Why cycle lanes are Clean Air Day’s friend

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Why cycle lanes are Clean Air Day’s friend

It’s Clean Air Day today, and we’re celebrating bike lanes. Cycling UK’s campaigns information officer, Cherry Allan explains why.

Last week, Cycling UK's head of campaigns, Duncan Dollimore didn’t have to look far to find six citable reasons for building bike lanes

And, this week, we’re offering a seventh, saved especially for Clean Air Day: if you want cleaner air, cycle lanes will help.

Why wouldn’t they, indeed? Dedicated, well-designed space makes cycling easier, and feel safer, adding to its appeal as an alternative to driving which, as we all very well know, churns out volumes of nasty substances that most of us breathe into our lungs.

Only just now, I read that ‘air pollution particles in young brains linked to Alzheimer’s damage’. The nanoparticles under suspicion are, it seems “metal-rich” and match the “shape and chemical composition of those produced by traffic, through combustion and braking friction.”

That, along with other, ever-stacking academic evidence, strongly suggests to me that we really ought to be tackling motor traffic and its toxic emissions square on.

What would never occur to me, however, is criticising lanes dedicated to zero emission vehicles for dirtying our air instead.

But it has occurred to some journalists and members of the House of Lords, even. And to one lord, Professor Robert Winston, in particular. 

Of course, no lord or journalist can rationally claim that strips of the roadway carrying nothing but non-polluting vehicles can possibly pollute anything directly. No, their argument is this: cycle lanes squash motor traffic into less space, make it crawl, congest, idle and, in doing so, emit more nastiness than it does in free-flow conditions.

By their logic, you must no longer tempt people out of motor vehicles by dedicating road space to cycling; you have no choice but to make it easier for road users to pollute than not pollute; and you’ve just got to give damaging nanoparticles and their horrible chemical counterparts the freedom of your city and, by easing things, encourage them to multiply through induced demand.  

But, before we decide whether that’s a sensible policy, let’s see if bike lanes are, or are not; exercising a detrimental impact on journey times for motor vehicles, causing congestion, facilitating clean travel in cities.

In other words, are cycle lanes the clean air campaigner’s friend or enemy?

What have cycle lanes ever done for clean air?

Helpfully, Transport for London assessed both the East West and North South Cycle Superhighways in 2017.

From monitoring data, they concluded that: "central London segregated cycle lanes are moving five times more people per square metre than the main carriageway, with East West Cycle Superhighway seeing a more than 50% increase the total mileage cycled.”

A later assessment showed that the East West Cycle Superhighway between Parliament Square and Tower Hill observed “further improvements to the motorised vehicles journey times”.

Researchers who trawled 20 cities for evidence on the impact that various measures to support walking and cycling had, on the flow of motorised traffic, found that “In ten of the 20 cases, congestion was reduced, in eight cases, the measure did not affect congestion or no effect could be measured. Only two cases showed a slight increase in vehicle congestion.”

The measures they investigated ranged from cycling infrastructure, to congestion charging, but new bike lanes in New York were amongst those that had a positive impact on motor vehicle flow, along with a cycle highways in The Netherlands and Germany.

Fair enough, constructing the lanes in the first place may cause disruption – that’s inevitable whatever you do to the road layout – but once operating, cycle lanes increase the peak-time carrying capacity of the road network significantly and, patently, they do so in a benign, clean and healthy fashion.

Also, anyone regularly stationed in proximity to a roadside and thus exposed to excess health risks from nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants, will be grateful for any buffer built between them and the source, doubly so if some of the polluters start riding along the buffer themselves. 

Supporting cycle lanes and Clean Air Day

It's very considerate of any lord or journalist to worry about air quality, but scowling at cycle lanes through their windscreens and lambasting them publicly isn’t a very robust way of doing anything about it.

A far more effective approach is to give them a good press for their positive contributions to air quality and, if at all possible, to ride their towns and cities by bike, as happy at the thought of more cycle lanes as most of the residents in twelve UK cities, even when this means less room for other traffic.

A good press for cycle lanes is, in fact, something you can help with too, either proactively, or in response to any letters from cycle lane detractors that appear in your local paper. 

Not only are we backing an air quality winner here, but also in the mood to fight all bike lane bikelash and its nonsense; and so can you.

Clean Air Day and beyond deserves it.

Six reasons why we need cycle lanes
Six reasons why we need cycle lanes

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