Is active transport really the priority it should be?

The successful implementation of cycling measures depends on several key factors. According to the European Commission securing finance is only one of eight factors* identified, along with appropriate planning, political support, communication and engagement. While not every successful project needs all of these factors in place before beginning, having as many in place as possible greatly increases the likelihood of success.

Access to finance receives a lot of the attention surrounding delivering active transport infrastructure. When the current Government came to power in 2020, it promised record active transport funding of one million Euro a day. There have been some impressive projects completed with this funding, including school streets and the Dun Laoghaire coastal route. But three years later, the levels of underspending in this area indicates of a wider problem. There has not been enough infrastructure built to protect the most vulnerable road users, or enable more people to trade in the car to cycle or walk instead.

In 2021 there was an underspend of €132 million. Questions about this issue were answered by attributing the delay to planning and construction delays and staffing constraints. It was expected that these challenges would be overcome to some extent in 2022 but in early December it was reported that less than half of the available funding for active transport had been drawn down.

It is important to note that it is likely that a substantial amount of money will be claimed by Local Authorities as the year draws to a close but the situation highlights that the commitment to developing active transport lags far behind the Government’s policy targets.

Why the underspend?

There are few infrastructural projects which highlight the barriers to active transport better than the cancelled Salthill cycle trial in Galway and the Strand Road two-lane cycle path trial in Dublin. Both projects would have reduced a two-way road into a one-way for cars – converting the other lane into a bi-directional cycle lane. Both of these projects were also to be built on a trial basis which would have resulted in valuable data being collected on their success/failure and how their popularity increased or decreased over time. Most importantly, both projects would have provided safe cycling infrastructure in areas deemed unsafe for cyclists, and would have encouraged people who wanted to make the modal switch from a car to a bike to take the plunge.

The Strand Road project was halted by legal action taken by an Independent local councillor and a resident on the grounds that planning permission was not sought and an appropriate EIA assessment was not carried out. The Salthill project was halted when councillors called a motion to reverse the approval which they had given months before.

The backlash aimed at these projects centred around the knock-on effect that closing lanes for cars would have on traffic in the surrounding area as well as the loss of parking spaces, access to disabled spaces and access for emergency services. Fear of the impact that reduced car access and traffic congestion in the surrounding areas will have on businesses can build when assumptions that the changes will be detrimental are left un-countered by clear communication of the benefits of active transport and transport evaporation. This, in addition to ignoring legitimate concerns concerning the changes can cause entire projects to crumble.

Neither of the above cases, satisfies the requirements that all or most of the EC’s key factors for success be met.  Political support and effective communications of the benefits of reorienting space for active transport are two notable omissions in both projects above.

The unquestionable need for change

Ireland is one of the most car-dependent nations in the EU. As well as contributing to our excessively high per-capita emissions, the noise pollution, air pollution and detrimental health effects this causes, our current system means that the disproportionate amount of space that is allocated to cars instead of cycling and walking infrastructure results in unsafe cycling conditions and hostile and sterile urban environments.

The recent (October 2022) Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) report – Redesigning Ireland’s Transport for Net Zero: Towards Systems that Work for People and the Planet – makes it very clear that Ireland’s current transport system is not fit for a net-zero future. Official recognition of this report and its recommendations was sought by the Government with a private members’ motion in the Dáil. It went further – Deputy Catherine Connolly, who brought the motion forward urged the Government to recognise that the congestion in Galway city is unacceptable, and that there is an “urgent need for a new vision for transport in Galway to shift from car dependency to sustainable, accessible public transport and active travel”. Connolly wants Galway designated as a “pilot city for sustainable and accessible public transport”.

This debate shows that there is recognition at the national level that our car-dependent transport model needs to change.  Funding to finance this change is available but the political will required both at national level and at local level to make changes which could be unpopular with our car-addicted population must be as strong as the Government’s stated ambition to turn our system around.

Local communities must be communicated with early and earnestly about the potential impact of changes and encouraged to allow trials of active infrastructure to proceed, enabling real life data to be assessed. As we come to the end of this year with money in the bank waiting to be spent on making our country safer for walking and cycling, we in the JCFJ sincerely hope that 2023 will be the year that active transport infrastructure projects finally take off.



*The eight factors listed by the European Commission are Undertaking appropriate planning; Securing political support; Engaging with stakeholders and the public; Understanding target groups and populations; Identifying and securing finance; Maintenance and management; Effective collection, evaluation, documentation and communication of data; and Delivering quality cycling infrastructure that is fit for purpose.