A healthy cities approach to e-biking in Cork

A young girl riding in an electric cargo bicycle.

I grew up in Cork city and I got my first bike at seven years of age. I have cycled since then. I cycled to school. I occasionally cycled to college in University of Limerick. I use the Public Bike Scheme to commute around the city centre to meetings and events when possible.

I have moved to the suburbs now and sometimes I cycle the 50 minute cycle from Ballincollig to my office on the Western Road in Cork City. My latest phase in life has me navigating busy car filled spaces to teach my children how to cycle according to the rules of the road.

This was an easy task during lockdown. The cars miraculously slowed down. The roads were full of pedestrians and cyclists. The environment was perfectly safe for a child to learn.

One week after lockdown was lifted my six-year-old said she no longer wanted to cycle on the road as it was ‘too busy’.  The lorry that flew by her at high speed in a 50km zone was her turning point. We have returned now, on her request, to cycling in safe enclosed spaces such as Ballincollig Regional Park. 

In relative terms, Cork is a small, vibrant, diverse and unique city. The spirit and culture of our small city has been integral to the aspiration of a good quality of life which is attractive to all. From my experience of working on European health projects, this is what Cork is best known and respected for.

As Corkonians we are proud of our heritage and we celebrate our diversity. Our harbor and trading history supported our development of an openness to the novel, diverse and exotic features of the Western World and with it we developed global ideas and energy for Cork as a location of change – in action and opinion.

The ambition of Cork as a Healthy City is a city that connects to improve the health and well-being of all its people and reduce health inequalities. Supporting, validating, enabling, strengthening.

COVID-19 has changed everything

What is health? Traditionally, a health-related article on cycling might focus on the importance of telling the reader about the need to acquire of 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. This is an individualistic and reductionist understanding of health and is based on the premise that we are all in full control of our actions and decisions. This has led to a perception that health is simple to achieve and maintain and has placed an emphasis and the responsibility primarily on the individual.

COVID 19 has taught us what public health is; the importance of healthy environments; that health is not a product of our behaviour alone. Our health is determined by multiple social factors including where we live, our education, our employment status, access to healthy fresh food, our community connections and of course our transportation infrastructure and choices.   

COVID-19 has provided us with an opportunity to re-think our transport infrastructure.  Simultaneously we are in the process of redefining our sense of place and we may never view our city the same way after this pandemic.

This is an opportunity for our perceptions and priorities to change, perhaps permanently; an opportunity to pause, reflect and consider our fundamental relationship with each other and indeed with our city. There is a greater need now to reflect on how we live our lives, how we consume, how we commute, where we commute to, how we want our children to grow and learn and of course how we interact with our civic spaces. 

A Healthy City of the Future

The ambition of Healthy Cities is to put public health at the heart of planning everything we do.  A city that plans in such a way would be a child friendly city where pedestrians and cyclists would coexist and quality of life would be good. Modern life has lulled us into thinking we have no agency in the climate crisis, that any personal effort by one among the seven billion population of the world is futile.

But then I think of Greta Thunberg who has started to shake up the status quo with integrity, sincerity and courage.  We may feel our actions and votes are inconsequential, yet the truth is that major systemic change has only ever been achieved by the compounding force of individual action. Now is our chance, so let’s grasp it with two hands and cycle our way into a cycle friendly city of the future.

For more information on Cork Healthy Cities, visit: www.corkhealthycities.com.