The Department is here in response to the committee’s recent invitation to assist in its consideration today of two related matters, namely, the road safety regulations made earlier this month that legislate against the dangerous overtaking of cyclists and cycling policy more generally. Reflecting those areas of the committee’s interest, the Department is represented by the road safety and active travel areas of our remit. I am joined by colleagues who deal with the road safety brief in the Department, Mr. Ray O’Leary, assistant secretary, and Ms Lorraine McGurk, assistant principal officer, and by Mr. Garret Doocey, my colleague in my sectoral area which includes active travel policy and investment. The NTA has also joined us.
The Committee is aware of the road traffic (traffic and parking) (amendment) regulations 2019 that came into effect last week on 12 November 2019. These new regulations signed by the Minister build on previous legislation regarding dangerous overtaking. Specifically, they separate out the offence of dangerous overtaking of a pedal cyclist from the general dangerous overtaking provisions in the legislation. They also increase the fixed charge that can apply to this new offence.
We are aware that a number of groups, such as cycling advocacy groups, had previously expressed a preference for a different approach, namely, that a minimum passing distance be enshrined in law, specifically 1 m on roads with speed limits of up to 50 km and 1.5 m on roads where the speed limits are higher than 50 km. However, when we engaged with the Office of the Attorney General about the practicality of such legislation it had serious concerns about the enforceability of such an approach.
As a result, the Department, in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General, An Garda Síochána and the RSA, came up with an alternative approach that would be workable and legally robust, and that is the legislation that commenced last week. The regulation specifically targets drivers who put cyclists at risk.
Over the past number of months and weeks the RSA has run advertising campaigns across various media to make drivers aware of the new legislation and the importance of passing at a safe distance. New warning signs have also been prepared and have been included in the recently updated traffic signs manual. The first of these new signs was installed last week in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown local authority area and many more are set to be erected by local authorities throughout the country. Both these signs and the current advertising campaign will act as a reminder to drivers to only overtake a cyclist where it is safe to do so.
Of course, road safety legislation is only one aspect of Government policy and intervention that impacts on cycling in Ireland. The overall policy stance and funding for cycling are also important considerations for this area of activity. At a policy level, the Minister and the Department are committed to supporting and encouraging more sustainable forms of travel. This is central to our approach to climate action and to helping to achieve a better quality of life and more liveable cities for people.
We want to facilitate more people being able to us more sustainable travel modes for more of their journeys . Active travel, a term that encompasses cycling and walking as a means of transport, is obviously a critical component of this approach. At a policy level our objective is to encourage walking and cycling. We recognise that both of the active modes have a strong role to play, either as a primary mode of transport themselves or very often as a complement to other sustainable modes.
We expect that the committee is interested in two key areas, namely, what are we doing on funding and what our overall approach on policy is. On Exchequer support for infrastructure, on the funding front considerable progress has been made in the last two or three years in identifying and securing additional enhanced Exchequer funding that can support cycling and other sustainable forms of travel.
Under the Government’s Project Ireland 2040 plan, the type of multiannual funding we need to allow the delivery of infrastructure is now being provided. In the earlier years of this decade, we were able to fund the development of cycle network plans so these plans now exist for all the cities. Since the last two budgets, we now have substantial step-up in funding that will enable the planned investments to be undertaken. For example, next year alone there is some €100 million to invest across the Department’s two principal programmes that support active travel.
Our focus now needs to be on ensuring delivery and good use of the substantial funds we are receiving from the taxpayer. A challenge for us is to ensure a sufficient pipeline of projects is moving forward and brought successfully through the planning system, and is ready to absorb the increased level of funding available now and into the future The NTA's new cycling office will help us to ensure that, between the NTA and the various local authorities involved, the ambitious projects for expanding and enhancing urban cycle networks will progress and get delivered.
The committee will also be aware that funding has is available from Government for the development of greenways, predominately across more rural areas of the country. Of course, the purpose of the Government’s investment under the greenways programme is somewhat different. It is less centred on commuting and sustainable travel and more focused on providing joint cycling and walking infrastructure that provides a local amenity and an attractive tourism product.
The committee will be aware that the Department has been working on a review of public transport and active travel policy over the past while. In the past week, the Minister opened a public consultation on these topics. As part of this, he published a range of background information papers and analyses prepared by the Department to support a well-informed public conversation. Among these is a specific paper on active travel which is helping us in this area. The public consultation seeks the views of transport stakeholders, public representatives and the general public on what is important in public transport and active travel policy, what we have got right, where we need to improve and how we should we prioritise.
This is the first formal review of our policy in over a decade. As part of this work, we have used the occasion to look back at two documents we published in 2009 - the National Cycle Policy Framework 2009-2020, and Smarter Travel: A Sustainable Transport Future – to see how we have progressed. Of course, 2009 is memorable for other reasons, principally the global financial and economic crises. The grave fiscal position that Ireland needed to address in the years thereafter meant that we did not receive the level of investment that had been anticipated when the policies were initially drawn up. Obviously, this affected our capacity to deliver the various actions and measures. The position has changed and there has been a substantial stepping up of funding.
A decade on from our last policy statement, we want to concentrate now on shaping our path ahead. What do we want to achieve with policy in this area? Do we need to refresh our priorities? How can our experience inform our future approach? What can we learn from other places? The Minister’s consultation will run until late January. We are engaging with stakeholders during this period with a view to stimulating discussions on what is the first review of Ireland’s sustainable mobility policy in ten years.
We hope this opening statement is a helpful introduction to today’s discussion and that we can be of assistance to the committee in its consideration of cycling policy and cycling safety.