The cycle lobby in Britain is finally beginning to show some progress with the decision by Transport for London, TfL, to build two ‘substantially segregated’ cycleways in London. This is rightly seen as a major step forward with potentially significant potential for developing cycling as a realistic means of transport in the UK. It is indeed the first major positive move in cycling policy in the UK in modern decades and also marks a major advance in the organizing potential of the modern UK cycling lobby.

However, a bitter battle will now be necessary to ensure that cycleway routings are direct and coherent, and that the quality of implementation will be high enough to provide effective safety.

The hardline opponents of the cycleway proposals, such as the London Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA), which represents about one-third of London’s black cab drivers, and the Canary Wharf property group, are left consoling themselves with empty threats of judicial review.

The next issue will be TfL’s detailed plans and the attempts to modify them by recalcitrant bodies such as the City of Westminster and the City of London. Then there’s those other bodies comprising (no doubt well-recompensed for their efforts) London’s “great and good” and in particular the traditionally anti-cycling-obsessives at the Royal Parks Agency who are objecting to routing a cycleway in front of Buckingham Palace and also intend to close routes via Hyde Park at dusk.

As if this is not all bad enough, the anti-cycle lobby has attracted an influential voice, the heavyweight Institute of Economic Affairs, IEA. This well-established think-tank is a regular provider of ‘call it as it is’ economic analysis on the BBC and in the newspapers. Tough, hard, unsentimental economics is the trade-mark of the ‘free-market’ IEA. No sacred cow is too sacred to be spared its searing insights into why economics must be taken seriously.

IEA spokesman Richard Wellings recently put out his take on the economic costs of the cycle lobby.* Referring to a seminar on ‘Cyclists and the Law’, Wellings regretted that none of the policies he supports was put forward by the cycle lobby: “It was disappointing that several win-win measures with the potential to benefit all road users were not mentioned. Removing a high proportion of traffic lights, for example, would speed up journeys and improve safety for both cyclists and motorists.” His only other policy was to improve pot hole repairs and road maintenance, but he overlooked that this is something the cycle lobby also favours (though it shouldn’t be that surprising even to a free-market economist like Wellings that this was hardly likely to be top of the agenda at a seminar about cyclists and the law, unless he wants a law to compel better road repairs).

But what of Wellings’s economic analysis? What’s the free-market low-down on the economic case for or against cycling?

From an economic perspective”, he writes, “two aspects of the seminar were striking”.

The importance of cars and lorries to London’s economy was almost completely ignored. According to Jenny Jones, ‘London has become a city of buses, pedestrians and bikes’. This simply isn’t true. Within London, cars carry as much passenger traffic as the Tube, buses, trains and bikes put together. It is correct, however, that car use has been falling in recent years. This is unsurprising in the context of falling living standards and transport/planning policies specifically designed to push people out of cars and onto other modes. Nevertheless, the sheer scale of motoring within the capital means that any measures that increase delays are likely to have substantial economic costs. Using DfT estimates of the value of time and making a conservative allowance for running costs, it can be calculated that a 1 per cent increase in car journey times will impose costs of approximately £200 million on motorists in London [the precise accuracy of this figure is less important for this argument than its order of magnitude]. And further substantial costs would be imposed on other road vehicles such as HGVs. The impact of particular measures is of course time and place specific, but it was telling that the potential economic costs of some cycling policies, both to other road users and taxpayers, were barely discussed at the event”, [emphasis added].

Interesting, persuasive even. All that cost – £200 million on cost for every 1 per cent increase in car journey times – induced by ‘any measures that increase delays’. Well, actually any measures except one. Missing from Wellings’s analysis is the present policy of providing as much throughput space as possible which induces demand and creates congestion through stimulating use of the most inefficient space using transport modes.

The other looming gap in Wellings’s analysis is the imbalance of his concepts of economic value. Reducing motor traffic and displacing it onto space-efficient modes will provide multiplied benefits. One person out of a car and onto a bike or into a tram frees up much more space than they use in the new mode of getting about. If this cannot find room in the IEA’s economic analysis, it suggests that they aren’t taking a really very thorough look at the economic issues.

Furthermore Wellings’s analysis has another gaping hole – he obviously finds no economic value in the time and productivity of those who use cycling and other space-efficient modes. But the value of motorists’ time and productivity is very high. If it were an undergraduate essay the imbalance of analysis might be merely embarrassing, but in the blogspot of the august IEA it’s laughable.

Wellings’s other concern with the conference was that, “it was notable that the focus was almost entirely on ‘command and control’ measures centred on extra regulations, more surveillance, stricter enforcement and the centrally planned installation of new infrastructure. Once again there was little awareness of the economic costs of such policies or the misallocation of resources likely to result from the knowledge and incentive problems facing state bureaucracies.

Once again in Wellings’s analysis there was little awareness of the costs of the lack of enforcement of traffic law. This week’s news that casualty numbers are increasing as police enforcement is rolled back underlines the need for deeper analysis of the economic (as well as the social) costs of scaling back enforcement.

Among the policies discussed at the seminar and pilloried as economic ignorance by Wellings was the idea that “cycle lanes should continue across side roads”. Not surprisingly Wellings didn’t offer any rational case as to why he thinks that this is an economic problem. The more one reads them the more obvious it becomes that the IEA’s views on cycling are simply the prejudices of the chronically car-bound dressed up in economic jargon.