Michael Moynihan: We must get wheels turning so cycling is compatible with our hilly city

Michael Moynihan: We must get wheels turning so cycling is compatible with our hilly city

 Rita and Nuno, from Portugal , explore Cork City by bicycle at Kennedy Quay, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins

A true confession. Your columnist doesn’t cycle.

His relations cycle. His friends cycle. His enemies cycle. But he doesn’t.

Something that happened a long time ago (thorn bush, knee operations) turned him off the pursuit then and he has not warmed a saddle since.

This should not be taken as a declaration of war, or even a declaration of ignorance of the benefits of cycling.

I’ve mentioned here in the past that cycling benefits the entire city, not just its particular practitioners, in all sorts of ways.

It’s greener. It’s safer. It’s quieter. It’s healthier. It encourages more mobility around the city. The cycleways down Centre Park Road to the Marina are a case in point, easing access between the centre of town and one of the most picturesque stretches along the riverside.

It’s no accident, surely, that as the city begins its slow and long-overdue turn towards the water, people have embraced the Marina for walking and cycling ever since it’s been shut to most traffic.

Mountains to climb

But this in turn brings me to one of the most obvious questions one can raise about cycling in Cork: what about the hills and slopes to be found elsewhere in the city, a strong disincentive to the spread of cycling?

It’s certainly a challenge. Take this as exhibit A when it comes to cycling around the hilly city: “The City's infrastructure, level of development, and high traffic volumes provide the greatest challenge to providing a safe environment for bicyclists. There are a limited number of flat or even relatively flat through routes in the City and bicycles must compete for space on these streets with automobiles and the City's extensive transit system.”

The giveaway is the reference to automobiles, or perhaps the reference to the City if you’re a devotee of Armistead Maupin. The paragraph above comes from the home site of the San Francisco municipal authority, and many readers will be familiar from that city’s geography even if it’s just from the opening credits of a certain TV series featuring Michael Douglas and Karl Malden (epilogue included).

Acknowledging the structural difficulties of facilitating cycling isn’t limited to northern California, though. Making a city more bike-friendly despite a high number of daunting gradients is a challenge in many parts of the world.

Rome, Barcelona, Lisbon — the great cities always have hills because hills build character.

Without naming any conurbation in particular, the attraction of a city so flat that you can stand on a snooker table in the main street and see everything is very limited, particularly for those of us raised on hilly streets, the steeper the better.

Meeting the challenge

It’s unfortunate, then, that one of the key attractions of a city can appear to militate against its efforts to be more bike-friendly, but the flip side of that is the intersection of challenge and enterprise. A couple of the same cities mentioned above have driven initiatives to try to overcome that handicap — initiatives which might be replicated here.

The world-famous La Rambla in Barcelona.
The world-famous La Rambla in Barcelona.

Barcelona, for instance, added quite a few miles of cycle lanes during lockdown (it also ‘turned’ successfully to the sea over twenty years ago, a matter I intend revisiting).

Many readers will be familiar with La Rambla, the long, winding avenue through the centre of the Catalan city which is a favourite with tourists and natives alike for a stroll. However, as a level, easily-strolled walkway it’s not of a piece with large swathes of the city behind it, from Tibidabo to Montjuic.

And in fairness, the Catalans have moved to address that. The head of mobility services in the city, Adria Gomila, acknowledged that those living in the hillier sections of the city are less inclined to use bikes for obvious reasons.

To counteract that disadvantage, Barcelona decided to include electric bikes in the city’s public bike-share programme. That resulted in more people cycling in the more elevated districts. To reinforce the initiative even further, the city authorities are to install even more public bike stations in those areas.

(Incidentally, Gomila also has a team of thirty people working for him, which suggests resources beyond most Irish towns and cities — but also underlines the seriousness with which Barcelona takes this issue).

Rome of the famous seven hills was also busy last year. Last May its city council approved the construction of 150 km of cycle routes on the city’s main streets, but that initiative feeds into a wider context.

The cycle routes are to be considered as part of a Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP), which was adopted in 2019 to tackle a broad range of mobility issues that the city is facing. Those issues include various obvious challenges which relate to active mobility such as walking and cycling, but which also interact with the infrastructure necessary for public transport, the primary road network and the distribution of goods within the city.

Combining the plans for cycle lanes with public transport services should help improve the efficiency of both, but it’s the very last point that resonates.

Taking into consideration the need to distribute and collect large amounts of material within the city centre — the zone which by definition tends to have the narrow streets and limited access one associates with medieval quarters all over Europe — is so obvious as to make one smite one’s own forehead.

Those materials and goods tend to be distributed in the city at the very time many people are trying to cycle around those same areas to work. A co-ordinated approach to facilitate both is the kind of plan that deserves to be driven by municipal authorities.

Such initiatives come with their own challenges, but given how sweeping changes in behaviour have become almost second nature in lockdown (working from home, wearing masks), perhaps those plans and initiatives will be embraced more quickly.

They’re certainly needed in some parts of this city more than others.

A cyclist passing a doorway covered in graffiti at Mardyke Walk, Cork City. Picture: Larry Cummins
A cyclist passing a doorway covered in graffiti at Mardyke Walk, Cork City. Picture: Larry Cummins

The lockdown means many people within 5km of the Marina are using the cycle lanes to releive their stress there, but the northside of the city doesn’t seem quite as well served with cycle lanes.

Granted, the topography isn’t as immediately bike-friendly in many areas, but Barcelona’s example is one that could be replicated from Hollyhill to Mayfield and in all parts in between.

Furthermore, one of the main arteries into the city, leading on from the Mallow Road which brings traffic from Limerick, would be ideal for a bicycle lane from the city.

Feeder lanes from areas like Farranree, Dublin Hill and Ballyvolane, Gurranabraher, the Glen and Dillon’s Cross could all deliver cyclists to a main lane terminating at Christy Ring Bridge — or better, at a parking facility at Emmet Place.

This would facilitate half of the city in accessing the city centre in a far more efficient/healthy/greener/safer way.

It would also be more equitable. Isn’t that one of cycling’s proudest boasts?

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