Active Transport is the Easiest Climate Adaptation
One of the dream goals of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice is that every primary and secondary student in Ireland would have a safe cycle route to their school. While this may never be fully achievable, it should be implemented as much as is possible, because of the benefits that would be secured in bringing it about.
Ireland is emitting carbon at a rate of about three times the global average. We have to crush those figures towards zero, and active transport (cycling, walking and public transport) is one of the simplest places where the adaptation to our environmental reality can make our lives better, not worse.
Traffic congestion is one of the costliest – in terms of money, health, productivity, and pollution – elements of modern life. When we visit countries more committed to active travel, we quickly see the obvious benefits of having fewer cars in our environment.
Why We’re Still Captive to the Car
The means of reducing our transport emissions already exist and we have them in Ireland – trains, buses, trams, and bikes; footpaths, bus lanes, and protected cycleways. Larger infrastructure public transport project can take years to materialise, but we could construct cycle paths between every city and provincial town in a year if we wanted to.
But at present, many people don’t want it. When a cycle path was proposed in Howth, the Presbyterian Church tried to claim it violated their human rights. A tiny stretch of safe cycling infrastructure in Ballincollig has been opposed with some residents claiming that providing children with a safe way to cycle around their town is… a danger to children. When active transport infrastructure was proposed in Lucan, more than 7,000 people protested.
How We Can Make the Change
Maybe not everyone who makes their commute in a car will swap for a bus, tram, train, or bike. (Although we should not underestimate how many people will shift. Three volunteers for the JCFJ who are all past retirement age have all been converted to the benefits of cycling after getting ebikes.) But surely even the most ardent of motorists could not object to enabling children and teenagers to ride safely to school or sports training or to their friends’ homes?
It is possible to achieve this change. There are many civic cycling organisations which are already involved in advocating for safe cycling infrastructure. What they, and we, need to continue to do to keep the pressure on the Government about this is:
- Demonstrate people want it;
- Demonstrate the benefits that flow from it;
- Demonstrate that it reduces emissions;
- Be willing to discomfit drivers.
Demonstrate People Want It
The obvious place where we can demonstrate that we want safe cycle lanes for children is the school yard. Where even small steps are made to encourage active transport, the kids themselves respond. The growing numbers of cycle bus projects and the observations of the rising prevalence of bikes in schools testify to this. By engaging with Safe Routes to School, local communities can seek out the changes that will generate a massive response.
Demonstrate the Benefits That Flow From It
About 40% of students in Ireland are driven by private car to school. In some cases, there is no other option. But with a better school bus service and a coherent cycling infrastructure, that figure could be decimated.
In addition to giving children freedom, this would also help their health. Fewer cars at the school gates means cleaner air and fewer respiratory problems in children.
Shifting from cars to active transport also has an economic gain. In the years before the pandemic, the Netherlands spent almost €600 million annually on supporting active transport. That generated €19,000 million in savings for the healthcare system. The Dutch consistently show us that you build active transport infrastructure, pedestrians and cyclists will come. Two-thirds of all Dutch schoolchildren walk or cycle to school.
There are also educational benefits. As we detailed in our book, Parish as Oasis, when a school in Galway restricted cars from having access to the gates and instead created a child-safe street, teachers noted a marked improvement in discipline, concentration, and engagement. Anyone with any familiarity with kids knows they want to spend all that energy on movement. Giving them the chance to cycle or walk to school plugs them into their neighbourhood, ignites their imagination, and builds their agency.
Demonstrate that it Reduces Emissions
Research suggests that even switching to cycling or walking one day a week can have significant consequences for our personal carbon footprint and our collective emissions. Developing tailored Irish studies that draw out the kind of emissions reductions that are achieved through school-based active transport initiatives would be an important element of the argument that could encourage local councils to commit to real evidence-based policy.
Be Willing to Discomfit Drivers
The JCFJ sees environmental work as an opportunity to strengthen our democracy. Central to our approach is a commitment to deliberative democracy at the local level. But we are living in a fantasy if we think we can make the necessary changes while pleasing absolutely everyone.
An interesting letter was published in the Irish Times this week. The correspondent, Aisling Judge, from Ballinteer in Dublin 16 wrote of a proposed change to VAT policy which seeks to represent the true environmental cost of damaging activities. She said:
“For years I drove my car to work until a new one-way system and cycle lanes made it even more stressful that it was already, so I moaned and groaned for a while, and eventually started cycling, and soon realised that I should have done it years ago! People can and do change their habits, but they need an incentive, and, as the plastic bag levy and the smoking ban show, they will often look back and realise it really wasn’t that much of a sacrifice and was well worth it. I will give my vote to any politician who is brave enough to take bold action, and stand their ground against the inevitable backlash from vested interests. Sometimes we have to be forced into change, and that’s what leaders are for. “
When it comes to this level of the policy conversation, the simple fact is that those who recognise it would be good if young people could cycle or walk to school safely must be politically organised. Groups like the Dublin, Cork, and Galway Commuters Coalition are examples of groups that are working towards this, in addition to national and local cycling groups. If we want to achieve our collective goals, we have a better chance working with others than alone.
There are conservative voices in our culture who like to lament what they imagine are an overprotected generation of young people unable to fend for themselves. But children who do want to cycle to school are under-protected and at great risk in a battle for space with motor vehicles. Active transport is the future that embeds climate sustainability into our everyday practices, and also empowers people to make responsible, meaningful decisions. It might be a dream to think that every child can have access to a safe cycle route to school, but why not commit to all of the children who can?