While there have been significant developments in relation to cycling in general, there is still significant deficits when it comes to cycling as part of everyday life in rural communities.
With over 20 funded local authority cycling initiatives currently underway, it is worth looking at what make up the key components of a sustainable and effective cycle network. A 2011 survey carried out by Dr Eoghan Clifford and Mr Richard Manton into route selection, design and considerations for rural cycling, said that the restraints on the development “of a more lucrative cycle tourism industry have been found to be predominantly infrastructural and that tackling these issues could also lead to an increase in the number of tourist and other cyclists.”
In Ireland over one million drive to work every day – over half of the commuting population. About half of these journeys are less than 10km and car occupancy rates remain low, with only around 10% travelling as a passenger in a car. Increasing the numbers commuting daily by bicycle to 160,000 is a stated objective in the transport policy to 2020. Commuting makes up a significant amount of overall journeys and a large increase in cycle commuting would result in extensive health and congestion benefits.
Dr Clifford’s research identified certain core factors necessary to make cycling more attractive for both tourism and commuting. These included a safe and continuous route and traffic calmed routes and networks linking paths and towns. Particularly in rural Ireland, cycling on-road is still viewed as very unsafe, with the speed of other traffic (particularly HGV’s) and road surface quality bring areas of particular concern. Considering that commuter cyclists commonly live within 10km of urban and industrial areas of educational institutions, cycle facilities need to address the most direct and quickest routes, with a high quality surface to facilitate speed.
Ireland’s first National Cycle Policy Framework was launched in April 2009. It outlined 19 specific objectives, and details the 109 individual but integrated actions, aimed at ensuring that a cycling culture is developed in Ireland to the extent that, by 2020, 10% of all journeys will be by bike. With only three years remaining to the designated date, many of the solutions highlighted by Clifford have yet to be implemented.
A long way to go
There is still a long way to go when it come to the efficacy of cycling as a viable rural commute. Let’s take Kildare as an example.
A 2014 report from Kildare County Council on the level of cycling participation found that only 1.8% of all journeys are undertaken by bicycle, far short of the Government’s projected 10% by 2020. Kildare County Council’s Transportation Department said there is “little prospect of Kildare achieving the government target”. They point to evidence from other countries that obesity rates and cycling participation rates are linked.
They then contrasted how investment in cycling infrastructure around the Danish city of Copenhagen have seen a reduction in the annual health bill of €40 million. Britain’s NHS has reported that if only 10% of all trips currently taken on public transport were taken by bicycle, it would save £140 million, such is the benefit of cycling to the general health of the population.
It is estimated that the cost of obesity in Kildare alone is €51.6 million, or €712 per household per year: “Obviously the causes of obesity are complex and there is no simple causal relationship between level of cycling and obesity rates. Nevertheless, it is accepted that cycling helps to maintain a healthy weight – and an increase in active travel including cycling was identified in 2005 as one of the measures to combat increased obesity by the Report of the National Taskforce on Obesity.”
The Transportation Department in Kildare County Council, the author of the report, decided that the best way to gauge participation levels was by counting the number of bicycle’s parked at schools in the county.
They found that two Celbridge schools have a large percentage of students traveling to and from school by bicycle. However, according to the report, they are very much the exception. North Kildare Educate Together has 14.4% of its 223 students arriving on two wheels, while the Salesians have 139 out of 643, or almost 22%. Elsewhere, in the rural area of Timahoe, Scoil Cianog Naofa, has 19 out of 101 students cycling to school. However, the report reveals that the vast majority of schools throughout the county have single figure percentages.
One factor often cited is the safety aspect: “Although cycling has never been safer in Ireland, it is not the lack of objective safety but the lack of subjective safety (or perception of safety) which is the real barrier to increased cycling especially by young people,”
The authors of the report point to the Government’s aspiration for 2020, but they note that there is no break-down for what that will look like in Kildare. The Government’s strategy, they say, includes a budget of approximately €3 per person, although they point to £10 in the UK and as much as €25 to €30 in the Netherlands.
Cycling needs to be invested in, they say. High quality infrastructure which prioritises cycling is essential. But they note that: “In the current financial environment, Kildare County Council is unable to provide dedicated funding from its own resources for the construction or maintenance of cycling infrastructure or for the promotion of cycling.”
It is clear that there is still significant work to be done to create a cohesive strategy to meet the goals for 2020 laid out in the National Cycle Policy Framework.