GETTING us all back on our bikes is a challenge Transport Minister Noel Dempsey has set himself.
But, he has a lot of work to do. The fact is that, in transport and safety terms, the faithful bike is way down the priority list, as all the focus has been on facilitating cars and other vehicles.
Just think about it. The number of cars on Irish roads doubled to two million in 20 years, an expansion fuelled by the economic boom. Billions of euro have been invested in roads and motorways — all to accommodate the internal combustion engine.
But what has been done for cyclists over same period? Scarcely anything, except perhaps some miserly lanes marked off by a white line, which look like an after-thought on the margins of busy roads.
Cyclists feel unwelcome and even a nuisance, as they run the risk of being killed, or injured, by arrogant drivers who don’t appear to know that two-wheelers also have rights on the road.
At last, however, official Ireland is beginning to wake up to the reality that getting more people back on their push-bikes could help ease our chronic traffic problems, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also offer a health dividend.
In launching a new cycling framework policy, Mr Dempsey said that by 2020, he wants to see 160,000 people cycling to work each day — an increase of 125,000 people. And he also aims to increase cycling’s share of the total travel market from 2% to 10%.
You don’t have to be drawing the old-age pension to remember a time when nearly everyone in Ireland cycled. Before the car began to take over in the swinging ’60s, people cycled everywhere. We grew up on stories of people cycling from Killarney to Cork for football matches, from Cork to Thurles for epic hurling clashes and even from Cork to Croke Park for All-Ireland finals.
But laziness came with the car and, gradually, people cast their bikes aside until the time came when cyclists were in a minority. The same, however, is not true in many other countries that have not only remained loyal to cycling, but have actively encouraged it by providing the required facilities.
Holland is probably the best example and is generally regarded as one of the most cycle-friendly countries in the world. The Dutch go everywhere by bike — to work, to do the shopping, for sport or just for pure recreation.
Nearly every road has a cycle path called a Fietspad, which link most villages and towns. These are mostly separate and away from the road. They are generally well sign-posted, give distances in kilometres and if you get lost someone coming along will gladly give you directions.
In Holland, people cycle an average of 2.5km per day and the graph has been going upwards in recent years, with far more men than women on their bikes. The largest distances are covered by those in the 12-18 age bracket.
It’s all very well to say the flat land in Holland suits cycling. There can, however, be strong headwinds and their weather is as inclement as our own.
The key may be that Dutch governments have encouraged cycling for generations — they had cycle paths as far back as 1895. The Dutch are so geared up for bike travel that at traffic lights the cyclists have their own set of lights and in some places the cycle routes have their own roundabouts.
One of the most telling official statistics from Holland is that almost 30% of all trips are made by bike. Here, fewer than 2% of people cycle to work. Mr Dempsey hopes that with his new policy, 10% of all trips in Ireland by 2020 will be by bike.
A sea change in policy is needed for that target to be reached. Up to now, new roads have been designed with only cars and trucks in mind, while huge shopping centres and housing estates, which have been built on the fringes of our large cities and towns, necessitate car transport.
Cycling must firstly become an essential part of road design and Mr Dempsey’s draft includes welcome signs that policy is to change, albeit slowly, to consider cyclists. He also wants to introduce cycle-friendly routes to schools, better bike-parking facilities in schools and safe cycle skills lessons in the classroom.
He is also talking about investing in better, safer cycle routes around the country for commuters, leisure cyclists and visitors, as well as improving existing cycle routes and introducing new routes to best international standards.
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