As a former transport planner I know cycling matters. Cycling in cities as an alternative to driving is the answer to so many of our transport related problems – traffic congestion, ever increasing journey times, parking space requirements and poor air quality.
But cycling in rural Ireland is a different beast. In rural Ireland we don’t generally have the same problems – there is little, if any, congestion, parking spaces are not such a premium and air quality is not as poor.
But in both city and country, driving a car remains a significant contributor to our carbon emissions. And using a bike, as an alternative, has an impact on our physical and mental health, wherever we are. Cycling in rural Ireland still matters. And cycling should be seen as a real alternative.
However since moving back home to Ireland I was disappointed to see the shift to a national cycling strategy that focuses almost entirely on Greenways. Greenways are wonderful. And the ones I’ve cycled on have been designed beautifully. But in rural Ireland, Greenways are not the only answer.
We don’t need to wait for Greenways before we can get out on a bike or even before we let our kids out on a bike. The Greenways, as wonderful as they may be, contribute to this idea – that the only safe place to cycle is on traffic free paths.
Yet here in rural Ireland we have an enviable dense network of smaller roads ripe for cycling. These are lightly trafficked, generally have good surfaces and they already go virtually everywhere. What we need is for these smaller roads (‘Rothar Roads’) to be reclaimed as roads where bicycles are expected and respected. What we need is for the people who use them to travel at a speed that would allow them to react to a cyclist around any corner.
Improved infrastructure is of course welcome but huge gains can be made by simple improvements such as lower speed limits, better signs and more training for everyone (cyclists and drivers) so that they have the skills and confidence to interact with all road users. These small changes could lay the ground work for a real shift in the way people travel.
I started Leitrim Cycling Festival to celebrate bicycles and to showcase what we already have to offer here in Leitrim – inspiring local communities all connected by miles and miles of roads almost perfect for cycling. Roads that take you from village to town, roads that take you to the shops, to work, to school, to the hills and hidden beauty spots. Roads where you can often cycle for miles without meeting another soul.
Of course there will always be journeys for which the bicycle is not the answer and there are people for which cycling may not be an option but there are many, many journeys being made every day by car which could be made by bike (and even more so by electric bike), using infrastructure that already exists.
Cycling matters. And we may already have the means to make it matter more.
Leitrim Cycling Festival runs from 21 st -23 rd June 2019 in the village of Drumsna, Co. Leitrim.
Jo Sachs-Eldridge was a member of the Welsh Government national advisory group for the development of the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 Delivery Guidance and a member of the team that authored the accompanying Design Guidance.