If you build it they will come

On the London Cyclist thread “is there anything super about the Cycle Superhighways?,” we hear Chinese whispers on the reason why TfL decided against making real superhighways and instead came up with the overpriced and failed PR exercise that are the blue lines on the side of the road:

“TfL said the routes are simply not being used frequently enough to warrant separation of traffic.”

and,

Boris, when asked why the Superhighways are not segregated, always says “There is just not room on London’s roads”.

Whether Boris used one or both of these excuses, he is wrong.  The reason he is wrong is Transport Economics 101 stuff — the sort of thing that even amateurs like us understand.  Simply, the demand for transport — and especially the demand for a specific mode of transport in an area with competing modes — is extremely flexible, and easily adjusts to supply.

People like to go places.  If you give them fast and affordable railways, they will jump on the train to the seaside.  If you give them fast and affordable roads, they will drive their car to work.  If you give them budget airlines, they will herd into planes to southern Europe.  A new transport mode releases latent demand: previously, though they would have liked to have gone somewhere, they chose not to because it was too difficult or expensive.  And it induces demand in other ways: a new road creates car journeys by allowing small local shops and services to be closed and merged into large centralised versions that people have little choice but to drive to, or by removing the incentive for efficient means of transporting goods, or by making it feasible to develop residential suburbs and new towns far from centres of employment, etc.

This is why in densely populated places like the UK, building a new road to solve one problem always creates another before long: the new road makes driving easier and cheaper, so more people drive and they drive further and more frequently, putting additional pressure on all the existing infrastructure surrounding the new road.  We could bulldoze corridors through the cities and pave the whole countryside, build ten times the road capacity that we currently have, and the road network would be just as overloaded as it is now.  This we already knew.

What is less well known is that the reverse is just as true.  Make it more difficult to drive somewhere and people will not drive there.  Make taxis sit in traffic jams instead of subsidising their industry by allowing them into bus lanes, and their fares will take the train instead.  Make it more expensive for goods vehicles to get into central London and the businesses and organisations that are based there will stop being so wasteful with goods.  Impose airport taxes on budget flights to the continent and people will realise that they can have an equally appalling stag night somewhere nearer home.

Take away a transport route and our remarkably robust network copes just fine.  A sudden emergency causes disruption because people aren’t expecting it; but sufficiently well publicised road works have a far more modest impact because people adjust their plans around them — take a different route, move their journey to an off-peak time, or do something else instead.  Permanently closing a whole road is even better tolerated still: such closures do not leave the surrounding roads gridlocked, at least, not in the long term.  People shift modes and shift behaviours; and eventually, all of the businesses and development patterns that had adjusted to a world in which everybody drove down that road will happily adjust back to one in which they don’t.

The amount of road space that we have now is essentially arbitrary: it could go up or down without making the slightest difference to the traffic jams its users moan about.

So it is not true that our streets are too small to accommodate dedicated cycling facilities.  Our streets are already too small, and will always be too small, to accommodate even a tenth of the potential for private motor-vehicle use, and we cope with that situation.  The road network copes with this situation because nine out of ten Londoners are quite aware of the fact that trying to drive a car through town is an absurd thing to do, and they don’t do it.  Taking away a little bit more will make a negligible difference because a few of the more stubborn Motorists will wake up to the fact and the volume of traffic will adjust accordingly.

And it’s not true that there is no demand for segregated facilities, and anybody who says there isn’t must be living in a fantasy land.  Pick a random non-cycling London commuter and ask them about cycling: more often than not they will tell you that would love to be able to replace their horrible bus journey with a bike ride.  But ninety-nine out of a hundred of them will tell you that they don’t do so because the roads aren’t safe, and there’s nothing to stop a truck driving into them.  Not because they’re afraid that they might get sweaty, or because it occasionally rains, or because they don’t know how to use a spanner, or because they’ve never heard of cycling before.  Entirely because there is no infrastructure that is perceived to be safe.  Cycling has a modal share at the lower end of single figures; it could plausibly account for a third or more of commutes.  Provide fast, capacious, sensible, joined-up and conspicuously safe infrastructure and you will unleash the vast latent demand for cycling.

If you build it they will come.  The only reason not to that Boris has left is to protect his credentials with the primarily non-London Motorist Tories who he will one day want to vote for him to be prime-minister.

–Joe

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7 responses to “If you build it they will come

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention If you build it they will come | At War With The Motorist -- Topsy.com

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  3. Pingback: AWWTM: If you build it they will come | Joe D

  4. Pingback: Fear of cycling | At War With The Motorist

  5. Such a good article, I completely agree.

  6. Pingback: Crap cycling and walking in car sick Glasgow | At War With The Motorist

  7. Thanks for making this important point that I rarely hear anywhere.

    “We could bulldoze corridors through the cities and pave the whole countryside, build ten times the road capacity that we currently have, and the road network would be just as overloaded as it is now. This we already knew.”

    Unfortunately this fact seems to pass road planners by, who continue to build new roads based on projected increases in traffic. Of course, if the new road space wasn’t built, there would be no way for the traffic to increase.

    Traffic is self regulating; we don’t need any more roads.

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