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7 December 2021

Cycle lanes don’t cause congestion, but there’s money to be made in pretending they do

Road use will only become more dangerous if it’s turned into yet another culture war.

By Will Dunn

Cycle lanes have been blamed for making London the world’s most congested city this morning, according to reports by the BBC, the Evening Standard, the Times, Telegraph and many others. But is this really the case? And if not, why is everyone so keen to demonise cycle lanes?

The analysis that has made the headlines is by traffic data company Inrix. While Inrix’s media operations director (described as the less PR-sounding “operations director” in other media), Peter Lees, did comment that cycle lanes may have had an effect on the “supply and demand” of road space, the Inrix 2021 Global Traffic Scorecard does not contain a single mention of cycle lanes contributing to greater congestion in London.

In fact, it doesn’t say congestion in London has increased over pre-Covid levels – it says London last-mile traffic sped up by 10 per cent compared with pre-Covid times, and drivers in the UK saved an average of £309 on the extra costs incurred by congestion. This is hardly the “agony for motorists” described by the Telegraph.

London is named as the most congested city, not because its congestion got worse, but because other cities remained less congested for longer – possibly because London’s economy revived more quickly.

Parisians and New Yorkers saved 25 and 38 hours over the year, respectively, while Londoners only saved one hour. Interestingly, Paris and New York have both added many miles of cycle lanes since the pandemic began, and both plan to continue doing so; Paris plans to double its cycle lanes, adding an extra 700 kilometres by 2025 (London plans to add another 450km by 2024).

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The report does identify London’s most congested roads. Checking these with Google Maps’s cycle lane layer and Street View, it appears only one – the Euston Road – had a cycle lane added in 2020 or 2021 (and this was removed in January).

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The other congestion hotspots have no new cycle lanes, and most have no cycle lanes at all. Any London driver would recognise them as stretches where major roads converge – the A2 near the Blackwall Tunnel, the South Circular near Catford, the South Circular near Kidbrooke, the North Circular.

These roads are not used by cyclists, but they are great examples of induced traffic – the phenomenon, recognised since the 1960s, of increased car use, and therefore congestion – being caused by building bigger roads.

If you want to see induced demand taken to its appalling conclusion, visit the Los Angeles area, which was designed to make as much space for cars as possible – Interstate-405 has 14 lanes – and which has regularly been ranked as the most congested city by Inrix (for six consecutive years last decade).

We should probably take any comments by Inrix on the rights of cars to road space with a pinch of particulate matter, because Inrix – which is part-owned by a large car company, and which makes data products for the auto industry – would not be well advised to publicly criticise its largest clients. Other peer-reviewed studies, such as this one by Imperial College, have found that more cycle lanes “can be an effective intervention in metropolitan cities like London, which are heavily affected by congestion” – because they reduce the number of cars on the road and increase the speed of traffic flow.

So why would all the UK’s biggest news providers pick up on one hard-to-prove and probably untrue remark, rather than the most important finding of Inrix’s report – that collisions have increased by 26 per cent over the last year?

The answer is that online news is a difficult business. Publishers can no longer rely on their audiences but must compete for them on social media, which thrives on emotion, or search engines, which tell people what they’ve asked to be told.

Road use is an emotive subject because it’s a psychological mess of fear (you or your family could get run over), guilt (you could run someone over), boredom (oh no, Kidbrooke interchange again) and jealousy (look at that lycra-clad cycling clown, how does he get a little road all to himself?). This is absolute nectar to people who can bring more eyeballs to an ad-funded website, or increase their personal brand by stirring these emotions.

However, it’s also an irresponsible thing to do, because it detracts from a major public health issue. The numbers are horrifying, whichever you pick out: in 2019 alone, 2,696 children under the age of 15 were killed or seriously injured by cars in the UK as they walked on or near roads. Not drivers, not even using cars to get anywhere. In no other area of life would it be excusable for so much violence to go unremarked, but turning drivers and cyclists into culture warriors is an easy way out for people with money to make from the whole business – and for a Transport Secretary who is apparently more concerned with his private plane than ensuring the rest of us can get around safely.

[See also: Why is Britain’s rail network still dependent on high-polluting diesel trains?]