Transport minister claims London’s cycleways cause congestion

During an air-quality debate in the House of Lords on Monday the under-secretary of state for transport Baroness Sugg told peers that London’s cycleways “have increased congestion.” She did not cite any evidence to support this claim, and in fact there is much evidence in the opposite direction.

Baroness Sugg – who was elevated to the peerage after being the head of operations at 10 Downing Street under the premiership of David Cameron – stressed that “we want to encourage people to cycle.”

However, this was not a message receptive to some of the other peers listening to her.

Tory peer Lord Cormack said “reducing the lanes on our major roads in London” had been “caused very largely by the creation of cycle lanes.” And Labour peer Lord Winston doubled-down on his previous newspaper claims about cycleways causing congestion by saying “the reduction of lanes which traffic can travel down means that more cars are taking longer journeys than ever before at slower speeds.”

The famous geneticist then asked for “government figures on the evidence of pollution being greater before bike lanes are introduced than afterwards.” He added, pointedly: “This is an important issue in the future planning of our cities.”

While Baroness Sugg was not able to supply these figures, BikeBiz can do so. Last year, a Freedom of Information request from a questionner hoping to show that the building of a Cycle Superhighway in London led to increased congestion resulted in the opposite. Transport for London replied that some of the capital’s protected cycleways are “moving five times more people per square metre than the main carriageway.”

The FoI answer also reiterated earlier information that the building of the East West Cycle Superhighway led to reduced travel times for all – in the westward morning peak, traffic on the main carriageway took 15 to 16 minutes to do a measured stretch where before the building of the Cycle Superhighway the same journey took 21 minutes.

The “cycleways-cause-congestion” trope was highlighted in a report last year done by the London Assembly Transport Committee. “London Stalling” called for more cycleways but also claimed that some congestion was caused by the construction of the existing cycleways. This was disputed by Andrew Gilligan, the “cycling csar” in the last administation.

He wrote that it seems “unlikely that segregated cycle tracks totalling 12 miles can be causing more than a small portion of the congestion on a London main road network which totals around 1500 miles.”

Not all peers would agree with him. For instance, some of Margaret Thatcher’s former ministers oppose cycleways. In 2015, Lord Lawson claimed that cycleways were more damaging to London than anything since the Blitz, and last year, during an earlier air quality debate in the House of Lords, Lord Tebbit claimed the “cause of the excess nitrous oxide in the air in this area of Westminster and along the Embankment is those wretched [cycleway] barricades which have been put up by the former mayor.”

While Tory peers may moan that it’s cycleways that cause pollution and call for more space for cars, Britain’s health watchdog National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has urged local authorities to introduce more cycleways across the UK.

Cycling UK’s Roger Geffen said there is no single magic bullet for reducing urban congestion, but that it requires a combination of measures.

“Cycle lanes can take large numbers of polluting vehicles off the road, with a typical road lane carrying an average of 2,000 cars per hour or 14,000 bicycles. The idea that cycle lanes actually worsen congestion … is [wrong]. Quality cycle infrastructure gives people the opportunity to choose between driving and being stuck in a jam, or a safe, convenient and environmentally friendly way of making their journey.

“The problem we face across many of the UK’s cities is that motor traffic is simply increasing. The growth in use of private hire vehicles and delivery vans is outstripping other modes and straining a transport network already operating at capacity.

He added: “Congestion is due to an excess demand of finite road space.”

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