In the first of a series of articles on the recent Velo-city International Cycling Conference, Katleen Bell Bonjean from Cyclist.ie’s Executive Committee and Gort Cycle Trails offers her reflections on the gathering.
This was my very first Velo-city conference, my very first time in Ljubljana and also the very first time I met a number of other groups / activists / Executive Committee members within Cyclist.ie. Due to Covid, we never had an opportunity to meet face to face, so it was funny we ended up far away from Ireland to meet!
My main objective was to absorb it all and undergo it as a first-timer! I had no idea there would be over 1000 people and that I would struggle to take a pick at so many interesting sessions. Though I knew it was an international event, I was excited to meet people from as far as New Zealand and Australia. I also met Jelle, the Bicycle Mayor for Utrecht. I had never heard about Bicycle Mayors before, and I am determined to become the Bicycle Mayor for Gort if they will have me! I can’t wait! As I am originally Belgian, I could hear much Dutch being spoken by large Belgian and Dutch delegations!
As the days progressed, I came to realise that countries like The Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium have clearly embraced the ideas of sustainable mobility and multi-modal transport by re-designing their streets and traffic flows where pedestrians and cyclists are prioritised. Seeing the images Prof. Jan Gehl showed of Copenhagen city centre full of bikes in the 1950’s – to the 1970s/1980s where all of a sudden the car dominated in all streetscapes, was a stark reminder of how the popularity of the car has lead to car-infested (unliveable) cities and danger is everywhere for those not in cars.
I am always interested in innovation and did a virtual tour of Budapest and the Balaton Lake on a bike. It was real fun and I do wonder if there is an opportunity there for virtual tourism, for those that can’t make it to Ireland or for people, due to mobility issues, would like to experience Ireland virtually.
Some take-aways of sessions I attended:
Journalism and Tourism
Alex Crevar, Travel journalist for the NY Times: Journalists / /travel writers are great promoters of a region (they often get paid for it) by telling stories. Local advocates can be your worst critic but also your BEST advocates – Let’s develop more Local Advocates with Local Stories.
Cycle Infrastructure and Rail Infrastructure
Both go hand in hand and having a rail infrastructure that is incorporated with cycle infrastructure improves mobility – I can see the massive potential to partner with Irish Rail to offer Day Trips from Dublin to say Gort. Have a journey plan ready for the tourist/visitor to experience with bike rental options.
Safe Cycle / Walking Routes to School
It’s all in the data. Solutions like Telraam (Belgium) do bicycle / pedestrian counts that are available via OpenData. This is very relevant to big cities, not so sure if relevant in rural Ireland. Seeing how Hackney in London has implemented several projects, offering the schools templates to communicate their plans, I thought was very helpful. Interesting that fines were issued to those parents that still insisted to bring their children into the school yard by car. I learned on Twitter that just under 1000 schools in Ireland applied for the Safe Routes to School program by Green Schools. I really look forward to seeing how this initiative gets rolled out and how it will enable children to cycle to school (again). Meeting some members of the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council team that designed the Coastal Mobility Route was amazing! As Conor Geraghty, an engineer in DLR, said, “in God we Trust, in data we believe” – and, oh boy, there was no lack of data…. 38% increase in footfall, 12% increase in cycle usage. They won a well-deserved prize for the best infrastructure project.
Let’s hope that other councils seize the opportunity that ActiveTravel offers. There is no lack of funding – after all, 20% of the Irish land transport budget has been allocated to walking and cycling infrastructure. It is up to the councils to apply for it and to construct high quality infrastructure.
Rothar Roads and Rural Cycling
A lot was said about international tourism (and over-tourism). Ireland has so much potential for Rothar Roads (low trafficked roads in rural Ireland), similar to what has been rolled out in Belgium and Holland called knooppunten netwerk. No specific infrastructure is required, the network is marked all the way and connects to other routes. I would love to see a trial of this, as an additional option off the National Cycle Network, which is only generally focussed on towns over 5000 population. Many of the Rothar Roads are in areas much less populated with beautiful views and plenty of local history and heritage. As the Rothar Roads are narrow, it’s often the ONLY way to explore the area. The concept of Rothar Roads was launched in 2021 by the Rural Collective in Cyclist.ie headed up by Jo Sachs-Eldridge from the Leitrim Cycling Festival. Read our vision here.
I am still really no further along on how to deal with the 80km speed limits on Rothar Roads, how to add traffic calming in areas where other road users are tractors and combine harvesters and where roads are being used as rat runs with zero enforcement of speed limits.
Inclusion of Women Cyclists, Disabled and Disadvantaged Communities
This session focussed on the challenges faced by disabled cyclists, mothers with buggies, and the elderly, and how (sadly) the disabled group was not represented at the conference. Videos were shown of people on tricycles and recumbent bikes and how the design of the cycle path was not wide enough for the tricycle and they fell over when one wheel ended up in a soft verge or how gates were ill-designed and they had to turn back as they could not negotiate the gate. The message was clear that it’s crucial to have representation of all groups at the design stage to ensure the design ticks all boxes for all users.
The Dutch Cycling Embassy shared very interesting statistics about elderly people. Electric assist bikes have revolutionised the ability to cycle longer distances and there has been a significant adoption rate in the 66-75 age range.
Travelling back home by train from Ljubljana followed by a flight from Zagreb to Dublin, I finished reading Dervla Murphy’s Wheels in Wheels. Not only was she an absolute pioneer in cycling, she’s also a marvellous writer. I say was, as Deirdre recently passed away at the age of 90. I highly recommend you read this or any of her other books. I already have a next book lined up by Dervla called “ The Making of a Traveller”.
On my return journey from Dublin Airport to Galway, I started reading a book that was included in our conference ‘goodie bag’ called “Movement” written by Thalia Verkade and Marco te Brommelstroet. Just when I thought I was getting my head around safe cycle infrastructure, I was introduced to why electric cars aren’t the solution to the traffic problems, why employers don’t necessarily have to provide showers, how much of the Dutch Infrastructure was financed by gas profits. I am really enjoying the book!
Walking around Ljubljana without car noise or air pollution, people walking and cycling and regular public transport shows that with the right vision and empowerment, a city can be liveable (again) and be a place where people live and not just “work” or “commute” to.
Thank you to Cyclist.ie for giving me the opportunity to connect with so many people in the cycling advocacy space!