There’s a kind of knowledge about the city that you can only learn on a saddle. It’s not just a familiarity with the camber of Dublin’s streets, or the distinctive staccato vibration brought about by tarmac as it degrades, or how the traffic lights are engineered so a cyclist has to move out into the middle of the road to get a green. Neither is it easily sentimentalised notes about the slight slog that comes with cycling up the hill to Christchurch against a prevailing wind or the way that the canal glosses at dusk. Cycling brings a knowledge of how the city compacts and stretches that is lost if you navigate the city in a motor vehicle. There is no faster way around the inner city that on a bike because the core of Dublin is close knit, evolving for centuries as it adapts to the need of residents and traders and leaders. And there is no more pleasant way around the city as you reach out to the suburbs.
Before lockdown, my cycle home from work took me along the quays so the end of the day and the smell of Guinness hops are bound together. I take a detour through Kilmainham Royal Hospital to get a view of the Phoenix Park from across the Liffey’s valley. There are views that are impossible when you are stuck in a car. I would often pass taxis at the start of my journey on Gardiner Street that would only catch up with me at Kilmainham Gaol. By the time they get through the traffic stoppage in Inchicore village, I am home.
Cycling is not an option for some people. But in Dublin, this is often because the experience that I recount here omits the daily close passes from double-decker buses. I have skipped over the time a driver in an Audi A6 intentionally harassed me the length of the Inchicore Road and then shouted homophobic slurs at me as he passed me by. Turning left off the north quays on to Church Street on my way to work one morning, the cyclist in front of me was knocked flat off his bike by a driver who had broken the light. She drove on without stopping.
Two solicitors were coming out of their office and helped me pick the man up off the ground, who was thankfully and miraculously unharmed, at least bodily. They told me they had personally seen two other people mowed over in the exact same way in the seven years they had been working there. I am a would-be evangelist for using the bike to escape the tedium and frustration of city centre car traffic, but I know it is not for everyone.
It can be lethal.
I was talking with a young woman earlier this week who told me that she and a colleague from the job she was let go from at the start of lockdown have begun meeting up on their bikes. It’s the first time they have cycled since they were kids. They meet half way between their respective houses and cycle to the Phoenix Park. Now that lockdown is being lifted and traffic is returning, they are thinking about stopping. They aren’t confident they can be safe on the roads.
Cycling is not an option for some people. But in Dublin, it should be an option for many more people. What we have discovered during the period of lockdown is that there are vastly more people who want to ride their bikes in the city where they live and do not do that because of how exposed they are to motor traffic. The consequences for increased cycling rates in the city are one of those rare situations where practically everyone benefits.
A short list includes:
– Carbon emissions are reduced;
– Cardiac health improves;
– Commutes can be predicted more reliably;
– General traffic reductions;
– Less congestion benefits the city’s productivity;
– Decreased air pollution generates increased public health;
– Cycling generates knock-on benefits for social cohesion, consumer spending, and urban development rendered difficult through the car.
And in a time of pandemic, every person who moves from public transport to a bike frees up space for socially distanced commuting by those who have no recourse to cycling. If Dublin were to develop a coherent cycling infrastructure, drivers would be doubly aided; there would be less traffic and there would be less difficulty in sharing road space with wildly different modes of transport.
When you think about the issue in this light, it is easy to understand why the only group that opposes this is a carefully branded alliance of multi-storey car park owners. Many people worry that cycling might harm the city’s economy, but the Chamber of Commerce has repeatedly insisted that it supports increased cycling networks in the city. When we think about the cities that have adapted to cycling – Amsterdam, Oxford, Copenhagen – we see that such concerns are unfounded fears.
The Lockdown period has allowed us to partially reclaim the city from the monopoly of the private car. It has been a revelation for many to discover how accessible the city is on a bicycle. People wonder, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this could continue when things go back to normal?” It can.
The National Transport Authority already has a plan for a cycling infrastructure.
Political paralysis and the opposition of various self-interested sectors has meant that it has not been implemented.
Cycling is not an option for some people. But in Dublin, it should be an option for many more people. For this reason, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice is proud to join with the Cycling Works initiative that calls for safer commuting for those on bikes. Scores of charities and corporations, big and small, have already joined this coalition. It makes sense environmentally; it makes sense economically. It’s one simple way we can build back better after Covid-19.
There’s a kind of satisfaction in the city that you can only learn on a saddle. More people should be able to enjoy it.