Sunday 9 November 2008

cycle planning in Dublin

Dublin will need to do more than a modest public bike scheme and a few cycle lanes to get commuters on to the saddle and off the roads, writes Harry McGee

THERE IS A word, specifically a verb, which perfectly describes what happened to me. Except I didn't know it at the time. I was cycling along Dublin's south quays just outside the Clarence Hotel when the driver's door of an illegally parked car swung open in my path.

I tried to swerve to the right but ended up hitting the door on the outside. The bike skidded and I kept on going, my momentum taking me right into the middle of the two-lane roadway.

In truth, I was very lucky. Although it happened just before articulated lorries were banned from the city centre, I was blessed that, at the moment of my crash, the trucks and cars that zip along the keys had been stalled by pedestrian lights at the Millennium Bridge.

The culprit was probably more shocked than I was and full of apologies. After my reflex, hysterical reaction - in censored form, "you stupid fool, you could have got me killed" - I brushed myself down, hopped on to my dented bike, and cycled on.

What did it leave me with? Badly scraped knees, torn trousers, a little post-event shock and an everlasting wariness of a door swinging open in front of me.

But there was actually a word for this. I came across it about two years later when I was reading a guidebook for New York and checking out the cycling section. "The biggest danger for anyone weaving in and out of traffic in Manhattan," it said, "is getting doored." Immediately, I knew what it meant.

I moved from Galway to Dublin in 1992 and have been cycling on a daily basis since. There are hazards and downsides to cycling in the capital. Strangely enough, the weather isn't one of them. The Green Party's Eamon Ryan, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, owned a cycling tour company before becoming a politician, and he always comes out with the line that Dublin is a drier city than Amsterdam (which is one of the most cycle-friendly cities in the world, along with Copenhagen and Paris). It rains badly enough to dissuade you on only eight days every year, he argues. Let it be quickly added that this sad, sodden, miserable deluge of a year has been an exception to the Ryan rule.

On the other side of the coin, there are the real hazards. The first is getting your bike nicked. It's happened to me about four times and at least once to just about every other cyclist I know.

The second is the danger. The incident on the quays was one of about three similar accidents I have had. From time to time, it also crosses my mind that cyclists get killed in Dublin (12 died between 2000 and 2006). Granted, there have been steep improvements. No more lorries in the city centre, for one. And there has been a big improvement in bicycle lanes. But what's provided is still pathetically short of what it should be.

Here's what's wrong with cycle lanes in Dublin. Often, they are a piece of a bus lane. They are usually not separated from the road by a kerb or some other kind of clear buffer. Sometimes a new bicycle lane appears and two months later somebody lays a cable or does some roadworks and the bicycle lane disappears forever. Another great win for the hard-pressed motorist is that bicycle lanes often provide handy parking slots. And they come to an end, sometimes after 50 or 60 metres.

Many of the nastiest sections of road for cyclists are devoid of cycle lanes. There are no cycle lanes on most of the bridges. Nor are there any on large stretches of the north and south quays, where you take your life into your hands trying to squeeze in the slither of space between parked buses and speeding cars. Or along Pearse Street, where four lanes of traffic have been accommodated but cyclists have been provided with the steeply-cambered gutter and the drains.

PERHAPS THE BIGGEST dissuader for cycling has been affluence. Increasing wealth - and car ownership - has brought with it a culture of laziness. These days people cycle out of choice, not out of necessity: few seem to make that choice, especially when there are few compelling reasons to abandon the car.

To be sure, car culture had predominated in Ireland for the past 20 years. In practical terms, it meant that motorists have had priority on the roads and cyclists have priority only in their own heads. In other words, there is a perception, and it is real enough, that cycling in Dublin isn't all that safe.

All of the above makes cycling seem unremittingly unattractive in Dublin or the major urban centre. That's not quite the case. It's a quick, easy, healthy and green way of getting around the city. I know exactly how long it will take me to get from A to B. I can go places without spending 20 minutes searching for parking. When it rains, I wear a Goretex raincoat, pull-ups and galoshes, which I can throw on in less than a minute. I might look like Michelin Man but it's effective. Clip-on pannier baskets, instead of a backpack, ward off excessive sweat. Overall, I am a happy cyclist.

It's much less stressful than driving, though not entirely stress-free. I have become more militant in defending my rights over the years. But I have got more than I have bargained for in upbraiding some drivers, including a young woman in a 4x4 who calmly replied to my complaint with the following effective putdown: "You should not have been cycling so f***ing fast. Go and take a running jump you f***er."

What disappoints me is that so few people commute by bicycle in Dublin. Over the past two decades, cycling's lot has receded to a low ebb in Dublin (and indeed in most Irish towns and cities). Up to 40 per cent of commuters in Copenhagen cycle to work. By sad comparison, the share enjoyed by cycling in Dublin was a paltry 2 per cent in 2006. What is more shocking has been the dramatic fall in the number of pupils cycling to school. In 1986, a total of 23,635 primary-level pupils cycled to school. By 2006, that had fallen to just 4,000 (a decline of 83 per cent). This, despite the fact that 40 per cent of the 125,000 children in the greater Dublin area who are driven to school each day live less than two kilometres away. Safety and weather are factors in this, but so is indolence.

Earlier this year, the Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey committed himself to increasing the number of commuters cycling from 2 per cent to 10 per cent by 2020. It's an extraordinary ambition. It would mean moving 120,000 daily commuters on to bikes. If it were achieved, the benefits would be enormous in terms of carbon-emission reductions. It would also be a hell of a lot cheaper than the €18 billion earmarked to shift a similar number of commuters from cars to buses, trams and trains.

But to achieve it is another matter. The upshot of a higher priority for bikes is invariably much fewer vehicles in the city, especially between the two canals. In practical terms, the only way to achieve the Minister's vision would be through the introduction of congestion charges, the provision of more bicycle lanes, lower speed limits, stricter traffic enforcement, and increased traffic calming. This is sure to raise the ire of vocal motor-lobbying groups.

The Minister has promised to put cycling at the heart of his National Cycling Policy and of his sustainable transport plan - both are due to be published by the end of the year. Both will tell a lot about whether Dempsey's ambition of a 10 per cent modal share is realisable or a pipe dream.

But so far, the moves have been tentative. There's money being made available to finish one cycle route along the coast plus the tax claw-back for bicycles. And there are also plans to reduce the speed limits in the city centre to 30kph. But that will be enforced just as strictly as keeping cycle lanes free of cars - hardly, or not at all.

THERE IS ALSO the new Vélib scheme due to be introduced early next year. That's based on the amazing innovation in Paris where people hire out bikes from "docking stations" using their credit cards. It has been hugely successful.

You can see just why by looking at the stats. The Parisian authorities reduced car parking spaces and greatly increased the number of bicycle lanes. There was also critical mass - an impressive 10,000 bicycles when it was launched in the summer of 2007. In the space of a few months, the city doubled the number of bikes available.

Here in Dublin, it's more modest. You wonder, can a two-wheeled revolution really begin with only 450 bicycles and a city that's not quite ready to embrace pedal-power? You suspect that in a few years time there will be a word that sums up the scheme. And, you've guessed it, that word will be doored.

The Irish Times

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