We are just over halfway through Bike Week 2023, a national event that celebrates and champions cycling. The week has classes that include teaching people how to cycle, and on how to mend their bikes and activities where everyone – whether experienced or merely cycle-curious – can gather to cycle en masse through Ireland’s towns, cities, parks and countryside.
Active transport, including cycling, is an incredibly important part of our transition away from fossil-fuel dependent transport. If Ireland is to achieve a 51% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 transport, one of our highest emissions sectors, will need to radically change. Switching from driving to walking or cycling is one of the best and easiest ways we can do this.
Why is it important?
We in the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice are huge fans of cycling (and active infrastructure in general) and have written extensively on this subject over the years. Cycling is an activity that is one of life’s universal good things. It gives people independence of movement from a young age, it produces no air pollution, and the exercise we get from cycling improves our health and fitness.
The infrastructure needed to enable universal access to cycling is less intrusive than that required for motor traffic. One result of this is that the space that is now used to move and store cars can instead be made available for biodiversity, public space and housing. Cycling is a far less expensive mode of transport than owning and running a car which makes it more accessible to everyone. Encouraging more people to travel by active transport also frees roads for essential traffic, including for emergency vehicles, delivery and service vehicles.
But there is another – more unexpected – benefit. Changing the pace at which you move through a city, and removing the metal barrier which separates you from your surroundings, makes you a more engaged resident and citizen. You come to intimately know your surroundings, such as the parts of your commute that are more dangerous, where the best views are, and which areas have more green space. You spot the areas where the infrastructure is good enough to allow kids to walk and cycle to school. You also see where new homes are being built and others are boarded up. The life of an area becomes is more connected to you, than it is from when observed from behind the wheel of a car.
Barriers to cycling remain
Unequal access to subsidies
We cannot consider the potential and opportunities which cycling offers without also considering the barriers to cycling which remain which prevent active cycling being embraced by the masses. These barriers are wide and varied incorporating cost, safety and accessibility.
The Bike-to-Work scheme, established in 2009, is a tax incentive aimed at encouraging employees to cycle to work by facilitating the purchase of a bike at a price discounted by the amount of income tax that would normally be paid. The limitations of this support is ingrained in its design – it is available only to those who are in regular employment and excludes carers, stay at home parents, those who are job seeking, and young people.
For Bike Week 2022, we proposed alternatives to this scheme which would be more equal. We also jouned others in contacting our public representatives to urge them to overhaul the scheme, so that bicycles are made accessible to everyone who needs them. But the only amendment to the existing scheme was the inclusion of a new higher limit of up to €3000 for electric and cargo bikes. Keeping this incredible mobility tool beyond the reach of people who could use it is not just an injustice but a missed opportunity to accelerate the shift to active transport across Ireland.
Storage of bicycles is a relatively hidden problem in the drive to encourage more active transport. Living upstairs in a duplex apartment with limited storage drives this problem home for me. There are currently three bicycles stored under stairs necessitating a regular shuffle in a confined space whenever someone wants to commute to work. I live in an area where the management company provides parking discs for every house so we can park in the square however there is not one bike bunker, bike locker or even sheltered bike parking space in the area. This is not an uncommon problem in Dublin. Restrictive planning regulations and inertia in councils are exacerbating the issue.
Residential and office development up to now has included, without fail, parking space for cars. Far less space is required to safely store bicycles however this is rarely provided for. This needs to be redressed for a switch to active cycling to become a meaningful option. Working with communities to roll out storage in schools, transport hubs, densely populated urban area, new developments and work centres we can identify appropriate places where these facilitates can be installed quickly.
One of the biggest barriers remains is the issue of safety. For cyclists taking to the roads on two wheels can feel like throwing the dice in terms of safety. Cycle lanes slowly narrow until they disappear altogether resulting in vulnerable bodies competing directly with several tonnes of metal. Uneven surfaces can seem pretty unimportant until you are jolted off your course towards a passing car. Junctions where bicycles are treated as both car and bicycle simultaneously are unnerving experiences which can be offputting for everyone but especially those who are relatively new to cycling.
Safe segregated cycle facilities are absolutely vital for a wider switch to active transport, but there is a lack of urgency at local and council level which is resulting in funding not being spent. Local campaign groups, including in (Galway), Dublin, Cork) and Naas among others are however doing incredible work to accelerate the pace of delivery of safe and accessible active transport.
Bike Week is an excellent initiative to encourage more people to cycle and to highlight benefits of cycling for the wider population. But to achieve the modal shift that is needed much work needs to be done we must remove the barriers that are preventing everyone from getting on the saddle.