A new fact has entered the common psyche, namely that London’s congestion is caused by 18 kilometres of physically protected (as opposed to painted) cycle lanes in central London. An accomplice fact is that these same ‘cycleways’ are also responsible for central London’s pollution.

Michael Gove MP, as part of a Brexit committee meeting in Parliament with Sadiq Khan, asked London’s mayor, “do you think that we might more easily be able to meet the very welcome things on air quality, if we were to revisit exactly how the provision of bike lanes has been implemented?” In effect Gove was claiming that removing cycle lanes could be key to tackling London’s illegal air quality (needless to say it didn’t occur to Gove to consider whether London’s air quality problems have only started since the cycleways were implemented in the last year or so).

The only other factor Gove raised as a potential cause of congestion and pollution was the “regime which allows so many roadworks to operate in London at the moment.” Gove claimed that there had been a 200% increase in the number of roadworks on London’s roads “over the last few years.”

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What Gove didn’t consider is the fundamental cause of London’s pollution and congestion – a decades-long policy of standing idly by while the city had become clogged with motors, in the outskirts as well as in the heart of the city.

Regrettably, Khan gave a rather limp response, blaming any problems on the way in which construction of the cycleways was organized by the previous mayor, Boris Johnson, though he did point out that fewer than 2% of ‘our’ roads (presumably meaning TfL roads as opposed to roads that are the responsibility of London boroughs) have “segregated cycle lanes.”

TfL’s roads statistics show that the ‘average speed’ of motors in London continues to decline as it has done for some years now (now down to 7.8 mph). However, those statistics also show a slight recent year on year decline in the ‘volume’ of traffic in central London (down 3.4 percent in summer 2016 from summer of 2105).

Thus the search is on for culprits. People mention various factors such as an increasing number (and duration) of roadworks, increases in construction traffic, increased numbers of delivery vans carrying goods ordered over the internet, the rapid increase in ‘public hire vehicles’ (PHVs) – primarily new Uber vehicles (now about 120,000 seeking customers in London alongside a slightly sagging number of about 21,000 black cabs). But most attention has focused on the immensely popular (with cyclists) cycleways – such as that running along the Embankment towards the Houses of Parliament.

What is notably lacking in this whole debate about the new cycleways is any enlightening quantification of the relative contributions of the various potential causes.

What, for example, is the actual contribution of the rapidly increasing number of PHVs on London’s roads to congestion and pollution? There are some 600 licensed issued every week – i.e. 31,000 per annum – if the black cab lobby is to be believed.

Assuming that the average length of a modern motor car (and a small amount of inter-car space) is about 5 metres, the present fleet of 120,000 PHVs, when stationary, requires 33 times the total length of London’s new cycleways.

The space requirement is, of course, dynamic and increases when the vehicles are in motion. So, in movement the PHV fleet requires 99 times the total length of the infamous cycleways. The numbers would be higher if we were to include black cabs. Together, indeed, cabs and PHVs account for 68 percent of ‘all car traffic’ in central London.

It’s worth noting that, at the present rate of increase, the new PHVs need as much space as all the cycleways every six weeks when stationary. When moving new PHVs soak up as much space as all the cycleways every two weeks. If TfL and the Mayor were building cycleways at the same rate, i.e. 18 km every two weeks, we would indeed be talking about cycleway-induced congestion!

If we are serious about discussing the causes of congestion and pollution, surely we would look first at reducing the primary emitters of pollution and the primary creators of congestion given that this one category of vehicles has an increased demand for road space about 100 times as much as the cycleways. If we were serious about understanding what causes congestion and pollution we would be looking at the bigger problem, and not resort to having a pop at cyclists as being responsible for congestion and pollution generated by others.

There’s another factor that is ignored in the assessment of what is behind the shrinking availability of road space – ever-expanding size of cars. This too has an effect on the road space equation – but how often do you see it mentioned, other than as a another burden on the hard-pressed, hard-working, much deserving motorist just trying to park in the supermarket’s ridiculously narrow parking places?

No doubt we are expected to use our common sense and dismiss such as a silly point as not to be taken seriously as a contribution to congestion while we can blame cycleways. I can see for myself, on my local High Street, that widening the parking bays has narrowed the available carriageway and whereas two cars could pass alongside a lane of parked cars, that it no longer possible and they have to wait (or to not wait) for the cars in the other direction to pass. I’ve not heard a single squeak about the congestion and pollution caused by these wider parking bays, in contrast to the way the subjects come every time anyone suggests a serious cycle scheme.

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An ever increasing amount of road space capacity is being lost to ever bigger motor vehicles. 

But, that’s anecdote. So, instead, allow me some leeway and let’s delve a wee way into what we can work out.

The calculations here become a little bit more assumption based, but let’s say that cars have become about 10 percent bigger (in terms of road space occupied) over the last, say, 20 years. There are 2,600,000 cars registered in London. If we work out the average extra space occupied (length x width) by those cars we get a figure of about 2,127,000 square metres.

A little bit of calculator work shows that this is 4,123 times as much space as occupied by all the London cycleways (assuming 3.5 metres wide and 18km in length).

This is almost certainly a considerable underestimate for a number of reasons. First, the motor vehicle space requirements boom has been most marked among popular car models. The space requirement of the Ford Fiesta has grown 20 percent, that of the VW Golf GTi by 25 percent, of the VW Beetle by 23 percent, of the Fiat 500 of by 47 percent and of the Mini a whopping 75 percent, so taking a 10 percent increase is conservative. Second, the calculation applies just for like to like models and doesn’t take into account the immensely popular new types of vehicle such as the ‘people carrier’ and the ‘SUV’ which have replaced many smaller cars. Third, as we are talking purely about cars, we are not including the extra space requirements of bigger light goods vehicles and bigger lorries. Combine these factors and it is easy to see that the growth in vehicle space requirements is not a trivial matter.

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The ballooning size of the modern car (Photo: Richard Ambler)

Yet the extra space demand of bigger motors is a problem that the experts manage not to see. For all the repeated droning on about congestion ‘created’ and pollution ‘caused’ by cycleways, we can see that simple, obvious factors, such as the explosion in PHV numbers and the growth in space requirements for each individual motor vehicle are between one hundred and many thousands of times more significant.

There is a nice Dutch saying: meten is weten. Alas, the closest English translation – to measure is to know – is somewhat less poetic than the original, but it does all the same reveal that the puff and hyperbole of the ‘cycleways cause congestion and pollution’ campaign is born out of the willful ignoring of the real factors that are the main primary causes of these problems.

I know some cycle campaigners will see dark forces of managerial capitalism at work in this wholly unbalanced accounting of the contribution of cycleways to pollution and congestion. But there may well be a simpler explanation (or more likely that there is more than one explanation): what I call ‘windscreen mentality’.

Cycleways are visible and recent, and there is recent congestion, ergo cycleways “must” be responsible. It’s a form of tunnel vision, whereby every aspect of transport policy is determined by what the driver can see from looking forward – they see themselves a heading towards a narrow road where two lanes merge into one, or they see red traffic lights ahead, or, horror of horrors, there’s a cycle lanes they think without it they could get ahead (not realizing it would just be to get to the next set of red lights half-a-second sooner). Windscreen vision has it that it is narrowing roads, traffic lights or cycle lanes are responsible for slowing their speedy progress through city streets, not too many, too big vehicles.

The dictum here is ‘to see is to know’, so no need to waste time looking into measuring and understanding the changes around us. In this world view, cars haven’t got bigger, but parking spaces and carriageways have shrunk. It’s obvious, you can see it for yourself. It’s the Flat Earth theory of congestion – after all to the human eye the horizon is clearly flat. Indeed, I was prompted to this thought by an item on the radio about the problems faced by drivers as they try to squeeze their over-sized cars into parking spaces in car parks. A vox pop voice actually said, “Yes, the spaces have shrunk.”

For car park management companies, supermarkets, local authorities, etc. this is a real problem as making bigger spaces means fewer spaces which in turn means lower income or increasing charges to maintain income. Whatever, clearly car parking capacity has been shrunken by car obesity.

As grown ups we need to stop ignoring this issue and ask how this arms race in vehicle size affects the capacity of our roads, just as it affects car parks, and what can be done about it.

In his polemical blogs Robert Wright (a transport correspondent for the Financial Times as well as a cycle blogger – http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/a-past-mayor-miserable-blogiversary-and.html ) argues that cyclists need to accept that the cycleways have contributed to congestion. “While there are plenty of other factors restricting London’s road capacity, it seems fanciful to imagine that cycle facilities alone can remove capacity from busy roads and have little effect on congestion. It is certainly clear the capacity of London’s roads fell around the time the new facilities were built. It is not unreasonable, it seems to me, for Sadiq Khan and Mike Brown, commissioner of Transport for London, to seek to reduce the effect of any new facilities on congestion before giving them the go-ahead.”

There is room – indeed there is urgent need – for a mature discussion about the effect, if it is demonstrably measurable, of cycleways on congestion in a dynamic time-adequate assessment (i.e. allowing sufficient time for bedding in and motor traffic adjustment). But, until those pointing the finger at cycleways acknowledge that there are much greater factors, no such grown up discussion can take place. The ball is in their court. Hit the ball straight and we can return the compliment. Treat cycling differently – treat it as an easy scapegoat for the decades-long shortcomings of British transport policy – and expect a fierce, insistent resistance.

I think it’s entirely reasonable for Sadiq Kahn and Mike Brown to work out what is actually causing congestion and to come up with a plan for addressing those actual causes. What is not reasonable is to blame cycling and to demand that cyclists fess up to causing congestion. To do so would be politically suicidal for the cycle lobby as the assertion of cycle lanes causing pollution would rapidly become ingrained and immovable. We have no real choice but to point out that the figures simply don’t justify that argument.

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