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Opinion In a cold snap our footpaths and cycle lanes should also be gritted by councils

Dr Emma Howard says councils should prioritise the gritting of walkways and cycle lanes as we face a climate crisis.

THE RECENT COLD weather has once again highlighted the priorities of local authorities in Dublin and the hierarchy of road users embedded in their policies.

As snow fell and temperatures dropped across the country, major roads were gritted and cleared. However footpaths and cycle lanes were left untouched in many areas, and five days into this cold spell compacted snow and ice have resulted in treacherous conditions underfoot.

Many who cycle to work, or cycle and scoot their kids to school, have had to find alternative travel options because of the dangerous condition of the safe cycle routes. Some may be able to take public transport or walk, but many will likely drive instead.

Why are we prioritising cars?

Ireland’s emissions per capita are now the third highest among EU/EEA member states. The most recent calculations from the environmental protection agency (EPA) show that the transport sector is the second highest contributor to Ireland’s carbon emissions, accounting for 17.7%.

The majority of these emissions come from private car usage. Figures from the CSO National Transport Survey show that in 2019 more than half of journeys under 2km in Ireland were made by car. Only 15% of Irish adults ever choose to take a journey by bicycle.

It is estimated that cycling instead of using a car for short trips in the UK would reduce individual travel emissions by approximately 75%. Given our high usage of cars for short trips there are huge reductions in emissions achievable if we can change behaviour and incentivise more active travel.

Reducing car usage in favour of walking or cycling also has significant health benefits. Studies have shown that individuals who cycle to commute have lower mortality rates from all causes, even accounting for other lifestyle factors while walking to commute is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Additionally, the evidence suggests that there are significant mental health and well-being benefits to walking or cycling to commute. When asked their reason for cycling, by far the most common reason Irish cyclists gave was that they enjoy cycling followed by keeping fit/exercise.

Change needed

There are behavioural changes needed to switch from driving to active transport, and there are important social network and peer effects. Motorists may use their car for short journeys out of habit and need a nudge from the status quo. Additionally, the attitudes of the general public towards cycling in particular may be an important factor in developing an active travel culture.

A false dichotomy has been constructed in public discourse, often perpetuated by the media, of cyclists versus motorists. In reality, almost all cyclists are also motorists, and most significantly both groups are comprised of people, just on different modes of transport.

A hierarchy has long existed in Irish transport planning that prioritises motorists over other road users, and this has understandably resulted in many motorists feeling that they should have priority on our roads. Anecdotal evidence from cycling groups and advocates is that women are particularly reluctant to cycle because of driver hostility towards cyclists on Irish roads. Therefore, incentivising active travel requires changing attitudes and behaviour in addition to providing infrastructure. For this to happen we need a top-down approach, changes to policies and a reallocation of road space to reduce the dominance of cars.

Shifting to cycling and walking

A recent OECD report on redesigning Ireland’s transport system for net zero highlighted the major issue of car dependency in our country, where three-quarters of individuals travel by car every single day.

The report identifies three unsustainable dynamics that underly this dependency and need to be addressed to transition to net zero; induced car demand, urban sprawl, and the low attractiveness of sustainable modes trap.

Controlling urban sprawl and developing attractive, reliable, frequent public transport options requires long term planning, substantial investment, and rethinking the design of our cities and towns. However, there are changes that could be made in the short term to increase the attractiveness of active travel that would go some way to addressing the induced car demand.

During Covid lockdowns, improvements were made to the cycling infrastructure in Dublin city centre with the addition of protective wands to some non-segregated cycle lanes. These wands ensure that cycle lanes are kept clear in traffic so cyclists can safely filter through and prevent drivers from very close passing. However, these wands are only on small stretches of some cycle lanes and in many places they stop and start to leave room for parking.

The OECD report identifies that parking takes up a large amount of the space allocated to cars on our roads, and outlines that reallocating this space is key to reducing our car dependency. Removing car parking spaces, particularly on busy commuter routes into our city centres, would facilitate more continuous protected cycle lanes and the increased safety would encourage more cycling.

Segregated cycle lanes or shared cycle and walkways would of course be safer and preferable to the quick fix wands. Even though these would not be as fast to implement, they would be much faster and cheaper to build than the development of public transport.

Extensions to the Luas lines or the long ago proposed MetroLink are also needed to reduce the number of journeys taken by car, but these are long term projects requiring big investments. If we want to reduce our carbon emissions and meet our short-term goals, we also need to implement policies that are high impact and produce results quickly.

As evidenced by the current cold snap, however, the existing policies local authorities have in place do not support, much less prioritise active travel. When my local South Dublin County Council spokesperson was asked about de-icing footpaths and cycle lanes, he confirmed that they do not do it traditionally, except in ‘extreme’ circumstances and ‘strategic locations’.

Dublin City Council had stated similarly but did respond to requests from councillors and were out gritting footpaths eventually.

Clearly however priorities need to shift. Local authorities in the greater Dublin area last year left one third of their budgets for active travel infrastructure unspent.

This figure was even higher for rural local authorities, who spent less than half of their funding on cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Individual behaviours need to change to reduce our significant emissions from transport and private car use. Local authorities need to redesign their policies to prioritise active travel and facilitate this change.

Dr Emma Howard is an Economist and Lecturer at Technological University Dublin. 

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