"You are traffic"

Drivers want to blame bike lanes for causing congestion, but they really should look in the mirror to see the problem.


CC BY 2.0 Albert Bridge on Geograph

One of the first actions Rob Ford did when elected mayor of Toronto was to rip out a new bike lane, because the people just north of the street were going to supposedly be five minutes later for dinner. No matter that the accident rate had dropped because the confusion was gone, or that bike usage tripled; you can't mess with people rushing home for dinner. There is no evidence that they are getting home more quickly now that the lane is gone.

Now in San Francisco, they are having a similar debate, where a new bike lane is, according to the Chronicle, "making life misery for teachers just trying to get to work." Peter Flax of writes in Bicycling that "this controversy over one bike lane shows everything that's wrong with American car culture."

This is how efforts to build safe and convenient places for cyclists are demonized—as something that screws up the lives of motorists struggling to get somewhere important. This is how American car culture operates in 2020, when record numbers of cyclists are killed by drivers and efforts to do something about it are viewed as impractical and an attack on the driving public’s way of life.

In Toronto it was the hard-working moms in Leaside store struggling to get home to feed their kids. In San Francisco, Flax writes: "I presume teachers were picked as the focal point because they seem like sympathetic, unimpeachable victims."

And really, the drivers didn't even lose a car lane; it was a conversion of an empty shoulder. The real problem is that there is just too much traffic, up 28 percent in the last decade.

The congestion on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge (and roadways in every U.S. city) can really suck. But it doesn’t suck because of cyclists or bike lanes. The traffic sucks because of sprawl and cheap gas and Americans’ love of cars. The traffic sucks because cities and states don’t put enough effort into housing, carpooling, telecommuting, micromobility, and financial tools like congestion pricing (in which motorists pay a modest surcharge to use roads at busy times, a tactic that has decreased traffic in European cities). These systemic problems—less suited to cranky populist headlines—are the real cause of traffic.

Peter Flax ends with the classic line:

You’re not in traffic, you are traffic.

This is the problem almost everywhere, and it has been shown that the bike lanes can, in fact, fix congestion, as Peter Walker writes in the Guardian:

And that’s the paradox at the heart of all this – cycling is one of the few easy wins for policymakers. Give over a small amount of road space for proper bike lanes and, as city after city has shown, more people cycle, thus freeing up space for cars and trucks.

They also help reduce pollution; In Montreal, a study found a 2 percent reduction in greenhouse gases because more people rode bikes after the bike lanes were put in. In New York, putting in the 14th street bus lane didn't increase traffic on other streets; it kind of disappeared. This is a phenomenon that Andrew Gilligan, cycling commissioner under Mayor Boris Johnson, has described:

Some people think traffic is like rainwater and the roads are the drains for it. If you narrow the pipe, they say, it will flood. If you block one road, they say, the same amount of traffic will simply spill over to the nearest easiest routes. But in real life, once the builders have finished, the spill never actually happens. The pipe doesn’t flood; some of the water goes away instead. Because traffic isn’t a force of nature. It’s a product of human choices. If you make it easier and nicer for people not to drive, more people will choose not to drive.

Peter Flax really summarizes the issue: "There are decades of research on this topic, and the only way to effectively reduce traffic is to reduce the number of cars on the road." We do that by providing safe, secure and dependable alternatives like frequent transit and good bike infrastructure. With the coming micromobility boom, the latter will be even more critical.