Can COVID-19 bring a cycling revolution to Ireland?
4th November 2020
Covid-19 has prompted us to re-think our systems of travel. In particular, it has encouraged many people to lose a few extra wheels and take to a saddle, handlebars and peddles instead. Many cities around the world have put in place temporary and permanent measures to encourage people to cycle during this time. The question remains – will these measures be enough to lead to a future where people see cycling as a viable and efficient way to travel?
I moved to Sweden in September 2019 to begin my master’s studies. In all of my introduction meetings and meetings with other students, I was given one piece of consistent advice – get a bike. Biking is a way of life here and one I have adapted. My friend and I, who also moved to the Netherlands recently, had a conversation about how we loved the freedom we had with our bikes. We can safely cycle anywhere we want because of the infrastructure for biking which exists where we live. I cycled in 2015 in Dublin and cannot say that I felt the same. Lacking infrastructure, Dublin created a sense of insecurity in me.
With Covid-19, the thought of a lot of people in confined spaces on public transport is not ideal. Social distancing on public transport is next to impossible, especially in highly populated cities. Countries worldwide have had to re-think how to promote travel and keep everyone safe. 37 out of 94 biggest EU cities announced cycling measures in response to Covid-19, providing a chance to redesign our cities for the future.
Milan is one of Europe’s most populated cities and has been hit hard by Covid-19. The city has begun schemes to reallocate street space for cyclists and pedestrians. There are 35km of new cycle paths and cyclist numbers on Milan’s main shopping street have risen from 1,000 cyclist pre-Covid-19 to 7,000 now. Generally, 55% of people who live in Milan use public transport to get to work, but the average commute is less than 4km which makes the switch from public transport to cycling a realistic potential for many. The government is also supporting those who wish to cycle and have pledged up to €500 to citizens who want to buy a new bike.
“37 out of 94 biggest EU cities announced cycling measures in response to Covid-19, providing a chance to redesign our cities for the future.”
Paris has also been leading the way in investing in cycling. €20 million euro has been ring-fenced for cycling since the start of the pandemic and uptake has increased. The French government is giving people €50 subsidies towards bike repairs and offering free cycling lessons for the general public. The number of people learning to cycle with these courses has increased from 150 people to over 300 people during the pandemic.
The Irish Cycling Advocacy Network which was set up with the goal of cycling becoming a normal part of everyday life in Ireland has been a force for change. They believe that Covid-19 is prompting us to reimagine our lives and our systems and rethink the way in which we commute. There have been record sales of bikes reported. The Irish government has responded in some ways to this uptake in cycling but more needs to be done for it to remain a sustainable alternative to public transport.
Some suggestions of what the Irish government should do are included in the Irish Cycling Advocacy networks pre-budget submission. Recommendations include allocating 10% of the transport capital expenditure (€360 million) annual budget on cycling projects, increasing subsidies for e-bikes and expansion of the bike to work scheme to be more inclusive to focus on low earners, students and unwaged. Institutional changes are also highlighted as needed in order to create a system which respects and encourages cycling. Legislative changes are also needed such as 30km/ph becoming the default speed limit in built-up areas and cycling promotion, especially among marginalised groups. Focusing not only on measures which should be taken but also institutional and legislative change which will provide the best long-term results for cycling encouragement.
The government have allocated the suggested amount of 360 million on walking and cycling projects in the Budget 2021. The government will support cycling projects in main cities, increased funding in greenways and the roll-out of the safe routes to school programmes. Greenways are traffic-free paths which are predominantly in rural areas. The Minister for Transport stated that a greenway must also link to urban areas efficiently in order for them to be used not only by tourists but also by the local population. This makes sense in order to have the best long-term results. The budget seems to take the suggestions of the Irish Cycling Advocacy Network seriously.
The change to cycling that COVID-19 has prompted has been long fought for. Cycling is having a moment. In order for this moment to be a lasting one political leadership is needed. Many schemes set up have been temporary. We must actively engage with politicians to keep the political will alive to invest in cycling not only now but also in the future.
Featured photo by IrishCycle.com