The headline on the front page of the Daily Mail definitely made me sit up and take notice. “Cycle lane lunacy!” it boomed, next to a photo of a cyclist on a bike lane, kept safe from a line of cars by a kerb.
My first thought was: ah, good, the Mail finally agrees it’s lunacy we have so few decent bike lanes. It seemed gratifying, if unlikely. But then I saw the smaller headline below, and my heart sank: “The new blight paralysing Britain.”
It sank not so much because of an ill-informed article about cycling in the national press – that’s almost to be expected – but for another reason. This was another example of what you might call post-truth journalism, which has leaped the fence from the internet to the mass media.
This phenomenon isn’t new and is well documented. But it’s still depressing. This particular example of it, expounded in the Mail, argues that bike lanes are disproportionately to blame for vehicle congestion and associated pollution in British towns. As with many similar ideas, it began as the most fringe of activist memes, mainly expounded through social media.
In London, I first saw it put forward by taxi driver groups, enraged by the construction of the capital’s first comprehensive pair of properly designed and separated lanes, and then by tiny collections of campaigners opposing plans for a northward expansion of these routes.
The bike lanes, they laughably claimed, had brought London to a standstill, and thus choked it in the smog of thousands of stationary cars. They were a menace and must be dug up. This was fairly marginal stuff, reserved in the main for slightly grumpy vested interest groups or a handful of people with Twitter accounts and too much time on their hands.
But now the Mail has taken the idea mainstream. The paper’s almost entirely evidence-free, anecdote-based article takes London as a starting point, but goes on to claim that new bike lanes are also causing “traffic chaos” and “gridlock” in places as far afield as Manchester, Cornwall, Gloucester and Cambridge.
It’s so silly that my first temptation was to ignore it completely. But there’s an argument for saying such myths and inventions should be challenged before they take hold. So here goes.
I’m going to focus in London, in part as it’s the argument I know best, but also as the various factors behind its traffic congestion are, as ever, most densely focused.
Let’s begin with the idea that London’s bike lanes are useless as they are only used at rush hours.
They are certainly popular. Both the new so-called cycle superhighway routes have seen cyclist numbers shoot up by 60% since they were built, according to Transport for London figures. On one section, by Blackfriars Bridge, bikes make up 70% of peak-time traffic.
This is usually the point at which a bike lane naysayer points to a tweeted photo of an empty bike lane, often in the middle of the night. This is, if anything, more fatuous still.
These are primarily commuter routes, and as with many roads, more used at peak hours. And they are massively used – a small part of my commute takes in the east-west cycle route, and at times the queues of bikes at red lights can be dozens deep.
Yes, at other times the traffic is thinner, though I can’t remember ever being alone on the lanes at any hour. But then, many residential pavements near me are barely used outside certain times. Perhaps the Mail thinks they could be turned over to cars, too.
Paul Tuohy, the chief executive of the Cycling UK campaign group, makes the additional point that without a proper network of safe bike lanes, people will generally use what routes that exist only for direct commutes, not everyday riding:
If the the writer would like to see cycle tracks in use at different hours of the day, perhaps he should take a visit to Cambridge or the Netherlands, where good-quality provision exists in residential areas.
What of the traffic “standstill”? Road traffic in London does appear to be worsening, with a knock-on effect not just on those who use cars or trucks, but also bus passengers. And yes, slower traffic can bring more pollution.
But do bike lanes really play such a key role in this? Protected cycleways – the sort with kerbs, which vehicles can’t stray into – take up a small proportion of the lane space of about 3% of all roads in the centre of the capital. In virtually all other towns and cities in Britain the proportion is even less, and is often zero.
For such a tiny reallocation of space to bring traffic to a halt, there would have to be something very odd going on. As Tuohy adds:
To blame congestion problems on cycling is clearly a nonsense. Just do the maths: one lane of a typical road can carry 2,000 cars per hour, or 14,000 cycles. By enabling more people to cycle safely, cycle tracks make highly efficient use of scarce road space.
The more likely explanation? A freelance feature writer spinning an extremely tenuous story, which began as a conclusion borrowed from the fringes of the internet, with the evidence then sought out, not very successfully.
Reducing vehicle congestion in somewhere like London has one main solution, which has a simple premise but a fiendishly complicated set of associated practicalities: reduce the amount of motor traffic.
The number of motor vehicles on London’s roads has increased in recent years, a product of factors including a bigger population, the Uber-fuelled explosion in private cab numbers, more construction traffic and the fleets of vans delivering internet purchases.
A congestion charge has been shown to reduce vehicle numbers. London still has one, though its efficacy has reduced in recent years, especially after Boris Johnson axed a westward expansion of the zone following his election as mayor.
This was a publicly popular move at the time, which is not uncommon. The same people who bemoan traffic often enjoy driving cars or taking cheap cabs, or having their Amazon purchase delivered the next day.
And that’s the paradox at the heart of all this – cycling is one of the few easy wins for policymakers. Give over a small amount of road space for proper bike lanes and, as city after city has shown, more people cycle, thus freeing up space for cars and trucks. The bikes are the solution, not the problem.
If you’re being really ambitious, you could even offer incentives to use electrically assisted cargo bikes to deliver many of the relatively small packages currently tossed into the vast cargo bays of vans which then get stuck in traffic.
But rather than show vision, for some people it’s easier to wrongly apportion blame on to a niche group.
The Daily Mail is on the wrong side of history. Its former sister paper, London’s Evening Standard, used to be similarly sceptical but is now far more balanced.
Such is often the way with ideas which originate on the internet. A cheap myth can be much more convenient for people to absorb than a more difficult argument, one backed up by actual facts.
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