CYCLING used to be a big way of life. I have vivid memories from over 20 years ago of a full bike shed in my Alma Mater, Colaiste Chriost Rí.
It was packed to capacity and there was a scramble finding a space to lock up your bicycle every morning and each afternoon after lunch. After school, bikes teemed out of the school yard and local roads were awash with young cyclists.
But somewhere in the last few years, a huge cultural change has happened — one would be lucky now to find a school bike shed with bicycles. One would be even luckier to find a bicycle shed that has not been removed.
How did cycling become not part of a way of a life in Cork? I feel strongly now that it has become a negative battleground, with the way of life sitting somewhere in the distance of the debate.
Whilst canvassing on almost 8,000 doors recently, cycling was raised by several people — it was not the top item, the provision of housing, road safety and more green areas were the top issues.
Cycling came up under the road safety element and when it did the narrative was one which was very split in a whole series of different perspectives —mostly negative — many of them more or less statement-like. I recorded some of these in my notebook, which I wish to briefly share.
“Cycling is my mode of commute to work and sets me up for a positive day”.
“My friend was knocked down by a speeding cyclist on the old railway line, who didn’t stop”.
“I enjoy watching my kids learning to cycle — it is a great skill to have”.
“Cyclists should be taxed if they wish to use the road”.
“I feel healthy. It’s a great feeling to cycle along and view Cork and its beauty”.
“Many cyclists abuse the rules of the road”.
“The Coke bike scheme had its millionth customer last year. There is an interest in cycling”.
“Very few people cycle in this city”.
“We need to improve the cycling networks and infrastructure to make it easier for anyone interested in cycling to engage with it”.
“Gardai should be out in force stopping cyclists cycling on footpaths”.
“Cycling is a way of life we have forgotten”.
I have no doubt that from the amateur cyclist to the passionate cyclist there will be agreement with some of these and disagreement with other statements will pervade. But at the doors there was such a spilt in the support and non-support for cycling. For me coming away from the doors, I thought about what do all of these statements and what do they mean about the future of cycling. What is clear is that there are passionate stances about the future of cycling in the city – even though on the doors when the cycling discussion came up it was like walking on eggshells - and even harsher debates can appear regularly on social media. The cycling narrative in our city seems more like a battleground, with relief needed on all sides of the debate more. An evolution is needed not a revolution.
There is a great need to find some kind of common ground about the positives of cycling but also dealing with the negative aspects. The recent Cork Bike Week and Cork Cycling Festival have helped me to see the fun aspects of cycling. Cycling is not all about commuting. The bike week and cycling festival splice nicely with other aspects of Cork’s DNA – its landscapes, its histories, its food, its education, healthy living, lifelong learning elements, and building community facilities. Not every week or festival within this fair city does that or can boast that the whole city is its playground. I would even love the week and festival to come together and promote a month’s worth of cycling activities. This positive and spliced narrative is one which supporters of cycling in the city need to champion.
Reference is always given in debates on cycling in this city to the cycle ways of Amsterdam and other Dutch cities who have worked very hard over many years to build a narrative where they was a public buy-in. There was no silver bullet for them. It took a lot of time and joined up thinking and effort. In this city, I am not feeling the majority of public buy-in to move cycling back as a way of life. For my part I have asked in the Council chamber that in the short term the City Council appoint a dedicated cycling officer, whose post would be to draw the various positive strands of thought together on cycling in this enlarged city. That for me remains my plan of attack in the short term.
In the long term, the debate rages on about proper cycling infrastructure for the city. It is clear that the bicycle lanes put in in previous years with just the red paint have now faded away. The city council executive have noted how dependent they are on central government grants for maintenance and renewal of any type of cycling infrastructure. They are dependent on a sponsor for the expansion of the very successful Coke bike scheme and cycling as part of sustainable transport networks have been kicked down the road by another ten years or more. In Ireland’s second city, for me this is just not good enough, and when I say that I have also sought more regular and on time buses to be put on. Nationally there is a need to take the cycling element more seriously.
As a further note I am also a big fan of the Cork Cycling Campaign and their greenway proposal from Inniscarra to Ringaskiddy. It is worth having a look at their website and see this positive brainchild. Can you imagine being able to cycle and walk from Inniscarra Reservoir through Ballincollig Regional Park, through the Lee Fields, through the Mardyke, the city centre and out onto docklands along its quays, down the old railway line and down to Passage West and to Ringaskiddy. This route has incredible scenery and history along it. There are also programmes in certain schools to learn how to cycle and to learn the rules of the road. It is be inspiring to know that there is a new generation coming through that will hopefully help return cycling as a way of life.
There is no shortage of ideas on the future of cycling. It just needs different levels of support – from younger generations to community to City Council to central government. Cork needs a proper joined up strategy on the future of cycling.
Cllr Kieran McCarthy, Independent, Cork City Council PhD, Cultural Geography, NUI Cork Member of the EU Committee of the Regions www.corkheritage.ie www.kieranmccarthy.ie
See Kieran’ heritage on facebook: Cork: Our City, Our Town Check out Kieran’s new book, Little Book of Cork Harbour.