English Lords a'leaping to conclusions about bike lanes and pollution

easy crowd in London
© Easy as riding a bike/ Fifteen people on the right; six in the motor vehicles in the same length (and more width!) on the left

An anecdote can be halfway 'round the internet before the data analysis has got its shoes on.

In London, Peers of the Realm are complaining about bike lanes. According to Laura Laker in the Guardian,

In a House of Lords debate on air pollution on 15 January, the prominent scientist and Labour peer Lord Robert Winston questioned the government over journey times for motor traffic before and after cycle lane construction, saying idling or slow-moving engines pollute more at slow speeds... When asked by the Guardian whether he believed cycle lanes cause congestion or pollution, Winston said, “The evidence for longer car journeys where these resulting land closures have taken place is not deniable.”

Other peers have even claimed that bike lanes kill people.

The Earl of Caithness, a Conservative peer, claimed last July that bike lanes increase congestion but went further, claiming they can result in loss of life when ambulances can’t get to emergency calls on time.

In another article, Laker and Peter Walker look at the issue, which they say was raised by the cab drivers.

This began as a fringe idea, not least because roadside pollution monitors found no increase in pollution levels where the lanes had been built. However, it has gained prominence, with some newspapers, notably the Daily Mail, reporting it as fact. Andrew Grieve, a senior analyst at King’s College London’s Air Quality Network said the issue was “a bit of a case of an anecdote being halfway round the internet before the data analysis has got its shoes on.”

lisa postLisa Schweitzer/Screen capture

Now one could respond simply with a short blog post by Lisa Schweitzer, associate professor of urban planning at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, where she teaches classes in city life and structure, justice in public policy, and public transit, screen shot here in its glorious entirety.

Or one could quote Fran Graham, campaigns coordinator at the London Cycling Campaign, as they did in the Guardian:

The real cause of London’s congestion is unnecessary car journeys – over one third of all the car trips made by London residents are less than 2km. To ensure that our roads don’t crawl into gridlock, we have to enable more people to choose to walk and cycle, and one proven way to do that is to build more physically protected cycle lanes.

Then there is a recent post on the blog As easy as riding a bike, where the author counted the number of people in cars, and compared to the number in bike lanes.

In front of me was perhaps the classic stereotypical scene shared by taxi drivers, and other people hostile to new cycling infrastructure in London (and other British towns and cities). A large expanse of empty tarmac loomed in front of me, contrasting starkly with the clogged road on the right. You might say the cycleway is ‘causing’ congestion and pollution, if you were so inclined.

But in fact, he found when he counted, that there were more people in the bike lanes than actually in the cars, often four times as many. The fact is, bike lanes often look empty because a) bikes take up less space than cars, and b) bikes actually move when cars are stuck in traffic. They just look empty but are moving a lot of people, even in winter.

Beverley Street bike laneBeverley Street in Toronto/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I took this in Toronto on a really cold day when I noticed the same phenomenon; I was in the middle of a line with more people on bikes than there were next to me in cars. As our blogger concludes, and I do too,

Motor traffic seems big, and important. All the noise, the size of the vehicles, the (occasional) speed – it seems like it’s conveying lots of people, and fast. But in reality, it’s an extremely inefficient way of moving people around urban areas...Private motor traffic is the real waste of space. Not cycling infrastructure.

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