The R859. Should Limerick just give up on cycling now?

If you’re from Limerick, you’ve probably never heard of the R859. If you live on the R859 you probably haven’t heard of it either but that’s the official road identifier for the stretch of road connecting Fr. Russell Road to Mungret village on the south side of Limerick city. Mungret is the designated primary development area of the Southern Environs Local Area Plan and as part of that plan, 3 new schools are to be built along the R589, 2 primary level schools and 1 secondary level school. The 2 primary schools were completed during the summer of 2017 and opened in September. The 2 schools have a combined capacity of around 1,000 pupils. Limerick City and County Council’s transport objective number 11 of the Southern Environs LAP is “to seek to improve and create additional facilities for pedestrians and cyclists as opportunities arise as part of new developments”. On 17 June 2015, planning permission under Part 8 was granted to LCCC and included “improvements to the existing road infrastructure in the environs of Mungret, as well as a new section of distributor road with a new roundabout to facilitate possible new school developments in this area. The retro fit of the existing road network will involve new footpaths, cycle ways, pedestrian crossings, public lighting, road widening, set-down areas and shared surfaces.” The works were completed in August 2017.

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Location of new cycle lanes and primary level schools

According to Census 2016, of the 21,474 children at school aged between 5 and 12 years in Limerick city and county, only 118 (0.5%) of them travelled to school by bike. It doesn’t get much better as they get older – of the 14,254 students at school or college aged between 13 and 18 years, only 154 (1%) of them used a bike to get there!

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60 bike spaces at Gaelscoil Ráithín. Will they need that many?

The R589 now has at least 1,000 5 to 12 year old kids travelling on it on a daily basis to and from school. When the new secondary school is built, we will have an additional 1,000 13 to 18 year olds also travelling on this road. I doubt we’ll ever see more than 100 pupils (5%) in total cycle to these schools, thanks to the lamentable design of the new cycle infrastructure put in place by LCCC.

So where do we begin? When you consider that this route should cater specifically for young children cycling to school, nothing but a separated cycle lane/track should be considered acceptable, primarily as a matter of safety, but also as a means of encouraging parents to cycle with their kids to school or God forbid, let the older ones, 11 to 12, cycle themselves. Of course that would cost more than a shared pedestrian/cycle path so that is what LCCC naturally enough settled on. Always looking for the cheapest option.

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No separation between cyclists and motor traffic

The first thing you notice about the surface of the cycle lane is how bumpy it is. I don’t know how the contractor responsible managed to do this but it feels like the surface was rolled with a hammer. It doesn’t make it unsafe but it certainly reduces the pleasure involved. Once you get over the bumpiness, the next thing is the constant undulation of the lane. As the cycle path is a shared space with the raised footpath, the cycle lane drops to road level at the numerous entrances found along the route. This again, is bad design. For an experienced cyclist, the constant changes in levels are nothing to worry about but for young inexperienced cyclists, they certainly could cause a wobble or two which leads to the next issue – the lane’s width. Single direction cycle lanes should be at least 2m wide where possible (and it was possible here as this is a newly expanded road) but these lanes are little over 1m. Now remember that there is no separation from the traffic travelling at 50kmh and the path is raised off the road surface, what do you think could happen if a child happened to wobble a bit on their bike near the right side of this lane?

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Cycle lane level changes
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Cycle lane level changes
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Look at the height of the kerb – a real risk of catching a pedal on such a narrow cycle lane.

Access to the new schools are found at a signalled junction almost halfway between Quinn’s Cross and Mungret village. If you are on a bike when you reach this junction and want to turn left, right or continue straight ahead, you must stop and wait for the green cyclists light before proceeding. This is just bizarre. Imagine travelling in the same direction as motor traffic and you come to a junction where motor traffic has a green light to continue straight ahead but any cyclists wishing to do so must stop and wait at a pedestrian crossing before proceeding? What on earth was going through the minds of the people that came up with this design?

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Traffic can continue ahead but cyclists must wait.

The madness doesn’t stop there. Once you turn left at this junction (coming from the city), you are on a road that serves both schools and a private business that was here before the schools were built. To reach the Educate Together school by bike, you first have to negotiate a wooden obstacle that looks like it was an afterthought to prevent children loosing control coming down a slight incline to the junction below. When you are at the top of this hill, you then have to cross the entrance road again, yielding right of way to motor traffic of course. Once crossed, you must then yield to traffic entering the Gaelscoil. Once passed this entrance, you have to yield one last time to traffic entering the Educate together school. Amazing.

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Erm… safety first? To get to the school in the background, kids cycling must cross the road on the left twice (yielding to traffic on both occasions of course)
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No cycle lane would be complete without the obligatory pole in the middle of it feature. Yes, in 2017 this is still normal.

From start to finish, the design of this new cycle infrastructure is shambolic. Unlike streets in cities where space may be limited, there were no such limitations here. The National Transport Authority’s Cycle Manual outlines the 5 basic needs of the cyclists with respect to designing cycle infrastructure;

  1. Road Safety
  2. Coherence
  3. Directness
  4. Attractiveness
  5. Comfort

I can safely say that the design of the R859’s cycle infrastructure fails every one of these needs which is deeply depressing. What hope have we got if our council cannot, when given a blank piece of paper with no restrictions, design and construct cycle infrastructure that meets the above criteria? As the old saying goes, this is not rocket science.

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Shared pedestrian and cycle spaces sound utopian but they are a lazy, cheap and poor design solution.

In the last 30 years, the number of primary level pupils cycling to school has decreased by 83%. Traffic volumes have increased significantly in that time also so we cannot expect kids to share the roads with motor traffic like we did 30 years ago. The only way we will encourage both kids and adults to use bikes as a mode of transport on a grand scale is to separate cycles from motor traffic. It is the only way. That’s why the R859 is so disappointing. If LCCC continue to pursue the cheapest and easiest option every time when it comes to providing cycle infrastructure then cycling numbers as a mode of transport will continue to hover around the lowly 2% of hardy souls we see today. Maybe we should just give up now and save ourselves a lifetime of banging our heads against a wall?