Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Complaints about new bike lanes are common—and inaccurate.
“Cycle lanes lunacy!” screamed a headline in Britain’s Daily Mail this week. The paper is in a fury about London’s recently opened cycle superhighways—arterial bike lanes that have finally offered London cyclists some segregated protection from motor traffic. These new routes’ cardinal sin, according to the Mail, is that they have gobbled up space properly reserved for cars, squeezing them into fewer lanes like restive camels being herded through an excruciatingly narrow needle’s eye. Central roads are packed, especially along the remodeled Thames Embankment. Meanwhile the cycle paths next to them lie empty, the Mail claims, filled only with clouds of pollution from the lines of stalled cars.
There’s a problem with these assertions. They aren’t true. A brief check of the facts reveals that the number of cyclists using these arterial routes has increased by 60 percent since they got separate bike lanes. In some areas, there are even signs of a long sought-after modal shift. On Blackfriars Bridge, a key link between South London and the city’s financial district, cyclists now make up seventy percent of all traffic at times during the day.
Deep down, the Mail seems to know this. The photo it uses to demonstrate London’s congestion was taken during the cycle highway’s construction, not since it came into operation. Another photo it selected to demonstrate that the cycle lanes are all but empty also happens to show the car lanes running alongside with scant, entirely fluid traffic. But while such claims are easily dismissed, the paper is far from alone in stoking a backlash against London’s bike lanes.
This week an article in London’s Evening Standard, another largely right-leaning newspaper, stated that the new bike routes were making congestion worse in the City, as London’s financial district is called. But the City of London Corporation report on which the article is based gives a rather different impression: The congestion is in fact caused by a construction boom in the area that has required numerous road closures. New cycle lanes are indeed partly exacerbating the congestion it causes, but they are not in fact its source.
This anti-bike coverage is still almost mild compared to some comments from the more conservative end of London’s establishment. Last winter former minister Lord Nigel Lawson (father of TV food personality Nigella Lawson) told the U.K.’s second parliamentary chamber, the House of Lords, that cycle lanes had done more damage to London than “almost anything since the Blitz.” (This despite the massive demolitions carried out in the postwar period, including the smashing through of an elevated highway ripping West London in two.) Lawson’s Conservative colleague Lord Higgins also used the same session to blame London’s pollution on the introduction of bike lanes—a statement that makes as much sense as blaming flu on the discovery of penicillin. Yet another Conservative peer, Lord Ahmad, insisted that cyclists posed more danger to pedestrians than trucks and cars.
What makes this especially frustrating is that London does indeed have some serious problems with traffic flow at the moment. The city’s congestion is now worse than before the congestion charge (Central London’s road pricing system that levies a fee for vigils to enter the city core) was introduced. This isn’t because the charge has failed as such. It was introduced mainly to deter drivers of private cars, and their numbers in Central London have indeed dropped sharply.
The issue now is that private cars are no longer the problem. According to a recent report in the Financial Times, the drop in private cars has been counterbalanced by a growth in private hire cabs, whose numbers have risen 64 percent in three years. Online shopping deliveries have also grown. This means that while London was winning the battle to cut car commuters, a different enemy entirely emerged. An £11.50 ($14.60) daily charge to enter Central London is a substantial expense for a private car owner, but it doesn’t deter cross-town delivery vans or Uber drivers who can earn more than that in an hour.
This new traffic does indeed have less road space allotted to it than previously. That’s partly thanks to new bike lanes, as well as the the elimination of rat-run short cuts and construction-related road closures. If pollution is to be cut, the answer must surely be to reduce the number of motor vehicles on this network rather than to enlarge it and thus induce traffic. With London’s road congestion rising even as private car numbers fall, the city is going to need some smart solutions to manage an unforeseen set of circumstances. As long as the public debate is commandeered by anti-change voices making inaccurate complaints about better bike infrastructure, that’s unlikely to happen.