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The Big Read: On your bike - how the commute may change forever

The big read: Covid-19 stopped the traffic and made us rediscover the joys of cycling, but as lockdown is lifted, can the trend continue, asks John Meagher

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Pedal power: Martina Callanan, who runs the Galway Cycling Campaign, says retailers have nothing to fear from a rise in the number of cyclists. Photo by Andrew Downes

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Three young boys take to the hills on their bikes in the Phoenix Park. Photo by Steve Humphreys

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Traffic jams were non-existant during the early days of lockdown

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Cyclists and motorists negotiate the new lane layout in the Phoenix Park, Dublin

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A Deliveroo rider makes use of a new expanded cycle lane, "streetspace for London" on Park Lane

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A cyclist rides past the Duomo di Milano on Piazza del Duomo in Milan

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A cyclist rides in a new cycle lane in the Boulevard Charles de Gaulle in Paris

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New skills: Susan Lannigan with her twin daughters Isobel and Aoileann Grant (7) who learned how to cycle with less traffic on the roads during lockdown. Photo by Gerry Mooney

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New skills: Susan Lannigan with her twin daughters Isobel and Aoileann Grant (7) who learned how to cycle with less traffic on the roads during lockdown. Photo by Gerry Mooney

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Three young boys take to the hills on their bikes in the Phoenix Park. Photo by Steve Humphreys

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Cyclists and motorists negotiate the new lane layout in the Phoenix Park, Dublin

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A Deliveroo rider makes use of a new expanded cycle lane, "streetspace for London" on Park Lane

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A cyclist rides in a new cycle lane in the Boulevard Charles de Gaulle in Paris

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A cyclist rides past the Duomo di Milano on Piazza del Duomo in Milan
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Pedal power: Martina Callanan, who runs the Galway Cycling Campaign, says retailers have nothing to fear from a rise in the number of cyclists. Photo by Andrew Downes

When Susan Lannigan was coming to terms with the Covid-19 lockdown, she quickly noticed some unexpected positives. The quality of the air in her south inner-city Dublin neighbourhood improved significantly and noise pollution dropped. The absence of car traffic had an immediate impact.

She decided it was the perfect time for her seven-year-old twins, Isobel and Aoileann, to learn to cycle. She had always been deterred by the volume of traffic on her street and the adjacent South Circular Road, but in the early weeks of lockdown, the number of cars had reduced to a trickle.

The solicitor and seasoned bicycle commuter bought a pair of children's bikes and every day she and the girls ventured outside. The twins quickly got the hang of cycling. For several weeks, Portobello seemed to be theirs - and that of all the other cyclists who were enjoying both sunshine and car-free roads.

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"It was like going back in time to when the houses were built," she says, of the Victorian streets. "It was one of the really positive things that came out of lockdown and it showed just how many people would cycle if they thought it was safe to do so."

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New skills: Susan Lannigan with her twin daughters Isobel and Aoileann Grant (7) who learned how to cycle with less traffic on the roads during lockdown. Photo by Gerry Mooney

It is a sentiment echoed by Martina Callanan on the other side of the country. The project manager cycles everywhere in Galway city and she was heartened to see a striking increase in the number of people on bicycles.

"People feel safer when there are fewer cars on the road," she says. "I saw elderly men on their bikes who may not have cycled for decades. There are bikes that have been taken from garages and used for the first time in maybe 20 years."

In Cork city, TJ Murphy says the enormous reduction in traffic encouraged him to cycle from his home near Kent Station to his medical equipment manufacturer job in Carrigtwohill, 15km away. "I wouldn't have dreamed of doing it before because it's a bit of a no-go area for cyclists near the Dunkettle roundabout, but it was so easy when the traffic was reduced," he says.

There were weeks when he worked in the office for four days and he clocked up 120km on his cycling commute. "My fitness levels went up. I felt healthier. Of course, the good weather helps, but it showed me just how doable it is to cycle to work and I think far more would do it if they felt safer."

But as the traffic has started to build again, especially since the start of Phase 1 of lockdown-easing on Monday, his old concerns have come back. "I'm in two minds about whether or not I will cycle to work or drive. I really want to cycle, but if I feel it's dangerous again, I won't," he says.

Lannigan is less inclined to take Isobel and Aoileann cycling on the streets as she had been just a fortnight ago. "There's been a steady increase in traffic," she says. "It's not nearly as bad as it used to be, but you can definitely see more and more out in their cars."

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Three young boys take to the hills on their bikes in the Phoenix Park. Photo by Steve Humphreys

Cycling campaigners point to international studies to show how safe cycling can be, but dangers remain, especially at busy urban junctions that have seemingly been designed exclusively for car users. Eight cyclists were killed on Irish roads last year.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

There have been other upsides to reduction in car journeys. A study published this week by University College Cork showed pollution from cars halved in the period immediately after lockdown was imposed. It showed there were 85pc fewer car journeys than normal.

The environmental impact internationally has been arresting, too. Carbon emissions globally were down 17pc as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns, aided chiefly by the virtual collapse of air travel and severely restricted car journeys. The skies cleared over cities with notorious smog problems, including Los Angeles.

There is growing pressure around the world to use this pause in our lives to gauge the damage caused by cars and to seek a better, healthier and more sustainable alternative. For many, that better way is on two wheels. The World Health Organisation's Covid-19 advice includes cycling or walking "wherever feasible" as this helps with social distancing and exercise.

Already, cities around the world have introduced temporary cycle lanes to ensure that people can abide by social distancing guidelines. Cycling infrastructure has been quickly put in place in Ireland too, with a new segregated cycle lane on Dublin's north Liffey quays the most noteworthy of all. Campaigners had long fought for this car-thronged artery of the city to be remodelled to safely accommodate cyclists. The Liffey cycle route had been promised for years but the pandemic accelerated its installation.

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Cyclists and motorists negotiate the new lane layout in the Phoenix Park, Dublin

Dublin City Council published a report on Thursday outlining changes to the city's transport system as the lockdown is eased. It highlighted "the need to very significantly increase the numbers of people walking and cycling into, and around, the city". This includes a goal of trebling the number of bicycle journeys into the city centre. This may involve removing on-street parking and reducing traffic lanes to create cycle paths, adding bollards to keep bikes and cars segregated and the installation of at least 1,000 bike stands.

"By choosing to walk or cycle, users will not only accommodate their own mobility but will leave the public transport system for those who don't have the same alternatives, and we would therefore ask people to carefully consider if this represents a viable option for them," the report said.

There have also been calls to end the so-called 'rat run' in the Phoenix Park. Chesterfield Avenue - the central thoroughfare - accommodates about 10,000 car journeys between west Dublin and the city centre on a typical weekday. A local Green Party councillor, Michael Pidgeon, started an online petition last weekend to stop through-traffic in the park and it had more than 7,000 signatures within a few days.

The Office of Public Works, which manages the park, introduced measures that would curtail traffic, and side entrances remained closed to cars. The result has turned Dublin's most significant green lung into something of a cycling Mecca.

"Undoubtedly, this lockdown period has given a lot of people pause for thought," says Ciarán Cuffe, the Green MEP for Dublin. "They've seen that when unnecessary car journeys are reduced, everyone benefits. We can't go back to the old way of needless car congestion. We have to do it differently."

Investment in infrastructure

Cuffe believes a carrot-and-stick approach is needed to get more people out of their car seats and on to their saddles. "The cities that have a vibrant cycling culture are those with a really good cycling infrastructure, where there are dedicated cycle lanes that make them question why they would take their car on certain journeys," he says.

"This is not a question about people getting rid of their cars and always cycling; it's choosing to cycle, rather than take an unnecessary car journey. And I think if motorists think about their car usage, they'd see that many of the trips they make could just have easily been done on bike - and their journey time might have been quicker, too. But investing in a cycling infrastructure in our towns and cities is essential for that attitude shift."

That's the carrot. What's the stick? "We have to stop things like parking for civil servants," he says. "If there's a free space available, people will drive into work just to use it. People need to be incentivised to leave the car at home. Car ownership is high in places like the Netherlands, but we know how high bicycle usage is."

Amsterdam has long been considered one of the world's most bike-friendly cities, but it wasn't always like that. In the 1960s, it was choked with cars. It took an increasing toll of child traffic deaths and fierce activism to transform it into the cycling capital it is today.

For Cian Ginty, editor of IrishCycle.com, such transformation can happen when there is a political will to allocate capital spending to a cycling infrastructure. "There are a lot of people out there who would consider cycling if they felt it was safe, and when you create dedicated cycle lanes - not a strip of paint on a road - they will use it," he says.

"And you've got to actively stop rat-running in urban areas. Bollards were erected in Drumcondra [in north Dublin] a couple of years ago to stop cars going into certain streets. There was opposition initially but then it stopped when people saw how safe it was for their children to cycle there."

Ginty welcomes the temporary measures put in place for cyclists as a result of the pandemic, but he feels that such initiatives should kick-start seismic, permanent change. "You're always going to have vested interests who will be opposed to such measures, like the car park lobby, and I don't think you're ever going to convince them," he says. "But there are other business, in the middle ground, that could be convinced if they see things like pedestrianisation working."

Keith Gavin of the Irish Parking Association says he finds it frustrating that the conversation around cycling tends to degenerate into an Us against Them argument. "I think everyone would want to see the cycling infrastructure improved," he says. "But not everyone is able to cycle or feels comfortable doing so, no matter how good the cycle lanes might be.

"And, don't forget, you have people travelling long journeys to support retailers. What happens to those driving from the country into Dublin to shop in the city? Are they supposed to leave their car on the outskirts of the city and cycle in?"

Gavin is opposed to the new cycle route on the north quays of the Liffey because he feels it occupies too much of the road. "Was the option of running the cycle route alongside the Luas track considered? The problem with where the cycle lane is, is how the reduced space for cars will lead to awful tailbacks," he says. "But then, it's been the policy of Dublin City Council and of Owen Keegan [the council's chief executive] to get as many cars off the road as possible. Ultimately, what they're doing is pushing people to shop in the out of town centres."

Richard Guiney, head of Dublin Town, which represents 2,500 retailers in the city centre, believes cyclists and motorists will have to coexist as best as possible in the immediate post-lockdown period. "With social distancing guidelines likely to be in place for a long time to come, the capacity of public transport will be greatly reduced," he says. "Before the pandemic, about two-thirds of the 300,000 people coming into Dublin city centre every day were doing so on public transport, so there is a huge number of people that will have to use an alternative means to get in. For some, that will be on bicycle, for other it will be by car." Each 'side', he believes, has to cut the other a bit of slack.

Guiney says it is unlikely that motorists will have the run of the city as they once did. "In order for retailers and restaurants and other businesses to do social distancing properly, they will have to use the pavements outside and that will mean people walking on street. And that might mean that some of the multistorey car parks won't be accessible."

Martina Callanan, who runs the Galway Cycling Campaign, believes business and retail should not fear a rise in the number of cyclists. "We're trying to get the idea across that cycling is an everyday pursuit and we've found that cyclists tend to shop local and are loyal," she says. She would like to see more options for practical, everyday bicycles - with baskets and mudguards as standard - for consumers. "Some bikes are more practical for others," she says, "and can make everyday tasks very easy to do."

Callanan is especially keen for more women to cycle regularly. "Research shows that women tend to benefit more from higher cycling levels," she says. "Since women tend to take more care of children's and older adults' mobility in families, they gain more time if the children and older family members can take independent journeys by bike. Reducing the 'mammy taxi service' means women gain more time."

Susan Lannigan, meanwhile, hopes that the Ireland her daughters grow up in will be friendlier towards cyclists. "I think one good thing about social distancing is that people are more aware of giving other people space, and that includes motorists when they see cyclists - especially children. I hope that respect won't fade because if it stays, more people will feel comfortable going out on their bikes. And that can only be a good thing."

 

New direction: how other cities are responding

London

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A Deliveroo rider makes use of a new expanded cycle lane, "streetspace for London" on Park Lane

 

There are plans to make the city the biggest car-free capital in the world. Plans unveiled this week suggest that car-choked hotspots such as London Bridge and Waterloo Bridge would be among those given over entirely to cyclists and pedestrians.

"Many Londoners have rediscovered the joys of walking and cycling during lockdown and, by quickly and cheaply widening pavements, creating temporary cycle lanes and closing roads to through traffic, we will enable millions more people to change the way they get around our city," London Mayor Sadiq Khan said.

Paris

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A cyclist rides in a new cycle lane in the Boulevard Charles de Gaulle in Paris

 

The Rue de Rivoli, one of Europe's most famous shopping streets, was closed to cars at the end of April and will continue to be pedestrian and cyclist-only for the summer.

To ease pressure on public transport routes, cycling lanes that follow the Paris Metro's most popular lines are being considered. In total, about 600km of temporary cycle lanes are planned for post-lockdown Paris.

"It is out of the question that we allow ourselves to be invaded by cars and by pollution," mayor Anne Hidalgo said.

Milan

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A cyclist rides past the Duomo di Milano on Piazza del Duomo in Milan

 

Lombardy was hit especially hard by Covid-19 and the region's capital has made the bicycle central to its plans to reopen. More than 30km of temporary cycle lanes will be open throughout the summer. Known as Strade Aperte - Open Roads - these feature new road designs with wider pavements.

Elsewhere, a 30kph speed limit will be imposed on many of the city's roads and bridges. Residents have been encouraged to get around the city on foot or on bicycle and to use public transport sparingly.

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