Ignore false claims and bad journalism – most LTNs do reduce traffic | Andrew Gilligan

Objections to active travel infrastructures are now picking and choosing data to fit the narrative

I’m starting to wonder if anyone is ever going to make an honest argument against cycling and walking infrastructure again. They do exist. People used to say things like “I want to drive and park wherever I like”, or “why should cyclists and pedestrians inconvenience my much more important car journey?”.

Those are still the basic objections, but these days most prominent opponents realise that it sounds a bit politically incorrect. You need some higher public interest ground, however shaky, to pitch your tent on.

With low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), which use motor traffic restrictions to boost walking and cycling, the top choice used to be claiming that they increase pollution. But that has now been so thoroughly debunked that it’s losing its magic.

So a new variant appeared recently in the Times, claiming that “councils that implemented LTNs during the pandemic have seen bigger increases in car use than boroughs that did not”.

This was based on adding up the total increase in traffic returning after Covid across “10 inner London boroughs that introduced LTNs in 2020” (11.4%) and comparing it with the total increase in “two inner London boroughs that did not implement LTNs in 2020” (8.9%).

In a leader, the paper cited its “investigation” as evidence that LTNs were an “expensive and infuriating failure”.

The two inner boroughs that didn’t introduce new LTNs were Westminster and Kensington. There’s a completely obvious reason, nothing to do with LTNs, for why traffic return has been less in those two. They are central.

In the working-from-home era, central London’s office-based economy and traffic hasn’t recovered as much as elsewhere. The Times didn’t mention this. It didn’t even name the two boroughs, perhaps to stop readers working it out for themselves.

Look at each borough, rather than adding small numbers of them selectively together, and the “investigation” seems even more problematic. The lowest rise in traffic in London post-Covid (4%) was in Newham, which implemented five new LTNs. The second lowest (7.7%) was in that paragon of cycling, stuffed full of LTNs, Waltham Forest.

By contrast, the third highest rise in traffic (14.4%) was in Bromley, which created no LTNs. The highest of all (16.1%) was in Harrow, where a handful were installed but quickly removed. Could this be why the paper overlooked all these – and, indeed, 20 of the 32 boroughs?

There is good data that most, though not all, LTNs do reduce traffic – both within the scheme area and, after a lag, on the roads immediately around it, because fewer people make short local journeys by car.

And as you won’t have read in the Times, across London the average rise in traffic post-pandemic was in fact exactly the same in boroughs that installed and kept LTNs as it was in boroughs which never did them, or ended them quickly, at 11.1%.

Such borough-wide data is of limited use anyway – most schemes have been done on too small a scale to have impacts across the whole. Saying all that, though, would have damaged the claim the Times was trying to push.

The antis’ other favourite pseudo public interest argument is also under strain. To argue, as some do, that cycling is a middle-class conspiracy against the poor, you have to ignore that poor people are less likely to drive – and that cycling is cheap.

But poor people (and, of course, many other people) do use buses. Aha! Great! We can claim bike lanes delay buses! Or we can claim, in the words of the long-term anti-bike infrastructure campaigner Vincent Stops, that “the cycle lobby has been allowed to ruin London’s bus service” and that segregated bike tracks have “swung a wrecking ball at bus journey times”.

The article cites no evidence, again perhaps because the evidence says something quite different.

Taking the most recent three months of 2022, average bus speeds in Westminster and Camden – the boroughs with the greatest amount of segregated bike lane – are precisely the same now as they were in the same periods of 2013, before construction on the lanes started.

If that’s a wrecking ball, I’d be asking my demolition contractor for a refund. The claim that 12 miles of segregated superhighway can have “ruined” a bus network running on almost 2,000 miles of road is obviously wrong, too.

The article gets one thing right: overall average bus speeds across London have indeed fallen. But here’s what it leaves out. That decline is largely due to huge drops in outer boroughs with no meaningful bike infrastructure at all. Bromley and Havering, for instance, have seen bus speeds fall by up to 6.3% since 2013.

As I mentioned, traffic in central London is still not all the way back to pre-Covid levels. Speeds did drop in the centre after 2013, before recovering. But even on a pre-pandemic comparison (between 2013 and 2019), bus speeds fell more sharply in outer boroughs than in central ones. So could it perhaps be that buses are delayed not by bike lanes but by the growth in motorised traffic?

It is very telling that opponents so often have to mislead to make their case. But that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. And if left unchallenged, it can enter the political bloodstream.

So what active travel now needs is a network of people to scrutinise, swiftly unpick and publicly rebut false claims and bad journalism – and to complain to the offenders, who tend to be the same few people. That has been rather effective in reducing propaganda campaigns on other subjects, and making news outlets think twice before publishing slanted stories. How about it, folks?

• Andrew Gilligan was London’s cycling commissioner from 2013-16, and was a transport adviser to Boris Johnson in Downing Street.


Andrew Gilligan

The GuardianTramp

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