January 2017

Two wheels good, four wheels bad? Why wanting something to work doesn’t always mean it does

I caused a bit of a stir among cyclists last week for suggesting that research was needed to see whether cycle lanes in major cities reduced or increased congestion and pollution.  I was slightly mischievously misrepresented in some quarters as being “anti-cycle lanes.”  It would be much fairer to say I’m a cycle lane-sceptic.  I had some interesting and almost exclusively polite exchanges on Twitter (who says we can’t still have civilised debate in the Post Truth era?) and some keen cyclists suggested I look at some of the existing data.  So I have.

My concerns around cycle lanes and cities are broadly threefold:

  • If tarmac formerly used by vehicles is underused by bikes does that in turn cause greater congestion and pollution?
  • Why is it that as traffic volume has been falling in London congestion is getting worse? 
  • Can cycles ever do a significant proportion of the jobs currently undertaken by HGVs and vans, and if not, are their reserved lanes essentially creating more of a need for more of those larger vehicles?

For guidance, one of my twitter interlocutors pointed me towards the work of the European Cycling Logistics Federation, a part-EU funded organisation looking into contributions bikes can make to the logistics sector.  I was initially hugely impressed by a headline in its report which said that on “average 51% of all motorised trips in European cities that involve transport of goods could be shifted to bikes or cargo bikes.”  As someone who is a member of the Commons Transport Select Committee and who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Freight Transport I was shocked that I wasn’t already aware of this statistic and excited at the prospect of such a potential future.  But.. and there’s always a “but,” isn’t there?

Why we must stop Britain’s freight going off the rails

Go back to the 1960s and if anyone was talking about sustainability (and very few were), railways would not have figured high on anyone’s list.  What a difference fifty years makes.  Today, we wring our hands with regret over that which was lost on the word of poor, vilified Dr Beeching, whose crime was, after all, only writing the report for which he was asked.

When peering the other way, into the future of Britain’s railways, it is hard to see beyond the £56 billion (estimated so far) behemoth of HS2, the first usable part of which will not be up and running until 2026.  The final elements of the route will not be welcoming passengers until seven years after that, and passengers are all it will be welcoming.  HS2’s own literature states that: “The HS2 infrastructure has not been designed to accommodate traditional slow/heavy rail freight services.”  The Department for Transport estimates that 12 per cent of freight is moved by rail in the UK, compared to an average across Europe of more than 18 per cent and rising – the opposite of the UK trend.  HS2, on its own, will almost certainly makes things worse and not better.

That risks missing smaller, cheaper ways to improve transport capacity, boosting the economies of the regions and reducing environmental damage.  Take the GB Freight Route (GBFR) scheme.  That is a project to create a “new” dedicated freight train route from London, through the Midlands and into Scotland with a spur for Wales.  It would allow lorries to drive on and off with their loads, avoiding the current expensive and time-consuming practice of transferring goods from HGV to rail and back at the other end.  It would follow 480 miles of existing or disused track with a requirement for only fourteen “virgin” miles along the whole route.  Crucially, it would cost an estimated £6 billion, roughly 10 per cent of the HS2 budget and would take possibly five years to complete.  

Traffic down, congestion up; what’s going wrong with urban roads?

“In recent years, road users have been driving fewer miles yet their journeys are taking longer thanks to shocking congestion.  I want to know why.”

Those are the words of Stoke-on-Trent South MP and Transport Select Committee member, Rob Flello, who hopes a new investigation into urban congestion could shed some light on how to make our roads flow more freely.  The committee begins an inquiry today (Monday 9thJanuary) by hearing evidence from a number of learned experts in the field, and Rob hopes what they say could help solve the mystery which has dogged roads management for the past thirty years.

Rob says, “There’s clear data from successive reports of the National Travel Survey to show that car mileage per adult has fallen significantly over the past twenty years and is actually 10% lower than it was in the mid-2000s.  In spite of that, average traffic speeds in many towns and cities are actually falling.  Transport for London admitted recently that the stately progress of traffic in the centre of the capital dropped to a horrifying 7.8 mph last autumn.  My fear is that a lot of it might be because of an increase in the impact of roadworks and the loss of tarmac for vehicles from the introduction of cycle lanes.”