Blog: Feeling congested?

Steve Rose


Hidden small on page 15 of my Sunday paper was a story that caught my eye. Some Lord or other has asked for a tax on bicycles in London to make up for the extra pollution they cause because, since squeezing hundreds of miles of main roads to create cycle lanes, traffic speeds have slowed, congestion has increased and so, he reckons that air pollution has increased too.

It’s plainly a daft argument, but there is some reason in what he’s saying and it matters because other councils are doing the same thing.

The last time I rode in London I was shocked at how narrow some of the main roads feel. The easy room where motorcycles could previously filter has vanished, partly because cars are perpetually getting wider, also because the roads have been narrowed in many places.

At first I thought I was imagining it but a recent conversation with a long-term motorcycle lobbyist confirmed that Transport for London (TfL) has made it a policy to reduce the width of some roads in order to deliberately reduce the space for motorcycles to filter as a way of reducing accidents.

In many cases this has been done by building cycle lanes. So, the bicycles have taken our space. Except they haven’t, for most of the day. I saw more motorcycles sat in traffic than I ever remember in London, while the cycle lanes (this was late morning) were virtually empty.

I love cycling and, if I lived in London, I’d probably pedal too, but surely there’s a better way to manage urban transport than this. One solution is passive, but mass disruption - the kind of thing they are so good at in France. A few years back a colleague suggested a ‘drive-to-work’ day, when all motorcyclists who usually ride to work, take the car instead and demonstrate just how bad congestion would be if we didn’t ride. Great idea, but none of us would actually get to work that day or be able to park if we did.

What might work instead would be a ‘no-filter’ day, once a week where every rider in major cities just sat in line and clogged up the roads that way. It has to be something that demonstrates just how much worse congestion would be if motorcyclists didn’t help out by not causing queues on every urban road.

And there’s a good reason for all of us to cut congestion apart from just the time we lose waiting in traffic.

In the same newspaper there was an article about air pollution and how government worry has shifted to now include particulates, predominantly from diesel cars. If you’ve been riding bikes for the last 20 years you could have told them this. Don’t know about you but I noticed a long time back, how the salty sludge that caked my visor in winter has become a lot harder to shift since diesel took over our streets. Instead of wiping clean, my visor just smeared. Funnily enough, this was about the time that diesel cars were incentivised. I was convinced there was a link and, worried about what I might be breathing in for several hours a day, I took a sample of the visor goo and sent it to a mate who worked in a lab.

The results were inconclusive, but I’m still convinced that motorcyclists have been breathing in lungsful of poisonous particulates for years now.

Which makes it all the more galling that we have to sit in queues breathing in even more of the stuff, AND, from next year, we’ll have to pay the Ultra Low Emission Zone charge as well if our bikes are pre Euro 3 (which means mostly pre-2005).

The answer? I don’t know. Fewer diesels will help, as would smaller, lighter, less polluting cars. Size matters here because much of the toxicity is belched as the clutch goes out and engines strain to get a ton or more of diesel SUV rolling.

Imagine if Honda let Tadao Baba (the man who turned motorcycling on its head by making the FireBlade lighter, not faster) loose on their next CR-V? It’d be two thirds the size, half the weight and hopefully have small holes in the bonnet.

Instead we get more (heavy) hybrids, more electric vehicle promises and no long term thinking about how that particular future pans out.

Last month I rode the Yamaha Tricity, a three-wheel scooter that really does feel like the bike your mother always wanted you to ride. Safe, quick, nimble and bloody good value for the saviour of urban transport.

Try one, seriously...better still, park one outside County Hall in London and wait for the Mayor to come out so you can offer him a lift home.

In fact, if you’re reading this Mr Khan, please accept BikeSocial’s invitation to give you a lift through London on a Tricity so you can understand why bikes really do matter.