Laura LakerMon 5 Feb 2018 07.00 GMT
Peers use evidence-free anecdotes and cabbie hearsay to claim cycle lanes cause congestion – shouldn’t we demand a higher standard?
A number of peers have attempted to defend unsubstantiated claims that cycle lanes cause congestion and air pollution, apparently echoing anecdotal evidence from their own observations, taxi drivers and the rightwing press. These claims tend to go unchallenged and are allowed to shape the political debate – but this has to stop.
In a House of Lords debate on air pollution on 15 January, the prominent scientist and Labour peer Lord Robert Winston questioned the government over journey times for motor traffic before and after cycle lane construction, saying idling or slow-moving engines pollute more at slow speeds.
Winston asked: “Can the minister give us government figures on the evidence of pollution being greater before bike lanes are introduced than afterwards? This is an important issue in the future planning of our cities.”
When asked by the Guardian whether he believed cycle lanes cause congestion or pollution, Winston said “the evidence for longer car journeys where these resulting land closures have taken place is not deniable.”
When asked to provide this undeniable evidence, however, Winston merely replied “the traffic delays are not denied by transport users, nor by the government or the minister or even TfL [Transport for London].”
The causes of pollution are notoriously tricky to separate, but London Air’s senior air quality analyst, Andrew Grieve described Winston’s claims as “a bit of a case of an anecdote being halfway round the internet before the data analysis has got its shoes on”.
Winston’s anecdote, which appears to have started with taxi drivers on Twitter, before spreading, apparently unquestioned, to parts of the press, can be damaging to sustainable transport alternatives; if people believe bike lanes damage air quality, why would they support them?
Like air pollution, congestion is not a straightforward issue, but efficiency-wise, cycle lanes are certainly a winner. A recent freedom of information (FoI) request sent to TfL revealed central London’s segregated cycle lanes are moving “five times more people per square metre than the main carriageway”.
Within weeks of being built there was a 50% increase in cyclists on London’s cycle superhighway routes, which were moving 46% of people on the road using 30% of the road space. On the superhighway on Blackfriars Road, cyclists make up 70% of traffic.
The routes have affected some motor traffic journeys, although not necessarily for the worse; the same FoI request showed that westbound journeys are now quicker than before the cycle route was built, although eastbound journeys are slower.
TfL data shows that by summer 2017, a year after the east-west superhighway opened, traffic speeds actually increased by 0.7% on the previous year, reversing a longstanding downward trend from 20.2kph in 2007 to 17.9kph in 2015 – long before the protected cycle routes were built.
A 74-page TfL report concludes that the biggest contributors to congestion are traffic volume (55%) and excess demand for road space (16%).
TfL expects an extra 5 million trips on London’s roads by 2030. The way to tackle the issue, it says, is to prioritise other modes of travel than the private car or taxi. A 3.5m lane of mixed traffic can carry 2,000 people per hour, a bike lane 14,000, a pavement 19,000, and dedicated public transport, such as rail, up to 100,000 people per hour.
The report concludes: “Limited evidence suggests that while these schemes may have short-term negative impacts on traffic speeds during the construction phase, longer term impacts may be negligible.”
Perhaps this was not the evidence Lord Winston was hoping for.
Meanwhile, parts of the media manage to misinterpret certain findings. An Inrix report last year showed that bike lanes, along with public transport investment, can ultimately help reduce congestion by 20%.Despite this, the Mail and Evening Standard concluded congestion was caused by cycle lanes.
There is more than a little of this reverse thinking in some peers’ claims. The Earl of Caithness, a Conservative peer, claimed last July that bike lanes increase congestion but went further, claiming they can result in loss of life when ambulances can’t get to emergency calls on time.
Caithness told the Guardian: “I believe some bicycle lanes have been beneficial but traffic is undoubtedly moving slower and is often stationary, pumping out noxious fumes where there are sacrosanct bicycle lanes which restrict the space of the road unnecessarily.” Caithness did not provide any evidence that the lanes had contributed to congestion.
In fact, cycle lanes can also be useful for emergency vehicle drivers. Last year the driver of a police vehicle was filmed using a segregated lane on Vauxhall Bridge to circumvent traffic jams.
The arguments put forward by some peers appear to be based on a notion that car journeys are inevitable, and that taking away road space naturally creates congestion, when 80 years of data tells us otherwise.
The concept of induced demand states for every 1% increase in capacity, traffic will increase by 1% in the long term. Predictably, the inverse is also true: a phenomenon known as traffic evaporation. The fact of induced demand was acknowledged by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 1994, and yet is ignored in practical terms, even by them, to this day.
In last month’s air quality debate a DfT junior transport secretary, Baroness Sugg, said: “Of course, cycle lanes are welcome in order to protect cyclists and encourage cycling. I understand that they have increased congestion, but we want to encourage people to cycle.”
Neither Baroness Sugg nor the DfT provided any evidence for this assertion either during the debate or when contacted by the Guardian, although the DfT responded with a statement saying the government “wants to encourage cycling.”
Ruth Cadbury MP, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary cycling group, says pro-cycling advocates within parliament are met with scorn when they bring up the benefits of cycling.
She said: “That is a real issue in this place and I sometimes worry that myself, and [fellow committee members] Sarah [Wollaston], Meg [Hillier], we stand up and ask a question [on cycling] … and some people say ‘Oh god, she’s going on about that again.’”
Cadbury added: “The pro-car narrative is back on the rise again, and that’s really worrying.”
The Conservative peer Lord Cormack is among those who believe cabbies hold the answers. Addressing Baroness Sugg, he said: “My Lords, will my noble friend herself meet with some black cab drivers? If she does, will she listen very carefully to what they say has been the result of reducing the lanes on our major roads in London, caused very largely by the creation of cycle lanes?”
Cormack also claimed there was “very little activity” on the route between 9am-5pm, saying “every taxi driver confirms this and I have seen it myself on many occasions”.
Although Cormack did not provide any evidence for his comments, he stressed this was not simply him believing what black cab drivers say. “I do not know a single colleague in the House of Lords who takes a different view – it was noticeable that my remarks were greeted with approbation in all parts.”
It’s worth noting that the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association trade body has protested vociferously against every major cycling scheme proposed in London, even after claiming to support them. Hardly the place to go for unbiased information.
Decisions with real consequences are being made based on little more than ill-informed opinion and anecdote, perpetuated by cries from cabbies and parts of the pro-car media. With the future health of the city at stake, shouldn’t we be insisting on a more rigorous, evidence-based approach?