By Jo Sachs-Eldridge – Transport Planner / Leitrim Cycling Festival
As George Monbiot so beautifully put it “Transport has always been about so much more than transport. It’s about the way we live.“
And now is the time to make a real difference to the way we all live.
We have unprecedented levels of support for active travel in the Programme for Government. More specifically this Government has committed to:
‘Mandate that every local authority, with assistance from the National Transport Authority (NTA), adopts a high-quality cycling policy, carries out an assessment of their roads network and develops cycle network plans, which will be implemented with the help of a suitably qualified Cycling Officer with clear powers and roles.’
We greatly welcome the Government’s recent commitment of funding as part of the Active Travel stimulus. What we now need is investment in the other elements – the policy changes, the network planning and the technical, professional and organisational capital to make it happen.
And, critically, our Government needs to lead on this. Yes, we need local champions in local authorities. But they can’t be expected to do it alone. They need direction, they need support to produce ambitious plans and they need training to build capacity.
And the driver for all of this has to be leadership from our national government. Without that leadership and an over reliance on local champions, the disparity between urban and rural will continue to grow, as cities are more likely to have the capacity and resources to make the changes we need and rural Ireland will again be left behind.
Without leadership there is a danger that the funding is unlikely to have a real impact on the way people travel for everyday journeys – in our cities, towns, villages and countryside.
Active Travel Wales Act 2013
In 2013 our near neighbours passed the Active Travel Wales Act which placed a duty on all local authorities to create and maintain not just road networks, but walking and cycling networks too. And it stipulated that the routes developed in this Act should cater for “active travel journeys” which they defined as
‘a journey made to or from a workplace or educational establishment or in order to access health, leisure or other services or facilities.’
In other words these were not primarily leisure routes, these were routes which would replace journeys made by motorised transport.
This Act was a world first. An exciting step change.
Or so we thought.
Unfortunately the Active Travel Wales Act has not achieved what it should have in the years since it was ratified. With the exception of the capital, Cardiff, cycling levels in Welsh towns and cities remain stubbornly low. Reports suggest this is down to a lack of leadership, a lack of funding and a lack of engagement/understanding within various local authorities.
With a mandate here in Ireland that has a similar ambition – to plan and create networks of routes in every authority – let’s not make the same mistakes, let’s learn from our nearest neighbours. They too saw the value in network plans. Yet they haven’t made them a reality. Not yet anyway. But rather than dismissing the value of the Act, let us show them how it can be done. With a clear mandate, a Minister of Transport who is fully supportive and funding available – now is our opportunity.
The value of cycle network plans
I was part of the advisory group that developed the initial guidance to accompany the Active Travel Act and I authored much of the chapter on network planning, based on my experience in Cardiff Council where I had previously worked as the Cycling Officer within the Transport Policy team.
Based on that experience in Cardiff, I still passionately believe that evidence-based, ambitious, strategic cycle network plans have huge value. They matter because, if used well they can be key to making the changes we need in terms of funding, ownership, understanding, integration, engagement and, crucially, behaviour change.
When I started out in Cardiff the numbers cycling were surprisingly low considering how compact the city is, the large student population, the size and how green and flat it is. There were no excuses. Now Cardiff is rated by some as one of the best cities for cyclists across the UK.
A huge part of this revolution is thanks to having a well developed cycle network plan and using that plan to its absolute fullest.
(It’s worth noting that Cardiff created a network plan prior to the Act coming into legislation and that plan and its implementation has continued to evolve and receive funding since its inception, so Cardiff has gone against the broader trend in Wales.)
What did developing a good network plan and using it to its fullest look like?
1. The plan was developed based on real desire lines. Local Transport Projects (a transport planning and engineering company with expertise in cycling), who were appointed to develop the original network plan for the city, used a broad range of qualitative and quantitative research to identify the real desire lines across the city, the routes people really needed to be able to cycle to work, to shops, to school, to socialise.
2. The plan was developed in consultation with user groups, advocacy groups, disability groups and the wider public.
3. The plan was used as a means of demonstrating the city’s ambitions, to engender the idea that cycling was a real alternative – and that this cycle network was an important part of the city’s future.
4. The plan was used as a way of engaging with internal officers – particularly road safety, traffic management, signal engineers and development control officers. This internal engagement was key, as these are the people that have the power to ‘design out’ the usability of a route or even just to block it entirely. We developed the guidance in partnership with them, we held training sessions, we acted as if they mattered. Because they did. Without their support, building quality routes would be almost impossible.
5. The plan allowed us to increase our funding from within the local transport budget and via Welsh Government and regional funding pots because we had evidence and data to back up our funding bids.
6. Having a network plan also allowed cycling to be integrated with other strategic transport plans. This allowed for schemes to be developed in conjunction with each other and funding to be allocated on a meaningful basis.
7. Because we had a five year plan we could do our design work well in advance. This gave us the time to really look at options, gather feedback, to really listen – all the things that make good design possible. Reallocating space on our roads is not a simple process. There are many different functions and many different users. Good design takes time. If used well strategic plans can give us that gift of time to help make sure we get it right.
For these reasons, and more, Cyclist.ie wants every local authority in Ireland to have developed and adopted coherent, ambitious, strategic cycle network plans by 2022.
This need for network plans is vital for both our urban centres and our rural areas. Network planning in these environments may be different beasts in many ways (for example as part of our Vision for Cycling in Rural Ireland, we are calling on our government to recognise our smaller rural roads as Rothar Roads and to reduce speed limits accordingly to enable the space to be shared safely), but there are also many obvious overlaps. All network plans should be based on the same principles of catering for desire lines, of connecting trip attractors to trip generators, and of being safe, direct, coherent and attractive for all users.
There are many, many great reasons to have a network plan, a really good network plan
We all know this. That is why it is there in our Programme for Government. But it can’t simply be left to our local authorities.
We need real leadership to make sure that mandate is followed. Otherwise nothing will change.
What might that national leadership look like?
Lead by saying cycling is a genuine transport priority.
Lead by investing in the technical guidance, professional development and training needed to make change happen (if this requires external expertise, get it and use it to grow local know-how and future talent.)
Lead by challenging Local Authorities to do better:
– create really great cycle network plans that are based on real desire lines and through collaboration with all of the people that matter;
– secure funding to build them;
– integrate the network plans with all other relevant plans and strategies such as the Local Development Plans; and
– get very good at building high quality, useful routes.
Then we can really start to change the way we live.