How a myth about London’s cycle lanes and traffic jams was born | Cycling


Quite early on Monday morning of last week, I got a call from a radio station: could I come and discuss a study showing that London is the most congested city in the world, and this because of the tracks? cycling. Wait, I replied – repeat it all?

It turned out that I never appeared (someone else got the part). But, intrigued, I looked into the research that would have shown all of this. And that’s when things started to get weird.

Both claims – London being the most congested city in the world and cycle paths part of the problem – were all over the media that morning. This included the outlets you would expect (Daily mail: “The cycle paths installed at the start of the Covid pandemic are helping to make London the most congested city in the world”) and some that you hope for better (BBC London: “Cycle lanes blamed as most congested named city”).

And yet… both arguments were apparently absurd. They were based on a report called the Global traffic dashboard by a company called Inrix, which sells traffic data.

The first problem was the claim that London was the most congested city in the world, a position no similar ranking has ever given it. A clue came to me when I got my hands on the report – it doesn’t even list a single city in Asia or Africa. It was not a global study, it was a study based on where Inrix operates.

Even more enigmatic was the idea that cycle paths were at least partly responsible. The newspapers carried the same quotes, from an Inrix employee called Peter Lees.

“The use of roads is a matter of supply and demand,” he said. “If demand increases but the road space is shared with other modes of transport, there is effectively less tarmac for cars, which then has an impact on speeds on the road and therefore on congestion. “

This poses two problems, the first and the most urgent being that it shows a rather worrying ignorance of the fundamentals of traffic. I don’t want to repeat decades of research, but the bottom line is that you can’t compare traffic to water as the width of the pipe determines how much can flow. Traffic is very different, as the idea shows countless times of induced demand.

The second problem is that even the Global Traffic Scorecard does not make this argument. Bike paths are not even mentioned in its 21 pages. So where does it come from?

Apparently it was direct from Lees, who was interviewed by PA Media, the news agency. PA included them on Sunday in an embargoed story, which was later picked up by other media.

The AP article identified Lees as “Inrix’s director of operations”, but his official title is actually “director of media operations.” He’s the head of the press, not a traffic freak.

How did it all happen? Inrix and Lees were a little shy. After several emails last week, Lees said he could answer the questions in writing, which I sent. But despite multiple follow-ups all I got was digital tumbleweed.

A slight twist came in a tweet that reprinted a response de Lees to a scientist at Imperial College London questioning the results. London’s No.1 ranking, Lees said, “indicates a positive economic rebound [from Covid] for the United Kingdom ”. Cycle lanes were mentioned as a “much smaller contributing factor”. Some of the headlines “weren’t exactly what we said”.

Without wanting to exaggerate Hercule Poirot, I think we have a plausible sequence of events here. A company that derives its income from the auto industry, and partly owned by Porsche, is trying to get free public relations by publishing its research in questionable terms.

The media manager does an interview and launches additional newsworthy theory. Was it a planned ruse? We may never know.

Either way, we have a pair of myths that have escaped into the wild, where they will lurk for years to come, sometimes appearing as evidence in the bizarre culture war on cycling. Already one has appeared: an article from the Sunday Telegraph over the weekend, opposing low traffic areas confidently named London as the most congested city in the world.

What can we do? Not much, I supposed, except just, and once again, watching the depressing and slippery slope from press release to reportage to invincible myth when it comes to cycling stories. I would like to think that some people would learn from this debacle. But I am not really confident.



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