September 10, 2019

Words by Steve Ranger

10 Myths About Cycle Lanes

We just saw this in The Guardian, so thanks to them for doing the legwork! Much better to read the article on their website…

1. Cycle lanes increase congestion (and thus pollution)

This is perhaps the most common myth, possibly because critics confuse what feels like it’s true with what actually is true: the assumption that if you take some road space from motor vehicles, you get more traffic jams – as with (a commonly used parallel) forcing water down a smaller pipe.

But fluid and traffic are not the same thing, as shown by 60 years of governments trying and failing to road-build their way out of congestion. The idea of induced demand – more road space brings more cars – has been known for decades, and it also works in reverse. This is especially so with bike lanes, which are such an efficient use of the same space that they can often mean the same amount of space carrying more people overall.

Yes, traffic jams have worsened in some cities where bike lanes have been built, but studies show this is largely down to other factors, for example the growth in the number of Uber-type private hire vehicles and Amazon delivery vans.

Most compelling of all, of course, is the fact that motor vehicles cause the congestion in the first place, and the only real way to reduce traffic congestion is to have fewer of them on the roads.

2. Hardly anyone uses them

It seems that on Twitter you’re never more than 10 minutes away from seeing a bike lane critic post a photo of an empty cycle route with the triumphant message: “See?!” Often this is just a cunningly timed picture, but other factors are at play, not least the efficiency of cycle lanes, which means any “traffic” tends to rapidly bunch up at red lights.

Around the world, in just about every city where proper cycle routes have been built, many more riders start using them. One classic example is Seville in southern Spain, where the recent construction of 50 miles of bike lanes led to an 11-fold increase in rider numbers.

3. They’re only used by white, middle-class men/commuters

The myth-busting here comes in two parts: first, it’s not as true as some argue, and second, where it is an issue, this is a sign that you need more safe cycling routes, not fewer.

But yes, poorer people and those from minority ethnic backgrounds do ride bikes. Transport for London statistics show the ethnic mix of the city’s cyclists roughly matches that of the population. In the US, the group most like to cycle (or walk) to work are those from households with incomes of less than $10,000 (£7,930) a year – ie the very poor.

The other thing to stress is that the more obviously safe the cycling in your town or city, the more diverse and mixed the people on bikes. Without proper infrastructure, cycling becomes something of a specialist pursuit, mainly restricted to what you might call the hobbyists – people with the more expensive bike, the greater confidence and the willingness to mix it with motor traffic.

The converse is seen in places such as the Netherlands and Denmark: while “cyclists” – people who have a drawerful of Lycra and an interest in gear ratios – do exist, they’re a different breed from the mass of everyday transport riders, who in socioeconomic terms encompass more or less everyone from royalty downwards.

A series of barely connected bike lanes, such as in London, might be fine for commuters but people who make more varied journeys – for example those (disproportionately women) who need to go to work via a school and back via a shop – require a coherent network, including the other half of the safe-cycling equation, tamed backstreets, where cars are reduced in number and travel at slow speeds.

4. They’re bad for business

Some of the noisiest opponents of recent London bike lanes have been individual business owners, who argue that a separated bike lane and any loss of parking will be fatal to their enterprise.

In broad terms, however, this is completely wrong. Towns, cities and individual high streets are changing in how they compete. The growth of internet shopping means they must appeal more as destinations, which is hard to do amid wall-to-wall traffic.

Studies have shown that shop owners tend to overestimate the proportion of customers who arrive by car, and that consumers on bikes often purchase more in the long term.

Perhaps the most comprehensive study of the real-world impact of cycle lanes, undertaken in New York City, found businesses on streets with separated bike routes grew on average more quickly than those without. In contrast, I know of no evidence that points the other way.

5. They’re dangerous for pedestrians

A surprisingly common charge – surprising in that it has absolutely no basis in logic, let alone reality. Sure, some elements of cycle lane design might seem new to Britons – for example, “floating” bus stops where passengers cross a cycle lane to reach them – but when they’re designed well there is no evidence they cause danger.

More basically, there’s no getting away from the fact that motor vehicles are much, much, much more dangerous. On average each year in the UK between zero and two pedestrians die after being hit by bikes. About 400 a year die after being hit by motor vehicles, including more than 60 struck while on the pavement.

As cannot be repeated enough, this is not about cyclists being somehow morally pure. It’s just physics. It’s possible to kill or maim someone if you are a 100kg-ish bike-and-human combination travelling at 12mph, but is extremely unlikely. In a 1.5-tonne SUV at 35mph, it is hideously easy.

6. Cyclists just break laws, so they shouldn’t get lanes

This is such a silly idea it’s baffling that it still needs regular debunking. People break road laws, on all forms of road transport, and if anything they do so more often on average in motor vehicles.

Government data from actual recorded speeds shows 52% of drivers break the speed limit in 30mph zones. In 20mph zones the figure is 86% – or 92% in the early hours of the day. Millions of drivers admit to using phones at the wheel. All this, it’s worth stressing, is behaviour that can and does frequently end or permanently change lives. Cyclists jumping red lights, as annoying and even intimidating as it can be – and I’m not condoning it – isn’t the same. As ever, this is all about the physics.

7. How do I carry work tools/a fridge on a bike?

See also: “My 85-year-old granny has two plastic hips and walks with a Zimmer frame – how do you expect her to ride everywhere?”

The most tempting response to this is a deep sigh: no one to my knowledge has suggested that if you build safe cycling routes, that will be the only form of transport on offer, let alone compulsory. And while there’s a wider case for removing private cars from urban areas, even if you build cycling infrastructure then roads and cars – as well as buses – will still exist. They will also move more freely for those who really need them.

Regarding heavy loads: again, no one says all road freight must vanish. But it’s also worth noting that cargo bikes or trailers, especially with electric-assist, can carry heavy loads – even that hypothetical fridge. Some tradespeople, even supermarkets, already use cargo bikes, particularly in big cities where distances are shorter and parking scarce. More widely there is huge potential scope for “last mile” deliveries, especially of Amazon-size packages, to be moved from vans to cargo bikes.

8. We’re not the Netherlands/Denmark

The slightly trite riposte is that at one point even the Netherlands was not the Netherlands. In the early 1970s the Dutch had some of the worst cycling casualty rates in the world, as roads used for decades by cyclists were filled with more and more cars. This prompted a mass protest movement, the result of which was 40-plus years of building safe infrastructure. Ultimately, it’s about political will.

See also: “But the Netherlands/Denmark are flat.” Yes, they are, though a classic Dutch headwind can feel like riding up a steep incline. But this is also by no means a deal breaker, especially in the e-bike era. Bristol, for example, has relatively high rates of cycling for the UK, and it’s not exactly flat.

See also: “Ah, but London/Edinburgh/you name it are old cities with narrow streets.” This is perhaps the most desperate plea of the lot. It’s not as if Amsterdam or Copenhagen are Milton Keynes.

9. They cost too much

Amazingly, this does get said, often accompanied by the curiously enduring myth that cyclists “don’t pay for the roads”.

As Chris Boardman, the cycle campaigner turned cycle tsar for Greater Manchester, noted last month, his planned revamp of the region would cost £1.5bn and would deliver 1,800 miles of safer cycling. That might sound a lot, he said, until you remember that the government has agreed to spend £1.4bn improving a single roundabout in Bedfordshire. So yes, by transport standards, cycling is an absolute bargain.

10. There’s no need

This is, in effect, the message of the critics: not this, not now – let’s try to get away with unambitious schemes without proper infrastructure, which will never change much.

You could write a whole column – even a book – about why this is absurd, but it’s always worth stressing this point to the cycling naysayers: OK, what’s your solution to gridlock, pollution, a climate emergency; to cities that are noisy, dangerous and unjust? They will not respond, because there is no answer.