How a myth about London bike lanes and congestion took off

Fairly early on Monday morning last week I got a call from a radio station: could I come on to discuss a study showing London is the world’s most congested city, and this is because of cycle lanes. Hang on, I replied – say all that again?

As it turned out, I never appeared (someone else got the part). But, intrigued, I looked into the research which supposedly showed all this. And that was when things started to get strange.

Both claims: London being the world’s most congested city, and cycle lanes being part of the problem – were all over the media that morning. This included outlets you would expect (Daily Mail: “Cycle lanes installed at start of Covid pandemic help make London most congested city in world”) and some you’d hope better of (BBC London: “Cycle lanes blamed as city named most congested”).

And yet … both arguments were seemingly nonsense. They were based on a report called the Global Traffic Scorecard by a company called Inrix, which sells traffic data.

The first problem was the claim of London being the world’s most traffic-clogged city, a position no similar ranking has ever given it. One clue came when I got hold of the report – it doesn’t even list a single city in Asia or Africa. This wasn’t a global study, it was one based on where Inrix happens to operate.

Even more of a puzzle was the idea of cycle lanes being at least partly responsible. The papers carried the same quotes, from an Inrix employee called Peter Lees.

“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.”

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.

The PA story identified Lees as the “Inrix operations director” but his official title is actually “director of operations – media”. He’s head of press, not a traffic wonk.

How did all this happen? Inrix and Lees have been somewhat coy. After several emails last week, Lees said he could answer queries in writing, which I sent. But despite several followups, all I got was digital tumbleweed.

One slight plot twist came in a tweet which reprinted a reply from Lees to an Imperial College London scientist querying the findings. The No 1 ranking for London, Lees said, “indicates a positive economic rebound [from Covid] for the UK”. Cycle lanes were mentioned among “much smaller contributory factors”. Some of the headlines were “not accurately representing what we said”.

Without wanting to get too Hercule Poirot, I think we have a plausible sequence of events here. A company that makes its money from the auto industry, and which is part owned by Porsche, tries to get some free PR by publicising its research in arguably questionable terms.

The head of media does an interview and floats the extra, newsworthy theory. Was this a planned ruse? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Either way, we have a pair of myths escaped into the wild, where they will lurk for years, turning up occasionally as evidence in the weird culture war against cycling. Already one has appeared: a Sunday Telegraph article this weekend arguing against low-traffic neighbourhoods confidently named London as the world’s most congested city.

What can we do? Not much, I supposed, except simply, and yet again, observe the depressing and slippery slope from press release to news story to unkillable myth when it comes to cycling stories. I’d like to think some people would learn lessons from this debacle. But I’m not exactly confident.

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