Sticking to the facts on cycling improvements

4652614096_4892153028_oIt’s great to hear that Sadiq Khan plans to almost double the investment in cycling initiatives compared to the previous mayor of London. It’s also encouraging that he is promoting a commissioner for walking as well as cycling. This surely is signal of an ambition to consider the needs of all road users.

But is ambition (and cash) enough? Boris Johnson’s vision only went so far. He faced massive political and public opposition to his plans for segregated cycle superhighways, leaving many still incomplete. London’s former cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, has also spoken of defeat, labelling TfL’s ‘quietway’ initiative a failure, with just one of the seven planned now open.

A major challenge for the mayor is that he owns just five per cent of London’s roads, with the rest owned by the city’s borough councils. And experience has shown that councils are too easily influenced by an angry and noisy minority that favour the freedom of the car.

The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea has blocked segregated Superhighway routes along its roads. Quietway plans have been diluted in most of the boroughs they cross. Gilligan expects just one or two of the seven proposed to be of acceptable quality. Even Hackney – a famously pro-cycling council – recently failed to trial an ambitious scheme to create a quietway free from rat-runners.

I’m increasingly convinced that the problem comes down to the consultation process. Of course councils need to consult to understand residents views, but I worry consultations are turning to referendums, forcing people to make binary choices about projects they don’t fully understand.

For some, a cycling consultation might as well be asking ‘shall we make it more difficult for you to drive?’ For these people, the inevitable answer will be ‘no!’ These might not be the majority, but their rage will be so great that they will control the conversation, using emotional arguments that eschew any facts or evidence.

All this seems rather familiar. The ‘post-truth’ explanation of the EU referendum result is now well-known: that those campaigning for the UK to leave the EU abandoned objective facts and turned instead to emotion to win the hearts of the population. And they won.

This year’s road filtering consultation in Hackney is another example of a post-truth campaign in action. The council (quite rightly in my opinion) had initially planned a trial of road closures in order to remove rat-runners from a road and turn it into a quietway. Unfortunately, the council handled the announcement of the trial badly. It was forced to change tack and launched a consultation on a trial instead. But by the time this was underway, the mood had soured and the initiative was seen by many as some sort of conspiracy.

In their rage, opponents dwelt upon worst-case scenarios and advertised them as facts. They claimed that the scheme would increase congestion on neighbouring roads, ambulances wouldn’t be able to get around, old people would be locked in their homes, pollution in school playgrounds would increase and cyclists would rule. Pictures of children with gas masks were even posted around the area to help us visualise the Armageddon that would occur if cars were sent down bigger roads.  (It is interesting that few admitted that they were really angry with the scheme since it would make the school run in the 4×4 a little longer.)

They weren’t interested in testing these fears or considering how the scheme might actually lower air pollution. They dismissed evidence that shows how ‘predictions of traffic problems’ in these sorts of scheme are ‘often unnecessarily alarmist’. They also ignored assurances from the council that they would change the trial if it didn’t work.

Unfortunately, this sort of emotional campaigning is not limited to Hackney. Consultations on the segregated cycle superhighway network have also been marred by falsehoods and inaccuracy.  The right-wing press have branded the superhighways as ‘politically correct follies‘, claiming they are underused, exacerbate congestion and increase pollution. High-ranking politicians have used similar tactics. Last year, Lord Lawson said that the superhighways were ‘doing more damage to London than almost anything since the Blitz’.

Of course this is all nonsense. Andrew Gilligan quotes Transport for London figures to show that the East-West superhighway  – opened along the Embankment this year – is actually used by around 1,200 people an hour at peak times and that pollution levels have not increased. Car journeys might take minutes longer, but that does not mean congestion is getting worse. As he writes, the Embankment now moves around five per cent more people than it did before the lanes were built. ‘If all those now cycling there switched to cars instead, it would put an extra thousand cars an hour on that road alone. Then we’d see what congestion looked like,’ he writes.

I don’t think all those opposing cycle schemes are simply car fanatics. The problem is that many simply don’t understand the wider imperatives for improving cycling provision, or the wider benefits that these initiatives can bring.

The public needs to understand that initiatives such as quietways and superhighways don’t just help cyclists but everybody, since bikes don’t cause air pollution and are safer than cars. We also need to appreciate that to keep London moving, it needs to make radical improvements to its transport infrastructure. It’s not possible to build more roads, but it is possible to make the existing roads work more efficiently and for a wider group of users.

We need to understand that car drivers are actually in a minority, so giving them a lion’s share of the road network just isn’t fair. We need to understand that cycling isn’t just for fit, young men on single-speed bikes; that the growth in cycling in London has been exponential; and that many more would join them if routes were safer.

I think consultations for quietways would be more meaningful following long trials that give residents a taste of what an alternative could look like. But we need better reassurance from councils that trials will be changed if they don’t work. There are also calls for Transport for London to put greater demands on councils for quality standards on Quietway routes.

And finally, politicians need to be brave. Cycling schemes aren’t going to make everyone happy, but if they can improve life for the majority then they need to be pursued, no matter what.

(Main photo: D1v1d, Flickr)