roads but only at a speed that allows them to react to a cyclist or a walker coming around the corner. Ireland Inc is strategically poised to develop a network of such people-friendly roads: we have one of the most extensive road networks in Europe per head of population and many of these roads are very lightly trafficked.
I do one type of driving. I have one type of car. I do three types of cycling on two different bikes. Firstly, I commute in my jeans and a sweater to work. I’d like a route that prioritises me as a commuter and encourages me to leave my car at home. Such a route would be relatively direct, free from vehicular traffic, with a smooth surface, and a continuous quality of service that brings me right into the city centre. A cycle superhighway.
Secondly, I cycle at the weekends on a road bike and in sportswear. I’d like a route on a road that weaves through the countryside, alongside rivers and up over hills. Such a route would be popular with people walking and cycling and relatively free of cars and lorries. A rothar road.
Thirdly, I cycle with my family. I’d like a route in an area of outstanding natural beauty, rich with heritage and culture. Such a route would be enjoyable and relaxing, with slow speeds and plenty of opportunities to stop and chat. A greenway.
Greenways have been a great initiative but we need more solutions for people cycling outside of our urban centres. We need more baskets.