Ignore the toxic myth about bike lanes and pollution- the facts utterly debunk it

A series of articles in conservative media are pushing the bizarre debate that separated bike lanes worsen air quality. Heres why its rubbish

Juliet Samuel is a regular columnist for the Telegraph, who opines authoritatively about politics, society and business. And yet last month she wrote something which was very obviously incorrect.

Something needed to be done, Samuel said, about the outbreak of bike lanes taking over otherwise useable roads all across London. She continued 😛 TAGEND

I cycle and drive, but these lanes go far beyond the measures needed to improve safety and instead just make it almost unbearable to get in a car. It takes a minimum of one hour to get out of town, half of which is spent churning out extra deplete as you sit on clogged roads and roundabouts that were flowing perfectly well until now.

Even if you dismiss the idea that Londons roads used to flow perfectly well( perhaps all Samuels previous London driving and cycling took place at 5am on Sundays ), there is a very obvious mistake here.

Its the peculiarly tenacious, if easily refuted myth that building separated cycle lanes causes greater traffic congestion, and thus more pollution.

In Samuels very minor defence, she is merely repeating what she has probably read elsewhere. The previous month, James Salmon, the Daily Mails transport correspondent, wrote a hugely odd tale noting that Cambridge and London had among the slowest average traffic velocities in the country.

The paper set this down largely to cycle lanes, despite the fact other places in the list included Wolverhampton and Hereford, neither of which are known for their Dutch-style levels of cycling infrastructure.( As if in unconscious acknowledgment of the articles essential absurdity, the tale was illustrated with a photo of a motorcycle lane in Cambridge, Massachusetts .)

Unbowed, the Mail employed a story last month about the College of Paramedics raising very concerned about separated motorcycle lanes( a narrative that, it is worth noting, misquoted the colleges views) in an editorial column:

Segregated cycle lanes have increased congestion and worsened pollution … Isnt it time to abandon this cycle superhighway experimentation and admit that it was a stupid mistake?

Londons
Londons cycle superhighway along the Embankment. Just 3% of central London roads have any segregated cycle lanes. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

There are two elements to unpick this statement: firstly to debunk the myth; and then to try to understand why it is so persistent.

To use London as a good example, there is zero evidence that separated motorcycle lanes have worsened congestion. Quite the contrary. Transport for London statistics show that just two weeks after the capitals two new cycle superhighways were open, both roads were carrying 5% per hour more people than previously, a figure set to rise as more cyclists use them. Having devoted 30% of the space to bikes, these now comprised 46% of people utilizing the roads.

This builds sense when you realise that the standard traffic technologists rule of thumb is that a road that can carry 2,000 vehicles per hour on average can carry 14,000 bikes.

Yes, there were some postpones when the lanes were built. But there are delays when anything new is constructed, and I have yet to hear the Mail argue that we should not replace Londons Victorian sewers or fix potholes because of the risk of traffic congestion.

As for the claim that motorcycle lanes cause more pollution one also made, amazingly, by Prof Robert Winston, among others a thorough debunking of the idea by the blogger Mark Treasure showed pollution monitors have detected no changes to smog levels in areas where bike lanes have been built.

If that wasnt enough, its worth pointing out that currently, only 3% of central London roads have segregated cycle lanes. Could this fact be to blame for Londons slacken roads and choking smog?

Well, yes. Traffic seems much more likely to be caused by a combination of high levels of roadworks, lane-blocking new construction, and motor traffic levels which are seemingly remaining constant after years of steady decline.

Amid this, there are ever greater numbers of minicabs and vans on the roads, many of the latter deliver Amazon-type parcels. In 2000, 11% of motor vehicles in London were so-called light goods vehicles. By 2015 this had risen to 14%.

As for minicabs, TfL licensing info shows that amid the rise of Uber and its ilk, from 2009 -1 0 to 2016 -1 7 the number of what are officially known as private hire vehicles shot up from merely over 49,000 to almost 87,500. Thats a lot of vehicles.

Do we guess an extra 38,000 or so minicabs touting for business might be more relevant than a few miles of bike lanes? I surely do.

So why does this myth persist? Im afraid it probably come to as I have written about before how cycling and cyclists remain one of the few areas of life in which newspapers and columnists feel able to write sweeping generalisations without worry.

This is a complex and longer-term issue, as are the many reasons why separated cycle lanes and other infrastructure are so vital for a modern city or township. But in the meantime, when someone repeats the motorcycle lane myth, ask them for proof.

Bike Nation: How Cycling Can Save the World by Peter Walker is out now .

Guardian Cities is dedicating a week to exploring the future of cycling in cities around the world. Explore our coverage here and follow us on Facebook. Will you be taking our challenge to have conversation with a fellow cycle passenger? Tell us about it here or on Twitter or Instagram use #cycleconvo

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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