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?

Firstly, that figure of 51% of journeys involving transport of goods is not quite what it seems as it includes everything from domestic shopping trips to the transport of instruments to music lessons, i.e. a bag of shopping on the handlebars and a flute in a backpack. 

The report identifies a number of different two-wheeled delivery systems from the standard bike to the kind of electro-assisted cargo bike being experimented with by professional couriers like DHL.  It sets a realistic weight limit of 200Kg (441lbs) which, for example, is equivalent to slightly less than the weight of bags of cement needed to pour a yard of concrete.  It reckons on a realistic range of 7km (4¼ miles).  It emphasises the potential value for B2C delivery services like florists, dry cleaners and pharmacies but stresses that one bike would probably need to be rotated round a number of riders because of the physical exertion involved (remember, this is from a research group specifically set up to identify the benefits and possibilities of using bikes more in the logistics sector – not to highlight the problems).  Specifically it says, “Riders are likely to clock up many kilometres per day doing deliveries.  It is unrealistic for riders to undertake this level full time on a daily basis without burnout after a few months.  However, using a team of part-time riders provides greater flexibility and allows riders to fit in work around existing obligations.”  

Okay, but I’m concerned about the kind of rates of pay such riders would be getting for their work and what cover their employers would offer in the event of injury caused by the job.  I know from London cycle couriers it’s already a rather precarious form of employment, let alone a sometimes unpredictable method of delivery. 

Two areas the Federation identifies which are definitely of interest are what it calls bike-train-bike deliveries, picking up and dropping off small loads at railway stations, and delivery of items like magazines from a distribution hub. It suggests that 25% of all commercial goods could be delivered by cargo bike, and this, again, at face value is a very exciting possibility.  However, if one van and driver deliver a hundred parcels to different addresses during a day (to pluck figures from the air) would that mean having thirty or fifty bikes and the same number of riders to do the same thing in the same allotted time?  Could it be made to be affordable, paying that many riders instead of one driver?  Would there be a significant drop in congestion by eradicating one van and replacing it with thirty or fifty bikes? 

The report gives the example of Cambridge saying, “Around 50% of Cambridge residents cycle at least once a week – this is the highest level in England.”  Anyone who’s ever tried to negotiate that beautiful city by car or by public transport will not be surprised to learn that it is officially one of the most congested places in the country.  The council is currently considering plans to spend £100million in the next three years because it estimates that by 2031 traffic “will increase by over 30% in the morning peak.  The time spent in congestion will more than double.”  

If half the population makes at least one journey a week on bikes and congestion is still going through the roof, the transfer to two wheels clearly hasn’t solved many problems.  Of course, it might be that if they didn’t do that everything would be even worse, but the point is that while bikes may be an element of the solution to the congestion problem they’re not an answer on their own.  Make no mistake, congestion is incredibly closely related to pollution.  Idling vehicles, stuck in traffic, produce far more noxious outpourings than free-flowing ones.  

So how do we in Britain shape-up on the cycle delivery spectrum in relation to other countries?  The Federation has more than 150 member organisations across the EU, and a remarkable and laudable 51 of those are in the UK – almost six times as many as in “green” Germany, for example.  As it happens, I suspect the narrow, winding roads of our medieval cities lend themselves more to this kind of logistic innovation than many of the more modern conurbations across Europe.  Having said that, the Federation report points out that the success of such schemes is largely dependent on punitive measures against competing technologies on the polluter pays principle – e.g. congestion charging and outright bans of HGVs in certain areas.  Fair enough, but I point out once again that the evidence is that vehicular traffic is going down in cities where congestion and pollution are worsening so who benefits?  What’s more, the polluter pays actually means we pay.  If deliveries cost more it is the consumer who pays in the long run which means, of course, all of us.

Despite what some may believe, I’m not against bikes.  I’m entirely supportive of the idea that using bikes can make a meaningful, albeit probably far from decisive, contribution to the logistics sector and to the reduction of congestion and pollution in our cities.  What I am against is the bashing of the major part of that sector as some kind of evil, diesel fume-belching demonic brotherhood, intent on choking our streets and our children’s lungs in pursuit of undeserved wealth.  The men (and sadly somewhat fewer women) who drive vans and lorries through our cities do so because we need them to.  If you’ve ever bought anything from a city shop, cafe, restaurant or warehouse, ever had anything delivered to your door or had building work done, you are part of the problem.

Yes, we need to identify ways of reducing congestion.  

Yes, we need to produce the first properly integrated transport system in Britain since the Romans so that car drivers will want to use efficient, affordable, welcoming and comfortable public transport.  

Yes, we need the motor industry to do everything it can to produce cleaner and leaner engines (in which amazing progress has been made in recent years).  

Yes, we should closely and openly examine any greener alternatives.  

However, just because we want something to be doesn’t make it so.  We can’t use bikes in huge numbers to replace other forms of delivery.  We can’t magically remove all diesel-powered vehicles from our streets, and to wag fingers at a sector upon which we all depend without any real alternative to offer is time-wasting, misleading and morally bankrupt.