Are local authorities really listening to the EU imperative that Ireland has to substantially reduce the noxious fumes produced by vehicular traffic within the next decade, or else pay substantial fines - from money which we have not got? The ordinary car (and we are rated amongst the highest car-users in Europe) is a major contributor to air pollution and thus to global warming and climate change. And it is also accepted that the facilitation of safe cycling in our towns and cities would contribute significantly to the reduction of that pollution, along with encouraging a more healthy lifestyle, and a consequent reduction of demand on our ailing health services?
Or are local authorities deriving so much income from fees and fines on car-parking, that they are conveniently turning a blind eye on long-term environmental conservation, and indeed on the health of communities?
These questions are prompted by a recent letter to the Editor of this newspaper from that veteran cyclist, and much respected Clonmel citizen, Mr. John N. Walsh. Under the heading “Cyclist appeals for motorists’ consideration after near tragedy,” he wrote about a “near miss” on the Raheen Road as he was approaching the traffic calming point, when a trailer attached to a truck touched the handlebar of his bicycle. “I do not suppose my escape was miraculous,” he wrote, “but it felt that way to me.”
So say all of us, ex-cyclists, who have had somewhat similar experiences, in which we not only lost our nerve but we also lost our faith in the possible recurrence of near miracles. And thus we saw our beloved bikes, consigned, under family pressure, to the never-neverland of the recylist depot; a consigning which had all the sadness and guilt of breaking-up with an old and faithful friend.
But while some of the foregoing is a personal indulgence in sentimental retrospection, John Walsh was very practical in his comments on the pathetic range and quality of accommodation for cyclists. He wrote: “If this story, in addition to causing a few drivers to be more considerate of cyclists, persuaded the local authority to take the bicycle seriously, “wouldn’t it be wonderful.”
And that’s the rub! Does the local authority take the bicycle seriously? It seems to me that if they did, they would actively develop facilities for cycling and would encourage it in a pro-bike campaign. The bike would take pressure off vehicular traffic from our streets and would enhance the quality of the town-centre for pedestrians and shoppers. As a means of transport, it is cheap, healthy, and given decent facilities, it is stress-free and very enjoyable. The bike does not emit noxious fumes nor ear-splitting noise.
The essential requirement for the more widespread use of the bicycle is space; safe space. Local authorities have, gradually, been providing space - indeed it is now a statutory requirement in road development, but the quality of much of this space is questionable. An Irish judge is quoted as saying that every cyclist is entitled to a wobble, but such an entitlement on the cycle track on The Mall and on the Davis Road in Clonmel, in circumstances of fast traffic and illegally-parked cars, would be either suicidal or homicidal.
On the other hand, the facilities from Moangarriff to Bulmers’ factory at Newtown Anner, are superb. There, the cyclist is protected from traffic by a grass margin, but then it peters out until the outskirts of Kilsheelan, even though, for much of the intervening mileage, there is a good grass margin, part of which might, at reasonable expense, be adapted to accommodate the bike.
Do local authorities have any consistent policy on such accommodation? Or is development a hit-and-miss process, a bit here and a bit there, just to comply with statutory imperatives? Or is there a well-thought-out programme? If there is, then the cycling public needs to be involved. John Walsh suggests such an engagement. “Permanent, non transitory improvement,” he writes “requires taking expert advice: the design of existing offerings is poor and sometimes downright dangerous.”
Essentially, what may be engineeringly possible may not always be practically, nor safely, useful. People who are still on their bicycles know a thing or two about the dangers of being separated from fast traffic by just a white line painted on a road.
Is it possible to create a network of cycle-paths which would reduce expensive car usage and contribute to a healthy lifestyle and an enhancement of the environment? Yes, yes, everytime! It has been done in many of our EU neighbouring countries. Indeed, it is possible to cycle from The Baltic to the borders of Eastern Europe, via simple but well-marked tracks on the banks of rivers, canals, farmland, woods and small villages. These are not only convenient for local residents but are now a well-established tourist attraction.
It can be argued that innovation does not go well with recession. But an opposing argument can also be made. The cost of petrol is rising. Our streets and town-centres are clogged and and unsafe with traffic, which is polluting the air we breathe. Our health services are becoming unsustainable because so many of us are becoming ill because of lack of exercise. The time is opportune for a re-think on a cheap, enjoyable method. But are the powers-that-be listening?