This is an open letter to our city councillors.
The Galway Cycle-Bus in Knocknacarra has just wrapped up our fourth year of voluntary service enabling children in our community to cycle safely to school. “Happy birthday!”, you might wish us. But this is not a matter of celebration. We exist because safe streets to school do not.
We committed to three years to cycle everyday to two local schools. “Three years”, we thought, “that’s plenty of time to put in temporary cycleways, add protection, open laneways and shortcuts, and make us obsolete.”
Instead, we continue to act as human shields between hard, heavy and fast vehicles and the tender, small and soft bodies of children aged five to twelve years old in a Galway suburb.
We thought that if we showed the demand for safe cycling, our councillors would work with dogged determination to ensure that the council prioritises safer streets for all ages and abilities.
The gap between our hope and reality is devastating.
Since we’ve begun, more children have been killed on Irish roads, and more have been seriously injured.
We don’t know how many, because the Road Safety Authority have not answered our questions as to the exact number of families grieving the violent deaths of their children on our roads when simply walking, cycling, or playing.
The volunteers on the Cycle-Bus and the children in our care have suffered unacceptable behaviour from adults; for clarity, that’s people who live with us in our neighbourhoods.
Primary school children have been verbally assaulted, beeped at, been close passed at speed, filmed by drivers on mobile phones, left hooked, and aggressively overtaken on a regular basis. Sometimes, we recognise these faces.
Adults driving heavy vans, trucks and buses choose, regularly, to break the law by overtaking us with less than a metre between their vehicle and our children on bikes.
We’ve been in tears explaining to motorists that they nearly killed our own children. They are all apologies, they promise to take more care, but there’s someone else the next day treating children cycling to school as an obstacle that they must pass out in their rush to get to the next red light and traffic jam.
Outside of the Cycle-Bus, we’ve pulled young students out from underneath left turning taxis.
We’ve treated children on the side of the road as they have been hit by wing mirrors while crossing busy roads.
We’ve witnessed motorists driving past traffic wardens as they guide children across the road to school.
We’ve documented drivers accelerating through red lights outside schools as dozens of children wait to cross.
We’ve seen parents of children drive on footpaths outside school gates and park on zebra crossings.
We’ve seen crazy 80 km/h speed limits outside schools in this city and people in cars matching and exceeding that limit.
We’ve complained. We’ve made reports.
We have the numbers of our local garda station, community and traffic gardaí, and Traffic Watch saved in our ‘favourites’.
We’ve responded to public consultations on various planning proposals. We’ve made detailed submissions.
We’ve felt frustrated when we’ve seen the drawings of published plans that have the stated aim of better safer for walking and cycling, yet we can tell that these plans have been designed to fail, through either intent or ignorance, because blindingly obvious concerns are not addressed.
We’ve tried to hold councillors and council to account on planning decisions.
We’ve cheered councillors’ commitment to provide safe cycling infrastructure in our communities, but we’ve a long list of committed policies and projects that we could quote from: National Cycle Policy Framework, National Cycle Manual 2011, Galway City Development Plan 2011-2017, Climate Action Plan 2021, and the flagship Galway Transportation Strategy (which is now older than many of our Cycle-Bus children ). These expensive paperweights say all the right things, but here we are in 2022 and our roads continue to be unsafe for children.
So, what’s changed?
We’ve had penalty points and fines issued to motorists who feel that their convenience trumps the safety of young children. A few bollards were installed on the access road to one school.
That’s about it.
Not one metre of new, safe, separate and protected cycleway has been built in our community - in our city! - in donkey’s years.
We are proud that our community Cycle-Bus has lit the flame of over 25 cycle-bus across Ireland, showing how many parents want the same thing that we do: for our children to safely cycle, walk or scoot to school.
Over a dozen local authorities have invited us to speak with them to their roads teams to better understand the needs of children, and their parents.
Galway City Council have never agreed to meet with us. We’ve asked, repeatedly.
So, what more can we do?
We’ve been told that we’re reckless. That we’re irresponsible. That we’re treating children, our own tiny children, as pawns to further our own ‘agenda’. That we’re fanatics, idealists, dismissed as part of the ‘big cycling lobby’.
We’ve been told to know our place, to accept the crumbs on offer, to be ‘realistic’.
We’re simply parents who want our children to be safe when they go to school and come home again.
Our council has spent vast amounts of Active Travel funding spent on resurfacing roads, on redesigning junctions, and a few pennies spent on circular dots outside of primary schools, and our elective representatives have not shouted, ‘Stop!’
Our councillors and TDs are happy to smile for photos when we win awards and join us on an odd cycle, particularly around election time. They take notes, nod enthusiastically, make promises. Still, nothing happens.
We welcomed the recent commitment to spend €1m on active travel every day for the life of the Government, and some projects in Galway city showed ambition. Yet the pace of progress is glacial and projects are devoid of transparency and accountability. Our roads are still dangerous.
A child will die on our roads and we will see the outpouring of grief. Our local leaders will be on the airwaves to offer their condolences. Stories will be written, hands will be wrung, teddies and white crosses will be placed with tenderness and tears.
A dead child will be accepted as a tragic accident rather than a predictable death by design. There will be no accountability by the road engineer or the council. No one will take the responsibility. The news cycle will move on. And the family will mourn for the rest of their lives.
The cycle-bus was never about the bike. The cycle-bus is about making our communities safer, healthier and more sustainable for all its residents, young and old. It’s about quality of life.
We want safe streets so we can let an eight year old walk to the local shop with his pal to get their copies of this week’s Beano.
We want safe streets so a group of 11 year old kids can scoot safely to school.
We want safe streets so a 13 year old girl, her camogie stick strapped to her bike, cycles independently to training at her local pitch.
Yet we can’t do those things today, because, as any parent knows, the deep worry in our guts screams, “If we let our children cycle or scoot out of sight, they may get hurt or die.”
What’s been done does not work. Maintaining the status quo continues the failures.
Politics is about choices. Our politicians are clever and capable people who have the nous and connections to get people to volunteer to campaign for them, to get them elected, and to deliver priority projects.
Our councillors, save a handful of notable exceptions, regularly shrivel, blame others, say they can do nothing about reducing danger on our roads.
Please, councillors and our new Mayor, we beg you to be brave. Do the right thing. Implement government and local policy with gusto. Make the decisions that you know have to be made for safer streets and healthier children. Be the leaders we need you to be.
You, councillors, should be brave enough to voice your opinions, make your vote, know right from wrong.
Don’t keep asking our children to be brave to ride a bike a mile to school.
Two frustrated, sad, and angry parents.
Alan Curran and Neasa Bheilbigh,
co-founders of Galway Cycle-Bus