Imagine hundreds of families on their bicycles, away from bustling traffic, creating lifelong memories and oodles of fun, as they stop off for ice cream, picnics and local produce as they meander through villages and towns of Cork and Limerick.
It’s easy if you try, as the old song goes.
The long-mooted Cork to Limerick motorway project, the M20, is going ahead as a near-certainty as we emerge from the clutches of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It has as many detractors as it does proponents, with pro-motorway people saying it is essential for Ireland's second and third cities to be connected via a modern road that is fit for purpose, while opponents say an upgrade for safety means is essential, but not at the environmental and sustainability costs.
However, an idea floated by healthy-living enthusiasts has the potential to unify the two camps.
A greenway in parallel to the Cork-Limerick roads project.
There has never been a better time to consider such a plan and seize the moment, its proponents say.
Prominent Cork solicitor and environmental law expert Joe Noonan floated the idea on social media, pointing out that “there is huge scope here for local voices all the way between the two cities to be heard”.
Properly done, it would be transformative, he said. It could be a “tremendous asset for anyone involved in active travel and a magnet for tourism”.
The response to his proposal has been enthusiastic online, to put it mildly. People love the idea of a greenway connecting the two biggest cities in Munster.
Mr Noonan told theit was important to note that this idea is not to be taken as prejudging the outcome of the current process of considering various options.
"It is more a case of putting the idea out into the public debate so that it can be part of the discussion from the start – which will be vital if it is to get off the ground.
“It would be spectacular. I don’t know the potential costs of such as asset, but the common-sense suggestion would be that from a cost perspective in relation to the cost of the M20, it would be trivial.
“There are current national policies advocating in favour of allocating percentages, or 10% of road spend, on providing for active travel.
"There is no way that the costs of making this work would approach 10% of the €800m or €900m that is being talked about regarding construction of the motorway.
“There have been millions spent already, as we know, in relation to the feasibility of the motorway. You could look at the existing roadway to see what parts need particular protection.
"I am not sure it would even need 100% certification all the way up, or maybe it would – just do the analysis, and I imagine it would be a fraction of the available budget.”
It would be a lifeline for many of the towns and villages along the route. The likes of Buttevant, Charleville, Ballyhea and Croom would benefit hugely, Mr Noonan said.
"A town like Charleville or Buttevant or Croom further up, as well as the immediate environs, would benefit. Think about going to school safely – that whole concept opens up.
“This is of course separate from the tourism aspect of it. It would be an immense magnet for Cork and Limerick tourism.
"It would potentially launch Ireland into the same bracket as some of our continental neighbours where you can cycle from city to city without ever having to worry about cars alongside.”
The thought of families picking up coffees and ice creams in a village like Ballyhea and pedalling onto Newtwopothouse for dinner or a family fun event has universal appeal.
📢 #Network Issue 12 · Q3 2020 📢— Waterford Chamber (@waterfordcc) November 13, 2020
During #summer2020 indoor pursuits were limited (as they are now) due to the #Coronavirus (#COVID19) pandemic. Thankfully, the great outdoors - inclusive of the ever-popular @WaterfordGrnWay - was/is a refuge for many 👉 https://t.co/7swv6LI1gh. pic.twitter.com/2cun323Jx8
There is precedent.
Who could have ever imagined Waterford's jewel in the crown would become one of the country's best-loved resources, both nationally and increasingly, internationally?
Dungarvan has been a region transformed with its greenway, attracting thousands of families and day tourists every year.
A Cork to Limerick greenway has the potential to be an even bigger boon for both counties, according to Mr Noonan.
“However, it has to be done from the start. The mindset has to be how we can run something like this in parallel, and not done afterwards. That would be an opportunity lost, certainly,” he said.
Coordinator of Cork’s Transport Mobility Forum Sandy McGroarty was equally effusive in her enthusiasm for such a project.
“Connecting north Cork would revitalise communities and local businesses, as well as improving public health.
“We have seen the enthusiasm and excitement around the proposed Youghal to Midleton greenway. Active travel paths, along with bus corridors, could breathe new life into regions.
“You must also take into consideration the increasing popularity of electric bikes. People are now prepared for longer cycles. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a local business seeing a whole range of new people coming into their towns and villages who may not have done so before? It is a win-win for all,” Ms McGroarty said.
She pointed out the example of her mother, Mary McGroarty, who after being bike-shy for years, is now a big enthusiast.
That was down to the Dungarvan effect, Ms McGroarty, said.
“We got on a tandem bike cycling the Dungarvan to Waterford Greenway. It was my mother's first time on a bike in over 50 years and the only reason she did it was because of the safety the greenway provided.
“Whilst we promote greenways for everyday commuting, they can also be a way to attract novice cyclists of all ages and abilities to get back on their bike. We hired the tandem from one of the many bike shops that have sprung up in Dungarvan since the greenway opened.”
A great example of an 'edge of earthworks' fast cycle route is between Arnhem and Nijmegen in the Netherlands, Ms McGroarty said.
It is segregated, two-way, has good lighting – all that is needed to become synonymous with healthy living and mobility.
The buffer between the road and cycle track could become a biodiversity strip, she added.
Enrvironment and transport minister Eamon Ryan has a chance to leave a legacy that will benefit generations if he follows through on ambitions to have greenways across the country, according to Ms McGroarty.
A Cork to Limerick greenway could be the biggest and brightest of them all, she said.
Economics lecturer at UCC, and co-director of the Spatial and Regional Economics Research Centre, Declan Jordan said that in the context of the climate emergency and Ireland’s need to decarbonise, a greenway is more important than the M20.
“The M20 should also come with a commitment to create a direct train link between Cork and Limerick.
“A greenway will probably do much more for the towns along the M20 than the motorway will, as the motorway is likely to increase the attractiveness of commuting from those towns.
“This will draw people out of those towns so they become sleeper towns for workers in Cork city or Limerick city. The increased activity that smaller towns are seeing currently from more people working from home will disappear and the local economies in these towns will suffer.
“A greenway goes some way towards creating a viable tourist offering and brings people into the towns to spend money. This seems to be the experience of Dungarvan on the Waterford greenway,” he said.
A greenway between Cork and Limerick in parallel to a motorway will support limited commuting unless it fully links the towns and city centres, according to Mr Jordan.
“There will need to be safe connectivity for the greenway into the cities. Such a connection would make cycling viable for large parts of the population of satellite towns like Blarney and Mallow in Cork and Patrickswell and Croom in Limerick.
“The potential of the greenway for commuting by bicycle or children cycling to school will be zero if there is connectivity to the greenway that relies on country roads, particularly in the context of more traffic accessing the motorway,” he cautioned.
Tourism, which has been bludgeoned since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, could be reborn in the regions, especially Munster, with a greenway of such magnitude, according to industry chiefs.
Chief executive of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation (ITIC), Eoghan O’Mara Walsh, said more and more international tourists are looking to rural areas, away from the urban sprawl, as a choice for their trips.
A greenway between Cork and Limerick would be a massive shot in the arm for an industry decimated and in recovery mode for years to come, he said.
“Achill, Westport and Dungarvan have been able to showcase the very best of Ireland. Imagine what such an attraction could do for both Cork and Limerick, and the towns and villages in between.
“We believe connecting the two cities via a motorway makes sense, but we understand there are some that believe it to be unnecessary. However, we can all agree that a greenway would be of enormous benefit to the region.
"We would be well-positioned to take advantage of a whole new range of tourist internationally.”
Limerick Chamber has been a proponent of a connecting greenway between the two cities.
Chief executive Dee Ryan said earlier this year: "Heavy traffic must be facilitated on a dedicated transport corridor outside of the residential setting to allow town and village life to centre around people. How do we design a transport corridor that makes a significant impact on travel patterns and car dependency? One way we do this is by prioritising bus and cycle at every point where the motorway meets with a town or city.
"Another is by ensuring that the route is complemented by a greenway connecting Limerick and Cork. We must design a transport corridor for the future. The project is about regional connectivity, and fits seamlessly with the Limerick and Cork metropolitan area transport strategies which are focussed on sustainable and active mobility in our city regions.”
Another interesting point is that the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) has said it will play ball when it comes to greenways.
"The IFA is committed to working with all agencies to develop a Voluntary Land Acquisition Agreement strategy for amenity projects like greenways. This would avoid the use of compulsory purchase orders."
Need to get the idea out now.— Joe Noonan (@NoonanJoe) November 20, 2020
After this point, options begin to narrow.https://t.co/6mN1txgIuq
Submissions for the M20 consultation process are now open.
Limerick City and County Council is progressing the development of the Cork to Limerick project in partnership with Cork County Council, Cork City Council, Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the Department of Transport.
It is currently at option selection stage, which has considered and assessed a range of feasible options within the study area under three headings – engineering, environment and economy.
A number of road-based and rail-based options have been shortlisted to proceed further, along with an active travel strategy involving walking and cycling.
Submissions on the Cork-Limerick motorway can be made at https://corklimerick.ie/ until December 18.