INTERVIEW: IRISH CYCLING ADVOCACY NETWORK & DUBLIN CYCLING CAMPAIGN

We want cities to be safe and enjoyable and convivial, and we see the bike as an instrument to facilitate that transition.

I remember the first time I got a bike. I was around ten, and my grandparents offered me a beautiful red bike.

Yes, I know, ten-years-old is a little bit late for a kid to start to learn to cycle, but I learned fast and once I got the hang of it, I didn’t want to stop. I remember riding around on two wheels for hours on end: the thrill of speeding around the park, breathing in the fresh air and feeling the wind hitting my face. The countless little accidents (often coming back home with sore hands and butt) didn’t matter at all because I was having so much fun. It was one of my favourite leisure activities of my childhood.

Photo: Dennis Mojado
Photo: Dennis Mojado

It was not until around ten years ago when I moved to Europe that I began to understand that cycling could also be a form of transportation, and was not just a leisure or sporting activity. Unfortunately, Mexico does not yet have a strong cycling culture, nor proper infrastructure for committed cyclists and those who would like to begin cycling in the country. Thus, it is no coincidence that the capital, Mexico City, has a very high concentration of air pollution – the highest of major Latin American cities according to the WHO – in large part due to the number of vehicles traversing its streets.

Unfortunately, Ireland has a similar problem – although not on the scale of Mexico – as at present the transportation network across the country is adapted mainly for the use of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, with over 2.5 million vehicles now on Irish roads. And while cycling is fast becoming popular all over Europe, towns and cities in Ireland are still far from being safe for cyclists.

The health benefits of cycling are innumerable, with some of the most important benefits being reducing obesity, heart attacks and diabetes, helping to tackle depression and increasing overall life expectancy. Moreover, a cycling culture can have an important environmental and economic impact on a country, from reduction of traffic congestion, reduction in health expenditure, less greenhouse gas emissions and a better quality of life.

I would love to be able to cycle across Ireland on trips and more generally to work without a high risk of getting hit by a car or heavy good vehicles. Ireland is a beautiful country with majestic landscapes and cycling offers a unique possibility of exploring it in a more sustainable fashion.

Fortunately, committed organisations, such as The Irish Cycling Advocacy Network  and Dublin Cycling Campaign, work tirelessly for the improvement of this situation across Ireland.

The Green Diary interviewed Dr. Damien Ó Tuama, National Cycling Coordinator for the Irish Cycling Advocacy Network and the Dublin Cycling Campaign, who provides an overview of the cycling community and cycling infrastructure in Ireland, as well as the challenges faced and success stories to date.

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Brief description of your organisation, and the main goals?

Dublin Cycling Campaign is the cycling campaigning body based in Dublin, and that’s a member of cyclist.ie [the Irish Cycling Advocacy Network] which is the national umbrella federation of cycling campaign groups around Ireland.

Dublin Cycling Campaign started in 1993, and the national umbrella body is around for maybe seven or eight years old.

The idea of having one single national body is that when we are interacting with government department, we have one single voice rather than lots of different cycling groups giving slightly different messages.

Our vision is to make everyday cycling a normal part of life for children, for older people, men and women of all ages, for different types of trips – school, college, work, leisure, shopping, going to football matches- and for it to be safe.

We want cities to be safe and enjoyable and convivial, and we see the bike as an instrument to facilitate that transition.

What are the health benefits of cycling frequently?

Currently in Ireland, only 1.25% of children are cycling to primary school – In Denmark it’s over 40% – and that’s really collapsed in the past 20 years. When I was going to school, two minutes before school started giant throngs of cyclists arrived and that was normal. Unfortunately, that’s changed completely.

From a health perspective, it’s partly psychological health and mental health, and obviously physical health comes into it. Twenty-five percent of nine-year-old’s in Ireland are overweight or obese and that’s building up a time-bomb for the public service.

There is lots of research showing that cyclists do live longer. If you cycle all the way through your life, it means into your 60s, 70s and beyond, you’re not putting on weight and you keep your muscles strong.

What is the impact of cycling on our environment generally, and also more specifically to Ireland?

It’s really bound up with the number of cars in the cities, so the main advantage of cycling on the environment is that it reduces the number of cars on the streets.

Our argument is that every additional person that cycles in the city and doesn’t drive, that’s less congestion, less air pollution, less resource use, less frustration, less visual domination of the streets by cars.

It was only in the 1980s really, when Ireland became wealthier, that car ownership became possible and since then we’re almost at the same levels of car ownership as the main, richer European countries. Unfortunately, cycling has dropped dramatically in the last 20-30 years, so only 1.8% of trips nationally are by bicycle, and in the Netherlands, its 33%.

What are the main challenges faced by cyclists in Ireland?

There are a multiplicity of challenges. One is the settlement patterns and the distances involved.

Another is the road environment has been very much created and shaped to maximize the movement of cars and trucks, and designs for cyclists have been marginalized systematically in traffic engineering for 20, 30, 40 years.

Cyclists in Dublin CityRoad safety is the big one for cyclists. Cyclists colliding with a motorcar will always come out the worst, particularly if it involves heavy goods vehicles.

Funding: a very small percentage of transport funding goes toward cycling. We have a new capital investment program from 2016-2021, and for transport there’s maybe between €8-10 billion, and less than €100 million is put aside for active travel.

Ultimately, it’s culture: do we have a cycling friendly culture here? Probably not, compared to some German cities and other places in Europe.

What would Ireland look like with a better cycling infrastructure?

There’s a lot of debate within the cycling advocacy community around how much of the problem is related to infrastructure, how much of it is driver behavior, how much of it is cultural, etc…

But I think there is a consensus that’s developing that if you want children on bikes, if you want older people on bikes, or men and women on bikes with kids on board, you need dedicated, safe, well-designed, well-constructed, well-maintained cycled lanes and cycle tracks, junctions that are safe to go through, and good bike parking.

What can schools do as part of their education programme to highlight respect for cyclists, safe cycling, active travel, etc?

We would like every single primary school child in the country to receive proper cycling training –  in the classroom, in the schoolyard, on quiet roads and then on busier roads – on how to position yourself, how to signal, and how to communicate with other drivers.

What are the current initiatives and plans of your organization for this year and how can people get involved in them?

We have done a lot of work to put cycling onto the political agenda.

We are asking that ten per cent of the transport spend goes on cycling. In 2009, there was a national cycling policy published by the Department of Transport but the implementation of the policy has been very slow. So, we want a cycling team within the Department of Transport and a National Cycling Officer to make sure that all the multiple policy interventions and measures happen.

Dublin Cycle Campaign, Paddy's Day 2014
Dublin Cycle Campaign, Paddy’s Day 2014

We are in the St. Patrick’s Day parade this year. There will be maybe 500,000 people on the streets of Dublin and that’s an opportunity to show people how amazing bicycles are, and how much fun they are.

Within Dublin Cycle Campaign, we have monthly meetings on the second Monday of every month, anybody can come along, they are free and start at 8PM.


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