Fact check: Bike lanes don't cause congestion

Macquarie Dictionary labelled "fake news" as the word(s) of the decade, but who would have thought it would burden the bike community? A recent exposé by Peter Walker in The Guardian detailed just how a nasty myth linking bike lanes to congestion escaped into the wild. 

The claim

London is the world's most congested city, and bicycle lanes are to blame. 

The perpetrator

The Global Traffic Scorecard by a company called Inrix, and quotes from an employee called Peter Lees.

The myth buster

When The Guardian's Peter Walker came across this claim, he instantly smelt fish. It didn't take much research to uncover that these claims were dodgy.

The first problem was the claim of London being the world’s most congested city, a list London had never appeared on in any previous studies. When Mr Walker got hold of the report, he noticed it doesn’t list a single city in Asia or Africa. This wasn’t a global study, it was one based on where the company who conducted the report, Inrix, happened to operate.

The second claim, that bike lanes are responsible, was even more puzzling. The source of this claim came from Inrix employee Peter Lees in an interview by PA Media.

“Use of roads is all about supply and demand,” he said. “If the demand goes up but the road space is being shared with other forms of transport, there’s less tarmac effectively for the cars to be on, which then has an impact on the speeds on the road and therefore congestion," Lees claimed.

Mr Walker rebuts:

"There are two problems with this, the first and more pressing being that it shows a fairly worrying ignorance about the fundamentals of traffic. I don’t wish to rehash many decades of research, but the basics are that you can’t liken traffic to water, with the width of the pipe determining how much can flow. Traffic is very different, as shown countless times through the idea of induced demand.

"The second problem is that even the Global Traffic Scorecard doesn’t make this argument. Cycle lanes do not even get a mention in its 21 pages. So where did it come from?

"Seemingly, it was straight from Lees, who was interviewed by PA Media, the news agency. PA included them on Sunday in an embargoed story, which was then picked up by the other outlets."

And so the fake news cycle began...

Daily Mail: "Cycle lanes installed at start of Covid pandemic help make London most congested city in world"

BBC London: “Cycle lanes blamed as city named most congested”

And it seems to have made it all the way Down Under, with Melbourne Councillor Roshena Campbell halting Melbourne's roll out of bike lanes with similar congestion concerns, demanding an independent transport review, as reported by:

The Age: "Warning of traffic delays in city as bike lanes rolled out"

The Herald Sun: "City of Melbourne bike lane expansion project under review"

Needless to say the review was completed by Deloitte, the review backed City of Melbourne’s transport strategy and construction was back on a week later.

But, why?

The Guardian article touches on a few theories without making any bold accusations. One of potential incompetence, pointing out that the quoted "Inrix operations director" Peter Lees is in fact the "Director of operations - media" – a press guy, not a traffic expert.

His gaff in the interview may have been innocent, before being picked up by the controversy-seeking media machine.

But Mr Walker also points out that Inrix is a company that makes its money from the auto industry, and is partly owned by Porsche, and could be trying to get some free PR by publicizing its research in arguably questionable terms. 

Regardless, a harmful myth has escaped into the wild, and we will no doubt be hearing about it for many years to come. 

Please feel free to check out Peter Walker's Guardian article here, and share it whenever you stumble across the myth at large. 

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