|Waterford Dungarvan Greenway|
In March 2022 I was invited by Roy O'Connor of the Roads and Transport section of Engineers Ireland to open their seminar on Greenways. I made the point that Greenways are not simply a recreational phenomenon, but can be at the heart of our efforts to decarbonise by encouraging walking and cycling. My opening address can be found below.
Thanks to Roy O'Connor, and Engineers Ireland for inviting me to open this seminar.
Good morning and greetings from Strasbourg in France where I am attending the plenary session of the European Parliament. It is a dark moment in Europe, and we hope that de-escalation will occur. It is a week in which the energy rulebook for Europe is being re-written, in order to reduce reliance on Russian energy. That means less coal, oil and gas, and hopefully an acceleration of the green energy transition. This has significant implications from transport, and may assist in decarbonisation.
From a transport and mobility perspective, that means more support for active travel, public transport, and electrification. Active travel covers walking and cycling and now is the right time to boost these sustainable modes. The 2018 Strategy for the Future Development of National and Regional Greenways states, “Greenways are not simply a means of getting from A to B, they are an experience in and of themselves. They are also a means to experience the communities through which they transport us.” I’d like to flip that around and stress that they ARE a means of getting from A to B, and with the rise of pedal-assisted bikes, they can be transformative in achieving a favourable modal spilt for short and medium length journeys.
However, let me backtrack for a moment. There was a lightbulb moment around twenty years ago when Fáilte Ireland realised that Ireland Inc was generating more revenue from cycle holidays than golf holidays, and this thankfully has led to a rise of investment in greenways. Nevertheless, we know that the reasons for greenway investment go far deeper than that. Increased concern about local air quality, particularly post-Covid have reinforced the importance of clean air, and travel on foot, or by bike and Greenways help achieve this. Active travel also helps tackle our obesity crisis. 63% of Irish men and 48% of Irish women have a Body Mass Index higher than 25, and being active daily tackle this. Ireland is above average, in a bad way and greenways can address this.
The climate and biodiversity crises are further reasons for investment in greenways as they can, if designed correctly improve this at a local level. Greenways can also assist in climate adaptation. Embedding sustainable drainage systems from the outset can help nature heal, and provide resilience. Last week I visited Valkenburg in the Netherlands as part of a European Parliament delegation examining the aftermath of the deadly floods last summer that took hundreds of lives in Germany and Belgium. Tellingly, no lives were lost in the Netherlands and the mayor Valkenburg Mr. Daan Prevoo painstakingly explained the Dutch approach of giving ‘Room for the River’, a phrase I had previously heard from Henk Ovink, the Dutch water ambassador. You know all about these challenges, and I would like to think that we are moving away from concrete to more reliance on nature-based solutions, though I certainly see this argument raging within the Office of Public Works and other agencies. You know, I think we all need to go back to school every once in a while, and learn about new approaches to how we carry out our work. I know this leads to practical challenges: how for instance can we incorporate permeable surfaces that are strong enough to withstand extreme rainfall events that are becoming more common. We must work with nature, not fight against it.
The Irish Government has pledged a million Euro a day to walking and cycling. However, we cannot just throw money at projects, we need do it right. Continued Professional Development is crucial. While temporary Covid-related mobility measures have been positive, they have often come with a lot of plastic baggage attached! I hope that we can rely more on wood, green concrete, and trees and planting in the future. I live close to the Phoenix Park, and while I welcome the smooth resurfacing and plastic wands that now firmly delineate the cycle path, perhaps we could consider a row of cherry trees next time out. Nature can help with sustainable solutions. Transport and mobility has come full circle since I first campaigned about urban motorways in Dublin over thirty years ago. Back then, the mantra was that the car is king. We now know it was a pretender to the throne. The transport pyramid now puts teleworking on the top of the ladder, and the pedestrian, wheelchair user and cyclist on the rungs below, and that is the way it should be. Delivery vehicles, public transport and shared mobility come next, with dirty diesels barely making it onto the ladder, and being phased out as electrification takes hold.
I am glad that land acquisition will figure in your discussions. That nettle must be grasped. So many Dutch towns have the cycle path safely planned at a short distance away from the main road, and that requires the purchase of land, a small price to pay for sustainable infrastructure. Greenways can transform our tourism offer, and our transport infrastructure at a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the carbon footprint of our motorway network. Let us ensure that local transport needs are central to the planning of greenways, not just for recreational use, but also for serving local everyday journeys. I hope the investment in active travel will also lead to a re-thinking of rural roads, where too often road markings consists of a dashed white central divider. In Denmark, on such roads the central divider is not present, but instead solid white lines on both sides delineate a metre of shared space that is available to cyclists and pedestrians. The psychological impact of this also helps reduce vehicle speeds.
Before I conclude, may I make a final plea on the subject of way finding, or signage. It is clear that many who choose to drive are not aware that walking and cycling infrastructure exists. We need to improve the quality and quantum of signage that indicates active travel infrastructure. The Slí na Sláinte signs do this, but we need a similar system for all active travel routes. Such signs could list destinations, but also travel times. Over the years, we have reduced road signage to a listing of letters and numbers that are unintelligible to the layperson. The N17, as far as I know the only one of these that has acquired any cultural recognition. Let us get back to using authentic and grounded place-names that have been neglected, but that have a rich cultural grounding. I of course have to remind you, that in doing this we do not wish to create excessive signage and that we also need to declutter our streets and roads.
Thank you, enjoy the day!