The Walkist Manifesto - From Greenways to pathways everywhere and the future of Ireland's health

It's time to make a decision on what this country and its people will look like in 20 years time.

Intro

I began this post several months ago. It started quite simply - I wanted to congratulate those behind the wonderful Waterford/Deise Greenway and encourage Cork County Council to embrace a West Cork Greenway and execute on it. The Waterford one is partially opening this week.

Waterford Greenway

However the more I thought about it, the bigger the “vision” got. What I’m going to present here is obvious in many places, controversial in others and possibly pure fantasy. But we simply can’t continue to stagger blindly forward, as we have been doing for decades. It’s time for a fundamental change in how the infrastructure of this country is arranged.

Teddy Roosevelt, 1903:

We are not building this country of ours for a day. It is to last through the ages. We stand on the threshold of a new century. We look into the dim years that rise before us, knowing that if we are true that the generations that succeed us here shall fall heir to a heritage such as has never been known before. I ask that we keep in mind not only our own interests, but the interests of our children. Any generation fit to do its work must work for the future, for the people of the future, as well as for itself.

Let’s start small and talk local first - Bandon and Clonakilty Paths

Running or walking in Bandon for health in an exercise in aggravation. I was really pleased when they decided to name a nice short walk by the river after Graham Norton and the old railway walk after Clare O’Leary. But it doesn’t look like a single person in the County Council thought it would be a good idea to connect the two of them together. So if you want to make use of the nearby railway walk, you either drive there (many do!) or you risk life and limb on a one-foot wide hard shoulder with cars racing by at 100+kph and regularly crashing into each other.

Every road out of Bandon stops just as the houses do and leaves you in mortal danger if you want to go any further on foot. Anyone who cycles from Bandon to Innishannon is very brave indeed.

Like many Irish towns, Bandon has a love-hate relationship with its river. It’s lovely in the few small places you can see it. But it’s a beast that has damaged the town too. That relationship was typified by the Bandon Half Marathon and 10K which was run for a few years without a single view of the river. I’m convinced a marathon along the river would attract big crowds. Imagine a Bandon to Kinsale run, via Innishannon, on a permanent river trail.

But Bandon is just one local symptom. Look at Clonakilty and Inchydoney. A beach rated as the best in Ireland by Trip Advisor users has a path out towards it that stops at exactly one mile. From then on, grit your teeth and hope some moron doesn’t plough you down if you want to walk or run the remaining miles.

Most of the rest of the country is exactly the same.

There are some bright lights - look at the ring road in Kilkenny any evening. It’s jammed with people walking and running. Why? Because they can travel everywhere safely on foot. Literally if you build it they will come.

The Public Bike Scheme in cities also shows what happens when you provide the facilities and infrastructure. Public bike scheme numbers show cycling is becoming more popular

Waterford Greenway

Earlier in the year I heard about the Waterford Greenway and got very excited. The idea of being able to safely run, walk or cycle from Waterford to Dungarvan along the old railway line struck me as inspirational. I’m still shocked it has actually happened. I’ve been on it three times now, ahead of its completion and it far exceeds every expectation I had. The views are stunning, the terrain changes all the time and everything about it puts a huge smile on my face. Given how many people I’ve met on the Greenway in its unfinished state, I can’t wait to see it when it’s finished.

Waterford Greenway 2

The important thing about the Greenway (and the Great Western one and the upcoming Cavan/Leitrim one) is that it’s a facility for everyone, not just tourists. And that idea became the heart of my thoughts on this wider topic.

West Cork Greenway

Cork CoCo has a “policy” of creating a West Cork Greenway. An excellent study (warning direct PDF link) was carried out in 2011, which figured out the how, where and cost. But nothing has happened. I don’t want to particularly slag off the new not-Alcatraz in the the middle of a freezing cold harbour, as it seems to be off to a good start in peak tourist season. But no one is travelling to Cork to see that. Imagine spending all of that money instead on a perspex enclosed walk across a refurbished Chetwynd Viaduct followed by a renovated Ballinhassig tunnel. It would rightly become world famous.

Joining the dots

Now think about an East Cork Greenway. And a New Ross Greenway. And a Rosslare Greenway. And a Dublin to Wexford Greenway. Imagine being able to safely travel on foot or bike from Dublin to Wexford to Waterford to Cork to Barley Cove to Glengarrif to Kenmare to Killarney to Tralee and Dingle.

Dammit, build a walking trail around the entire coast of Ireland. Something to make the whole world wake up and pay attention.

It looks like Northern Ireland has the right idea. NI greenways: 600-mile network could get Stormont green light

The Wild Atlantic Way

I have been extremely impressed with the Wild Atlantic Way marketing campaign. Hell, they make me want to move to Ireland and I live here. But that’s all it is, a marketing campaign. The only obvious capital spend outside of marketing is for signage.

The core problem is that they show all these amazing places you can visit in Ireland and every single one of them requires you to drive there (or risk your neck cycling), since walking or running there would be suicidal.

We live on a stunning beautiful island. The Wild Atlantic Way should be The Wild Irish way for all of us, not just tourists.

What percentage of the Wild Atlantic Way is car-free vs The West Highland Way?

National Parks

This is a long section and after Greenways was supposed to be the bulk of this post. But it just made me have even bigger ideas. So bear with me, we’ll get there.

2016 is the Centennial of the US National Parks Service and they are doing a wonderful job promoting that fact. My only experiences of them was a day in Yosemite in 1996 and a day in Grand Canyon in 1998 and both are ingrained on my mind forever.

Let’s start by comparing the mission statement of the Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service and the US National Parks Service.

It is the policy of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, endorsed by successive governments, to abide by the criteria and standards for National Parks as set by the IUCN.

vs

The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.

Jesus. Are you as depressed as I was when I read the Irish one?

I had to Google to find out if we even had a National Parks service. I have been in one and to be fair, it’s bloody brilliant - Killarney National Park. Check my earlier post on my Marathon there. But I’ve also done the Half Marathon down from Moll’s Gap. The park is just fantastic. And in keeping with my theme, was full of both tourists and locals when I was there.

There have been some very positive things happening around the National Parks. The government bought 5000 acres in Wicklow that NAMA was trying to hawk to some vulture funds.

But why do we only have six parks? Why not one in every county? Why aren’t we buying up land that is of minimal agricultural use and using it in the style of the Americans? Roughly 640 million acres, or almost a third of the US, fall under the auspices of the federal government.

Obama gets it, why don’t we?

 

Google also gets it, why don’t we?

Let’s stop playing with mickey-mouse Rural Recreation funding, welcome tho it is, and do this right.

Pedestrian hostile in two generations

Hillwalkers and outdoorsey people are a very specific segment. We need to be casting the net much wider and make walking the default for everyone, not the exception.

How did we go in two generations from being a piss poor country that couldn’t afford cars to one which is actively pedestrian hostile? We went from every kid cycling or walking to school and even university to almost zero.

Why did we sleepwalk into this?

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.25 million people die from car-related injuries per year. Half of the deaths are pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists hit by cars. Cars are the leading cause of death for people ages 15–29 years old.

Let’s not forget cyclists who are regularly killed. The recent decision in Dublin to postpone the bicycle greenways does not bode well for anything I’m proposing here.

On a positive note, in Cork COUNCILS GET INTO GEAR FOR MORE CYCLE TRACKS. A blueprint for the development of new cycle lanes and tracks across Cork city and its suburbs has been published jointly by Cork city and county councils.

Health

There are lots of people trying to do good work around health and fitness here, in the private, public and quango sectors. But it’s mostly siloed, piecemeal or, in the case of something like National Fitness Day, tokenistic.

UPDATE 2: A great example of looking like you are doing something but really just ticking boxes is A Healthy Weight for Ireland: Obesity Policy and Action Plan 2016-2025. Even the most naive of us go into full eyeroll mode when we see press releases that prattle on about guidelines, forums and stakeholders. The only surprise is that they didn’t announce another taskforce.

In contrast, a great example of actually doing something practical is the Parkrun movement. A recent tweet by the organisation in the UK said:

A whopping 92,432 people crossed a parkrun finish line in the UK this weekend

The problem is that 92k is not whopping in a country of 64 million people where 62% of people are overweight or obese. A more fundamental change is needed rather than events which will never be more than niche for people who already want to change.

And whilst it’s great to see Coillte adding things like Zipit in Farran wood, it costs money to use those things. It also costs money to park there. And you’d be suicidal to try and get there on foot.

Health shouldn’t require wealth.

This isn’t a new problem. In 1963 JFK was horrified by the stats he saw about the declining fitness of young people. He kicked off a range of initiatives including a set of 50 mile events which were hugely popular that year. RFK even completed a 50 miler. But then JFK was assassinated. Very quickly the events petered out and now there is only one 50 miler left. Which someday I hope to do.

How do we get the people who need to move the most moving, but who are least likely to do so?

What percentage of our multi-billion-Euro health budget is spent dealing with preventable no-exercise related diseases?

Things like Autonomous cars are only going to make things worse. Do we really want to end up like L.A. Story?

 

UPDATE 3: As an aside, I completely agree with @thoughtwax that

autonomous cars will present a once in a lifetime opportunity to reclaim public space for people

Once we are 100% autonomous, driving related deaths should also drop to almost zero. And drink driving becomes a thing of the past. It could even herald the return of the rural pub. But I’m still concerned that an always-available fleet of autonomous Uber vehicles will have us all eventually looking like characters out of Wall-E.

There is a great piece in the Irish Times on obesity. Ian O’Riordan: We are sports mad but sanity needed to tackle obesity:

Indeed there is something strangely contradictory about all this talk of overweight adults and children and the rise of obesity, which according to some reports, will be hovering somewhere around 90 per cent of the population by 2030, the highest projected level Europe. You don’t need me to repeat the scary thought that one in four Irish children is now considered to be overweight, because for a country that prides itself on being so mad about sport, that makes little sense.

Sidenote - Dogs and dog shit

I’m getting to the point where I think dogs need to be temporarily banned from all public footpaths until a large proportion of their idiot owners stop behaving like 12th century peasants throwing their shit out onto the street.

Pick up your dogs’ shit and put your dog on a goddammed leash, you morons. I’ve had two little unleashed runt-sized dogs snapping at my heels recently when out on runs. The next one gets a kick in the face.

Waterford is thinking of banning dogs from the Greenway. Given that it’s already riddled with dog shit before it’s open, they are 100% right. On one of my runs there, a woman had a large dog on a harness and struggled to control it as it tried to jump at me and attack me.

But there’s actually a revenue opportunity here. Dog-walking arenas. Places that dog-owners can go to walk their dogs, step in each others shit and break up the dog-fights. Lots of farmers could create these.

Here’s hoping that responsible reasonable dog owners shame the idiots into behaving properly.

France

France has lots of problems but seems to have some vision for walkers. We went to a holiday/caravan park in Marennes this year, south of La Rochelle, for the second time. Many people who go to these kind of places never leave the camp except maybe to drive to the supermarket. I know we’ve been guilty of that.

This year I decided to be different and went for two runs in the locality. I was, to be honest, a bit worried beforehand, as I didn’t know the roads at all. Some Google Streetview calmed me. On my first run, I did a short 4km loop around some back roads. And it was an absolute joy. Why? No damned hedges and a grass verge that was flush with the road. Plenty of the usual little white French vans passed me but [a] I could see them coming for ages and [b] I could take a small step sideways to be 100% safe.

France Verge

For my second run, I went much further afield and was thrilled to discover an offical nature trail. This was created just with basic crushed white rock and was a lovely surface to run on.

France 2

The return leg was on a very busy road. But again, it wasn’t a problem. No hedges, and big flat verge. We’ll get back to hedges in a moment.

But it’s not just summer holiday locations where the French are looking at this. In Paris, Plans for a Seine Reinvention. Mayor Anne Hidalgo has announced an “almost philosophical project” to take the famed river’s quayside back from cars.

Meanwhile in Dublin………‘It’s bananas!’ Fury as funding pulled for Dublin cycling projects.

Re-forestation, Wildlands, Wetlands

This bit is critical for the next bit. We need a massive re-forestion of the country and the annexing of large areas for wildlife and plants. Every idle bit of land and farmland should be planted with native species (not poxy pines obviously). This is not for commercial purposes, tho that needn’t be excluded in all cases. It ties into the National Park idea but more importantly, it gives wildlife and birds somewhere permanent away from the regular cutting of hedgerows.

And before you tell me that it will take decades, India Plants 50 million trees in one day. Or How millions of trees brought a broken landscape back to life. It’s that vision thing again.

Hedgerows

OK, now for the controversial bit that I’m sure you saw coming. It’s time to get rid of all our our roadside hedgerows and ditches. All of them. Wait, wait, before you blow a gasket and start calling me names. First, we need that massive re-forestation programme to ensure that birds and wildlife have somewhere to go.

The main impediment to people being able to walk safely everywhere is [a] visibility and [b] having somewhere to put their feet. The removal of all hedges and the covering over of all ditches deals with this. I’ve noticed a lot of ditch covering locally on small roads recently, but of course it’s not being done in a way that anyone could actually walk on. So this is eminently possible.

If you do one of the loops of the wonderful Lusitania Trail, this is the road you have to walk back on, with cars whizzing by at 100kph. It’s not something I would ever do by choice.

Irish Roads

The government should CPO every roadside ditch and hedge. This removes the current nonsense where hedge cuttting is the landowners responsibility and can only happen during certain months due to nests. Get rid of the lot and the birds can go back to their natural pre-road habitats.

UPDATE 1: A good link from my sister around a new initiative to safeguard hedgerows in Ireland. Just to be clear, I’m talking about creating far more hedgerows and wilderness areas than we have now, just not beside roads.

A New Ireland

This has been a very long run up to the idea that a whole new outlook is needed in Ireland. We need a grand revolutionary vision and plan for the health of our people and then the execution of that plan quickly. It can’t be years of consultants reports and local government jollies and civil servant conservatism.

Do the current generation of politicians and public servants in this country want to be forgotten in a few short years due to being bench-warmers who think keeping a steady hand on the tiller is their only job? Or do they want to be like Teddy Roosevelt, JFK, Donagh O’Malley and T. K. Whitaker, still being talked about decades later?

Of course we can’t do a “big bang deployment”, as we say in software. It has to be iterative but based on a core set of principles. We could start tomorrow.

  • Every child should be able to walk and cycle safely to school. Build pathways to every school in the country spreading out like a spider’s web
  • Move all religious education to after-school opt-in per religion. Replace all of that school time with outdoor activities, no matter what the weather.
  • Everyone should be able to walk and cycle safely from every town to every town in this country
  • Give pedestrians the Right of Way by default everywhere. Cars must stop if you want to cross the road. Why Sweden has so few road deaths
  • Everyone from the Dept of Env, County/City Councils, HSE, NRA, OPW, Coillte and every relevant department and quango are told exactly how they are going to be part of the solution
  • In advance of a massive buy-up of land for the National Parks, do a huge expansion of the Walks Scheme to make trails available everywhere
  • Start major re-forestation immediately
  • Start removing all hedgerows on major roads initially

Yes this will eventually be a grand building program and require large capital investment. For the pathways, it doesn’t have to be expensive pavement or tarmac or cobble lock everywhere. Crushed hard core is sufficient. But it also can’t be a poxy white line painted on a road with a few “caution pedestrians” signs. The criminal negligence of Irish drivers at pelican crossings makes that unacceptable.

Paying for it

So how to pay for all of this? Let’s start with no new road building. Divert all of those funds to the building of pathways and trails. Look, I hate the roads to Killarney and Limerick as much as you do. And as for Dunkettle! But I’m talking about something a lot more important than a few extra minutes driving.

The removal of the hedgerows will deal with a large number of traffic accidents that happen here when idiots overtake blind on country roads. That’s a positive feedback loop that will help pay for itself.

The top causes of death in Ireland are all lifestyle diseases:

  1. Coronary heart disease 8%
  2. Heart attack 8%
  3. Lung cancer 6%
  4. COPD 5%

Pull several hundred million out of the health budget that is currently being spent on dealing with preventable lifestyle-related illnesses. Provide cheap runners and step trackers to everyone who is capable of curing themselves, instead of rip-off statins and other heart meds. Carrot and Stick. Or carrot and vape for the smokers.

But there are also revenue oportunities. Figures from Fáilte Ireland show that in 2014, close to 1.2 million visitors to Ireland took part in hiking or cross country walking. These activity tourists spent in the region of €915 million in the Irish economy during their stay. Other stats show that 286,000 visitors took part in cycling activities with a spend of €268 million. These two sectors combined generated revenue for the Irish economy in the region of €1.2 billion in 2014.

And this is in a country that’s actively hostile to both walkers and cyclists!

Imagine how much revenue we could generate if we made their lives easy? All related taxes should be used to pay for the above.

But, but, but, this is how things have always been

……..in your lifetime. A pre-famine landscape looked nothing like it does now. A pre-deforestation landscape looked nothing like it does now.

Any time big changes are suggested I’m reminded of Douglas Adams on technology:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Summary

A plan like this addresses health, jobs, tourism, taxes and the environment. Ireland could be leading the way in Europe. Just like we did with fags and bags but with 100x the long term benefit.

The health crisis in Ireland reminds me a bit of global warming. It happens so gradually that the average person doesn’t realise the frog is being boiled. Unlike global warming, it’s not too late to deal with this health problem. But it’s going to take an incredibly strong will to do so. Sadly, I don’t think we have anyone in a position of power in this country capable of making it happen. So the best I’ll be able to do is make sure my kids are healthy.

Thoughts?

Drop them in the comments box below. Always interested in views no matter how much they oppose my own. No safe spaces here. The only rule is that we keep it civil.

Conor O'Neill

Tech guy who likes running slowly

Bandon, Cork, Ireland http://conoroneill.com