Lawrence Solomon: How cities made a huge mistake in promoting cycling

(December 1, 2017) Cycling lanes consume more space than they free up, add to pollution and drain the public purse.

This article was first published by the National Post

The bicycle has come a long way since the 1980s when bicycle advocacy groups (my group, Energy Probe, among them) lobbied against policies that discriminated against cyclists. In the language of the day, the bicycle epitomized “appropriate technology”: It was a right-sized machine that blessed cities with economic and environmental benefits. At no expense to taxpayers, the bicycle took cars off the road, easing traffic; it saved wear and tear on the roads, easing municipal budgets; it reduced auto emissions, easing air pollution; it reduced the need for automobile parking, increasing the efficiency of land use; and it helped keep people fit, too.

Today the bicycle is a mixed bag, usually with more negatives than positives. In many cities, bike lanes now consume more road space than they free up, they add to pollution as well as reducing it, they hurt neighbourhoods and business districts alike, and they have become a drain on the public purse. The bicycle today — or rather the infrastructure that now supports it — exemplifies “inappropriate technology,” a good idea gone wrong through unsustainable, willy-nilly top-down planning.

London, where former mayor Boris Johnston began a “cycling revolution,” shows where the road to ruin can lead. Although criticism of biking remains largely taboo among the city’s elite, a bike backlash is underway, with many blaming the city’s worsening congestion on the proliferation of bike lanes. While bikes have the luxury of zipping through traffic using dedicated lanes that are vastly underused most of the day — these include what Transport for London (TfL) calls “cycle superhighways” — cars have been squeezed into narrowed spaces that slow traffic to a crawl.

Cars have been squeezed into narrowed spaces that slow traffic to a crawl

As a City of London report acknowledged last year, “The most significant impact on the City’s road network in the last 12 months has been the construction and subsequent operation of TfL’s cycle super highway … areas of traffic congestion can frequently be found on those roads.” As Lord Nigel Lawson put it in a parliamentary debate on bicycles, cycle lanes have done more damage to London than “almost anything since the Blitz.”

As a consequence of the idling traffic, pollution levels have risen, contributing to what is now deemed a toxic stew. Ironically, cyclists are especially harmed, and not just because the bike lanes they speed upon are adjacent to tailpipes. According to a study by the London School of Medicine, cyclists have 2.3 times more inhaled soot than walkers because “cyclists breathe more deeply and at a quicker rate than pedestrians while in closer proximity to exhaust fumes … Our data strongly suggest that personal exposure to black carbon should be considered when planning cycling routes.” Cyclists have begun wearing facemasks as a consequence. A recent headline in The Independent helpfully featured “5 best anti-pollution masks for cycling.” Neighbourhoods endure extra pollution, too, with frustrated autos cutting through residential districts to avoid bike-bred congestion.

Health and safety costs aside — per kilometre travelled, cyclist fatalities are eight times that of motorists — the direct economic burden associated with cycling megaprojects is staggering. Paris, which boasts of its plan to become the “cycling capital of the world,” is in the midst of a 150-million-euro cycling scheme. Melbourne has a $100-million plan. Amsterdam — a flat, compact city well suited to cycling — is spending 120 million euros on 9,000 new bicycle parking spots alone. Where cold weather reigns for much of the year, as is the case in many of Canada’s cities, the cost-benefit case for cycling infrastructure is eviscerated further.

If roads were tolled, no cyclist could bear the burden he foists on society

The indirect costs of cycling also loom large because cycling lanes typically displace lanes that formerly accommodated street parking, especially outside rush-hour periods. Businesses that rely on street parking for their customers are often bitter at seeing their sales gutted. Cities not only lose revenue from street parking, they also lose revenue from public transit because — anecdotally, at least — people are switching to bikes more from public transit than from cars. And because the demand for parking hasn’t vanished, cities now find themselves levelling buildings on main streets and side streets in favour of parking lots. In effect, the varied uses to which the lanes adjacent to the sidewalk were once put — for car and bike traffic during rush hour and for parking benefitting delivery vehicles, local businesses and their patrons at other times — has devolved into a single-function piece of under-used pavement.

In a user-pay or market economy, where users pay for the services they consume, bicycle lanes would be non-starters outside college campuses and other niche settings. If roads were tolled to recover the cost of asphalt and maintenance, no cyclist could bear the burden he foists on society. The cyclist has been put on the dole, made a taker rather than a giver to society.

Some of the bike backlash — resentment at the privileged position of cyclists, who are notorious for flouting the rules of the road without contributing their fair share — manifests itself as economic penalty. Oregon, which has a high proportion of cyclists, recently became the first state to levy a sales tax on new bicycles, even though Oregon has no general sales tax. Legislators “felt that bicycles ought to contribute to the system,” explained a state senator who co-wrote the bill, expressing a sentiment widely held across the continent.

The most telling opposition to cyclists, though, may be cultural. They are often seen as an entitled, smug and affected minority. In the U.K., cyclists are mocked as “mamils” (middle-aged men in Lycra); in U.S. inner cities they’re seen as the preserve of “white men with white-collar jobs” furthering gentrification. Almost everywhere they’re seen as discourteous, and as threats to the safety of pedestrians. At least two cities in the U.K. have banned cyclists from their city centres and just this month the government of New South Wales in Australia decided to ban bikes (but not automobiles, motorcycles, trucks or trams) on a popular Sydney street that had been a bike commuter route. The government explained it wants the street to become conducive to pedestrians. Other street bans important to Sydney’s downtown are in the works.

City politicians around the world are in a race to make their cities “bike-friendly.” The more they succeed, the nastier things will get.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.

Further Reading

Here comes ‘bike-lash’
Roy Exum, December 6, 2017, Chattanoogan.com

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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One Response to Lawrence Solomon: How cities made a huge mistake in promoting cycling

  1. Paul says:

    Interesting article, although I feel it is mis-titled. Rather than “How cities made a huge mistake in promoting cycling”, the essence of your argument appears to be “Cities made a huge mistake in HOW they promote cycling”.

    Separating the question of whether cycling is objectively a valuable part of the transport mix from the benefits and drawbacks of cycling infrastructure, I think you make a compelling case that – in many instances – the drawbacks of cycling infrastructure can outweigh the benefits. This does not undermine the value of cycling, however, which remains a healthy and environmentally sustainable alternative to individual motoring.

    Relating the conversation to Toronto, specifically, your charge that cyclists do not pay adequately for their place on our roads network is – I think – unjustified. Roads are paid for mostly from household taxation, which the vast majority of Toronto cyclists pay either directly or as tenants within the city. Contrast this to car drivers who pay some small additional taxation on their vehicles and fuel, but (particularly at peak hours) include a high proportion of out-of-town users commuting from outside Toronto who, consequently, contribute much less to the upkeep of Toronto’s city streets than local cyclists.

    As a resident of Toronto who drives, motorcycles, cycles and walks in the City, I would be perfectly happy to see a reversal of the current rollout of cycle lanes. Indeed, for my daily journey between Dufferin and Carlaw, I routinely choose to use Dundas – primarily because it mostly lacks a cycle lane, avoiding the congestion and dangerous crowding of bicycles that occurs in summer months on streets such as College or – worst of all – Bloor. Other, less invasive, infrastructure investments would yield far more benefit, in my opinion, including fixing potholes in the kerbside area.

    If dedicated cycle infrastructure is not the answer – how then to promote cycling within the transport mix? Surely the answer must include training – for both car drivers and cyclists – and some cost-free adjustments to regulation.

    Most car drivers downtown are pretty good at leaving cyclists adequate space. Some are not, and this must be addressed, including with appropriate penalties for dangerous and intimidatory behavior. Conversely, I daily see cyclists continuing up the right hand side of vehicles waiting and signalling to turn right with a blithe sense of entitlement. Building cyclists’ awareness – and confidence – to move out and pass such vehicles on the left would remove a primary cause of both accidents and (justifiable) anger from drivers who are prevented from turning during during the short available break in crossing pedestrians by a procession of inconsiderate cyclists.

    The charge that cyclists flout traffic laws has some truth, but fails to recognize that those laws – particularly lights and stops – were created primarily to manage the flow of motor vehicles. Stop signs are a case in point: multiple stop signs down a residential street prevents cars travelling down it at a steady 40 – 50 kph; requiring a cycle travelling at about 15 kph – with much better view into side streets – to stop at every empty junction is unnecessary and unreasonable. Explicitly recasting Stop signs as Yield for cycles, and Red lights as Stops, would allow cycles to move safely and quickly, and – when properly communicated – should reduce driver anger at cyclists “breaking the rules”.

    As Sartre observed “Hell is other people”. Living in a city requires restraint, consideration and sharing of inevitably scarce resources. Building these skills of understanding and behaviour matters more than paint on the roads!

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