Is Ireland closing the cycling gap on Europe?
Up until 1995 I spent 4 years of my life living in Haarlem, in the Netherlands which is very much in the top 4 of cycling’s premier league when it comes to two wheeled infrastructure. In this day and age there are numerous websites, social media pages etc. etc. underlining the pluses of Hollands cycling infrastructure , so there’s no need to repeat what most people already know about the cycling set-up in the land of tulips.
Last week we did a family road trip (by car…cough) through Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France. Subconsciously I was keeping a close eye on the cycling set-up in these countries whilst keeping a firm pair of eyes on the road whilst driving!
For this blog I’ll focus mainly on France. It’s probably appropriate. The Tour de France is in full swing there at this moment and the country is an acclaimed cycling destination, though notably it doesn’t receive quite the same plaudits as Holland and Denmark.
I think the first thing to do is to differentiate cycling. I honestly feel that most people fail to see the divide that lies in cycling.
To many people in the likes of Ireland and the UK cycling is a sport, a way of getting fit. An alternative to the gym. Spend €1000 plus on a road bike, get the kit and all the accessories, join a club and off you go. Weekends and Summer mid-week spins in groups being the favoured mode of cycling. Make no mistake it is good fun. Whether your group does 20km or 120km, slow or fast, it’s burning fat, clearing the head, sociable and a booming economy for cafes, filling stations and supermarkets ready to cash in on a cycling chit-chat that involves a coffee and a scone.
At the other end of the spectrum are the people who use cycling as part of their daily lives. Shopping, work, visiting friends, a sociable picnic spin to the seaside or even a trip to school! This is the area were I feel Ireland is sadly lacking in giving these people a safe environment to go about their daily business, whereas continental Europe seems to be getting it right.
Lying to the East of France close to the German border in the Alsace region, Strasbourg boasts a population of just over 270,000. (Dublin over 1 million, Cork 190,000, Limerick 90,000). The River Rhine runs to the east of the city.
My aim was to hire a bicycle and see how cycle friendly this city actually is.
One thing that was quite evident in the city are these white and green high nelly type of bikes that can be hired from Vélhop
The bikes are 3 geared, electric, cargo or for children.
You pay just €5-6 for the day (3 geared model). The bike comes with a lock. There is a returnable €150 fee incase of theft. You need some ID and then the bike is yours for the day. I was in the shop for about 20 minutes and that included them looking after someone before me.
It did take time to get your bearings in the city. I started with a gentle spin around the inner city where cyclists and walkers happily co-exist on shared walkways/cycleways and sections of the streets are closed off to auto-mobiles.
Once I had my bearings, I headed east towards Kehl which I soon discovered was across the border in Germany. The route to Kehl was cycle lanes the full way (similar to Amsterdam) with plenty of signage to various destinations and cycling traffic lights. The crossing over the Rhine was by a cycle/pedestrian only bridge.
After a coffee stop in Kehl I headed south following the river on pathways that were either tarmac or a compacted sandy/gravel surface.
One standout feature in this area was despite the Rhine cycle way being on a high banking, steps were provided with a cycle friendly chanel to move your bicycle easily up and down the stairway.
The cycleway was quiet, pleasant and countryfied. At times difficult to imagine I was so close to a busy city.
The cycle back into France was over a shared vehicle road bridge, before cycling into a wooded area prior to entering the out-skirts of the city.
Once back closer to the inner city, tramways, buses and cars became increasing abundant, but there was still plenty of cycling paths leading towards the city centre. One thing I noticed was that despite certain streets being one-way to vehicles, cyclists had it both ways. A nice touch!
On reaching central Strasbourg it was once again back to shared pedestrian and cycle streets, an abundance of lock-up areas for your bike as well as plenty of cafés, patisseries and restaurants for that well earned lunch.
The return of the bicycle couldn’t of been simpler. A quick check over by the shop for any damage. They asked if it ran well, before returning your signed papers for the deposit etc. A memorable day all around.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see Ireland lags well behind mainland Europe with it’s cycling infrastructure, but going on what I know from Tralee and Killarney I feel that it’s not quite as bad as it looks.
In a few cases part of the infrastructure is there, we do have segregated cycle lanes (as well as the painted on versions) but they are not that well put together and are sadly neglected to the point that they can be a hazard to cycle in. The towns sadly lack any kind of signage for cycling which is abundant in Europe and very much a must, as are lights and more automobile free zones.
Generally in a good few European counties, cyclists are diverted from town to town via quiet back roads, which we have in abundance here. Like I said sort out the towns and route signage and we’d be coming through fast and knocking on cycling’s premier league door. Provided the politicians want to go that way?