Michael Moynihan: Turning Cork into a cycling city doesn’t have to be an uphill struggle

Conn Donovan says there is nothing (no, not even its notoriously steep hills) to stop Cork benefitting from the bicycle boom
Michael Moynihan: Turning Cork into a cycling city doesn’t have to be an uphill struggle

'I wasn’t a ‘cyclist’. I just had a bike which came out of the shed some days and not others...' We could learn a lot from Conn Donovan's observations — both a motorist and a cyclist, he is now chairman of the Cork Cycling Campaign. Picture: Denis Minihane

Because I do not cycle, I felt it only right to consult an expert on the experience of cycling in Cork.

Or would ‘the growing education of a cyclist’ be a better description?

“I grew up in a one-car household in Ballincollig,” Conn Donovan told me. “The car would have been at work with my father most of the day.

“My friends and I would cycle to sports training — school was actually too close to cycle to. I wasn’t a ‘cyclist’. I just had a bike which came out of the shed some days and not others.

It’s interesting to see the research now on how people become cyclists — that they’ll walk up to a kilometre before looking for alternative transport options, and when we were kids, the bike was that alternative. 

As a student, Donovan sometimes biked to UCC but on an Erasmus year in Germany he had what he calls his lightbulb moment.

“I was in Erlangen, which is well known in Germany as a bike city, about one third of all trips there are taken by bicycle.

“Eight of us went from UCC and seven of us had a bike over there because it was the thing to do.”

When he came back to Cork after working in England, Donovan started off with a 50km round-trip — “a bit long for a cycle every day” — but when he changed jobs to work in the city centre, it was a 20- to 25-minute cycle.

“It’s good exercise — you’re getting fresh air, bringing one car fewer into the city. 

I don’t cycle every single day, I have a car, and if I have to move stuff around I use the car, obviously. 

“Same if there’s an orange or red weather warning. But I’d say 70% of my journeys I take by bike.”

As many types of cyclist as there are reasons to cycle 

Conn Donovan with Claire Hurley of Cork Sports Partnership after he accepted a presentation on behalf of Cork Cycling Campaign for its work. Picture: Brian Lougheed
Conn Donovan with Claire Hurley of Cork Sports Partnership after he accepted a presentation on behalf of Cork Cycling Campaign for its work. Picture: Brian Lougheed

This is where I got really interested, because that arc — from cycling student to car-driving wage-earner — is the traditional one: There’s an inherent presumption of progress, of ‘graduating’ from pedal power to a car. 

Conn, who’s now part of the Cork Cycling Campaign, teased that point out further, showing the parallel track that cycling has taken since the introduction of the bike to work scheme.

“That encouraged thousands of people to buy bikes for recreation, and it spurred charity cycles and cycling clubs, there was talk of cycling becoming the new golf, the growth in the sale of high-performance bikes.

“But there are also people who don’t have transport options. They might have just moved to the country, they may have disability or mobility issues, and for them the bike is the only way of getting around.

“So there are people interested in cycling for recreation, who are quite happy investing large sums of money in their bikes, and then there are people for whom the bike is their mode of transport.

What’s interesting is that people can lump cyclists together in one group, when in reality there are different types of needs involved. And different types of cyclists.

This in turn led me to an obvious question from a non-cyclist: Is cycling around Cork stressful?

“There is that possibility, but it’s a bit of a postcode lottery.  Say you live near Curraheen. You have the Curraheen greenway, the greenway behind the Lee Fields, the Mardyke, and soon enough you’re in the city centre.

All told, you can travel around 9km before encountering motorised traffic.

“And if you’re coming up from Passage, on through Rochestown, you’re on the greenway and you can get to the Marina, which is now car-free, and there are the new cycle lanes along the docklands and on to the city quays. Next thing you’re in the South Mall.

“But there’s another side.  

If you’re coming in from Douglas, St Luke’s, Blackpool, you’re sharing the space with cars, vans, lorries, and that can be quite stressful. 

One hundred cars can pass a cyclist safely, he added, “but the one-hundredth can give you a close pass, or the driver can abuse you, and that can be stressful, the cyclist can feel he or she isn’t being respected as a road user or as a citizen of the city.

“People have strong views about cyclists and can have preconceptions about cyclists — you can see comments on Facebook about cyclists which would be called out if made about any other group. But it can appear sometimes that any comments at all about cyclists are grand. Even comments about cyclists being freeloaders. It’d be nice if a politician or policymaker — or someone in the media — challenged those comments.

“Because if you don’t challenge those comments then you’re not encouraging people to think about the positives of cycling, or the development of the city as a whole.”

Two reasons that Cork's hills are no obstacle to cycling  

Cyclists taking on St Patrick's Hill during the 2018 Tour de Munster in aid of charities including Down Syndrome Ireland  — and in so doing, summing up many people's concept of cycling in Cork: 'It's too hilly'. However. Conn Donovan has a different perspective on all that. Picture: Diane Cusack
Cyclists taking on St Patrick's Hill during the 2018 Tour de Munster in aid of charities including Down Syndrome Ireland  — and in so doing, summing up many people's concept of cycling in Cork: 'It's too hilly'. However. Conn Donovan has a different perspective on all that. Picture: Diane Cusack

That brought me back to his reference to a postcode lottery: What about the topography lottery? Surely the biggest knock against Cork being a cycling wonderland is the range of hills which slope steeply north of the river? 

“Look, there are parts of Cork which are hilly, but there are also parts which are flat.

“Somewhere like the Blackpool corridor is crying out for cycling infrastructure — it’s a major employment hub, retail hub, business hub, and one of the most densely populated parts of the country — and it’s as flat as a pancake for at least 2km out from the central island in the city.

“No one’s asking yet for a cycle lane going right up Fair Hill, but there are parts of the city that shouldn’t be ignored because we feel Cork is hilly. 

“Don’t forget either that e-bikes are the coming thing, which would obviously help with steep slopes.”

Conn Donovan points out that the N20 'Blackpool corridor' — running diagonally across the top right of this aerial photo — is crying out for cycling infrastructure: It's practically flat, and links Cork City centre with 'one of the most densely populated parts of the country'. Picture: Denis Scannell
Conn Donovan points out that the N20 'Blackpool corridor' — running diagonally across the top right of this aerial photo — is crying out for cycling infrastructure: It's practically flat, and links Cork City centre with 'one of the most densely populated parts of the country'. Picture: Denis Scannell

Still, we aren’t Holland, for instance: The natural contours of Cork aren’t as bike-friendly as Amsterdam. 

Not necessarily an obstacle, said Conn.

“People often say in terms of cycling that Cork, or Ireland, isn’t Holland, but for many years Rotterdam, for instance, was seen as a car city, though it’s just as level as Amsterdam.

“Those cities have progressed in Holland because of progressive policies, but a lot of those policies are not so much cycling plans as car reduction plans. 

 “They knew if they put in the infrastructure then they’d encourage people out of their cars, and that’s important to remember. 

The Dutch would be a low bike-use country if it didn’t have the infrastructure and mentality they’d been working on for decades.

“They have ambitious plans to get even more people cycling — in places like Groningen they’re thinking of heating the bike lanes to reduce the risk of ice — but they also keep working hard on it, they don’t rest on their laurels.”

Cork isn’t starting from the same position of strength, but the increased number of cycle lanes is encouraging. So is the advocacy of the likes of Conn Donovan. 

We haven’t caught up with Groningen. But we’re not at the back of the peloton either.

 

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