Space Invaders

The Head of Transport at the Institute of Economic Affairs, Richard Wellings, had this to say recently –

Wellings completed a PhD in transport and environmental policy at the LSE.

I am absolutely no fan of the Advanced Stop Line, or ASL, but the argument that they should be removed to make for ‘more efficient use of road space’ – i.e. space for one more car in a length-wise direction – disintegrates rapidly under inspection.

One of the reasons why ASLs at junctions are so ubiquitous in Britain is that they have a negligible effect on motor traffic capacity, or indeed even a beneficial effect, assuming that the number of cyclists remains the same in scenarios with and without an ASL.

 A TRL study on this topic (Wall et al 2003) found that in practice, sites given an ASL plus nearside feeder lane tended to see a slight increase in motor traffic throughput, as long as no motor vehicle lanes were removed. For those seeking to ‘balance all modes’, this is a free gift – extra space for cyclists without taking away space for motor vehicles.

The result is perhaps not surprising. If cyclists are more easily able to reach the ASL during red phases, they can quickly move out of the way of motor traffic, whereas if – as without an ASL – they’re distributed more randomly in the traffic queue, as they are less able to reach the front, the resulting delays to cars may in fact be slightly greater.

So Wellings’ argument is wrong even in its own terms – removing ASLs would actually likely worsen the efficiency of junctions with status quo mode share. Those ten people sitting on bikes in the ASL – apparently ‘inefficiently’ – would instead be dispersed at random amongst the queue of motor traffic, effectively taking up more space, and being more like, well, motor vehicles, rather than being released in one quick burst at the head of the queue.

But much more importantly, Wellings’ argument is also wrong from the perspective of a simple analysis of efficient use of road space. In this now widely-shared picture of the junction on Theobalds Road in London, there are 27 people on bikes taking up space that could be occupied by three cars, at most.


3 cars, or 27 bikes – what’s more efficient at shifting people, bearing in mind that average car occupancy in England is 1.5 people?

To take another way of looking at this (moving away from the dreaded ASL) – at this Dutch junction, there are ten people using the cycle infrastructure on the left.

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 21.26.10Would the occupants of those cars on the right hand side of the picture prefer to be 5-10 cars further back in the queue? Is that what ‘efficiency’ means?

I suspect part of Wellings’ problem here – and it is a broader problem with transport planning across Britain – is an inability to see cycling as a viable, serious mode of transport, that can function as an alternative to the car.

This perspective – perhaps we can call it the Wellings Perspective – sees cycling as some kind of minor annoyance on the existing road system, an annoyance it would probably be good to get rid of altogether. From the Wellings Perspective, ‘Cyclists’ are seen either as people who can’t afford cars (and who should be walking or getting the bus instead), or as leisure users, clogging up the network while engaging in their hobby. Of course, children cycle too, but we can tolerate them bimbling about on the pavement while their parents walk behind them.

Back in the real world, making changes to the road network that will enable many people to cycle instead of using cars for short trips, therefore freeing up space on the road network for all users, is simple good policy, that is now being grasped by Transport for London as well as by government ministers (and by implication the DfT itself) –

I know one of the common complaint is that there simply isn’t enough space available on our roads for cycling infrastructure.

My response is that there simply isn’t enough room not to put it into place.

But from the Wellings Perspective, these kinds of changes make no sense, because they involve impeding serious, actual transport – i.e. cars – for the sake of a few weirdos and hobbyists.

The Wellings Perspective is apparently unable to grasp that ‘a cyclist’ isn’t some ‘extra’ problem on the road network, that has to somehow be fitted in around drivers (or better yet eradicated altogether). Instead ‘a cyclist’ is someone who could have been driving instead. 

To take just one concrete example.

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 22.08.02

All these children cycling and walking home from primary schools across a main road in the Dutch city of Assen – literally, hundreds of them – could be framed as ‘a delay to motorists’, because they’re holding them up as they cross the road. But in reality, due to the fact that they are walking and cycling home, rather than being ferried by car and therefore adding more motorists onto the road network, they are reducing delay to motorists.

This is so simple I can’t quite believe I’ve had to type it – but there you go. Sometimes things have to be explained to ‘Heads of Transport’ at economic think tanks.

This brings me to something Rachel Aldred has also written – in this case, about cars on the road network as ‘positional goods’

There are many items that are what economists call ‘positional goods’ – a key benefit of the object is derived from having something that others don’t, something that is either physically or socially scarce. Fashion largely works on this basis. The opposite is the Internet. If I have the Internet, and virtually no one else does, it’s rubbish – the benefit of the Internet comes from everyone using – and often, contributing to – it. But if I buy a new and expensive pair of shoes, and see many other people wearing them, I’m not going to be happy. Part of what I’m paying for is the hope that you don’t have the shoes.

But motor vehicles take positional goods to a new level. Having a new pair of shoes doesn’t entitle me to kick others off the street. Cars, on the other hand, marginalise non-users not just socially but also physically.

As Rachel goes on to explain, it was the car as a positional good that essentially caused a collapse in cycling levels in Britain. Previously quiet lanes, streets and roads on which most people could happily cycle became increasingly hostile as the use of cars spread, too hostile for these ordinary people, leaving the tiny hardened minority willing to continue cycling on the motor traffic-dominated road network.

But there is another obvious aspect to the car as a positional good. Car driving is attractive in relation to the number of other people who are not engaging in it. Here’s a definition lifted from, err, the Institute of Economic Affairs

Positional goods… have a peculiar property: the utility their consumers derive from them is inversely related to the number of people who can access them.

Naturally, if everybody drove, for every trip, then the value of driving would diminish rapidly, particularly in urban areas. (Indeed, the value of urban areas themselves would diminish rapidly).

Driving is not much fun when everyone else is doing it.

Driving is not much fun when everyone else is doing it.

By contrast, the early days of motoring must have been glorious by comparison – roads relatively free from other motorists, in the most part.

What I am driving at here (excuse the pun) is that the quality of the driving experience actually depends on large numbers of people not driving. One might even go so far as to say that the urban motorist is to some extent a freeloader; his or her driving convenience is actually purchased thanks to other people’s willingness to walk, to cycle, or to take public transport – often in less than ideal, or hostile, British conditions.

Drivers don’t even have to be moving – precisely the same logic applies to high-street parking. Setting aside the fact that this will involve the use of street space that could be allocated to walking, seating, dining, (or bus lanes or cycling infrastructure), the ready availability of on-street parking again depends upon other people not using it to access high street shops and services. That empty space is only there because of those people walking or cycling past it.

An empty car parking space on a high street in Utrecht. Note also the huge numbers of parked bicycles here; every single one represents less pressure on a car parking space.

An empty car parking space on a high street in Utrecht, behind people accessing shops and services by bike and on foot. Note also the huge numbers of parked bicycles here. Every single one represents less pressure on a car parking space.

Noisy, dangerous, unpleasant, and hostile streets and roads that are confusing and awkward to navigate – even for motorists – are a natural consequence of futile attempts to accommodate more and more driving and parking, and a failure to realise that sensible transport policy relies upon enabling and prioritising the most space-efficient modes, for the benefit of all, including those using the least space-efficent.

We arrived in this position, I suspect, largely through ‘boiling a frog‘ – streets that had always been open to all became increasingly colonised by motor traffic, but at such a gradual pace few thought to stop and question what the actual end point was going to be, and at a time when the answer to streets becoming clogged was to devote more and more urban space to the mode of transport that was causing the problem.

SIngle-occupancy vehicles. Efficient?

SIngle-occupancy vehicles, most undoubtedly making short trips within Horsham. Efficient?

Is this use of road space (indeed, of urban space in our town centres) a sensible way of moving people around for trips of under 2-3 miles?

The outcomes could be so much better for everyone, drivers included, if we stopped focusing on ‘cyclists’ as some kind of impediment to motoring, and instead realised that cycling should be a serious mode of transport like any other, and should be developed as a safe and attractive alternative for those people driving.

Around a hundred people cycling, in a matter of seconds, across a 'simultaneous green' junction in Gouda

Around a hundred people cycling (in a matter of seconds) across a ‘simultaneous green’ junction in Gouda

Prioritising such an efficient mode of transport would free up time and space on the road network for those travelling around in cars.

Perversely it might even restore some of motoring’s positional value.

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29 Responses to Space Invaders

  1. livinginabox says:

    “Wellings’ argument is also wrong from the perspective of a simple analysis of efficient use of road space. In this now widely-shared picture of the junction on Theobalds Road in London, there are 27 people on bikes taking up space that could be occupied by three cars, at most.”
    The photograph is broad visual confirmation of the established principle that: “The space consumption of a cyclist was calculated to be only 8% of the space consumption of a car.” (The exact meaning of this quote is uncertain. I can imagine a number of possibilities.) [This quote is from: Page 24 of
    Source: UPI report Heidelberg 1989, cited by EC DGXI [14].

    This leads to:
    14. EC DGXI (1999) Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities. Directorate General XI,
    European Commission, Brussels, Belgium.

    It is cited in “TRANSPORT AND LAND TAKE” – A report for CPRE by John Whitelegg Eco-Logica Ltd October 1994.

    I believe the original source is this (I haven’t read it):
    Social costs of road transport: cost-coverage in 1987 and proposals for implementing the polluter pays principle
    Gesellschaftliche Kosten des Straßengüterverkehrs : Kosten-Deckungsgrad im Jahr 1987 und Vorschläge zur Realisierung des Verursacherprinzips
    Dieter Teufel …
    Year of Publication: 1989
    Contributors: Teufel, Dieter
    Publisher: Heidelberg
    Physical Description: 68 S. : graph. Darst
    Series: UPI-Bericht ; 14
    Language: German
    Subjects: Straßengüterverkehr | Road freight transport | Soziale Kosten | Social costs | Umwelthaftung | Environmental liability | Deutschland | Germany | 1987
    One cannot help but be reminded of this:
    Johnathan Swift noted: You cannot reason a man out of an opinion into which he was not reasoned to begin with.
    Upton Sinclair famously noted:
    It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

    • meltdblog says:

      I came up with slightly less optimistic numbers, but still showing large factors of efficiency for bicycles over cars:
      But mixing cars and bicycles at high speeds (above 40km/h, 25mph) does disadvantage the car users.

    • Andy R says:

      I don’t see that this is particularly contentious. The often decried Passenger Car Unit equivalent value of a cyclist, 0.2, which some people seem to think denigrates cyclists, making them less important than cars, actually acknowledges that they are that much more space efficient.

      If a 3m wide lane has a capacity of roughly 1800pcu/hr it can handle either 1800 cars in an hour (about 2700 people at an avg. occupancy of 1.5), or only 783 HGVs, or a massive 9000 people on bikes. If I’m assessing a signalised junction for capacity then give me as many cyclists as possible.

      (Of course that 9000 is a low estimate since 1800pcu/hr works out to one car every 2 seconds – the recommended minimum spacing between cars for safety – bikes, or rather people on bikes, don’t need such rigid separation from each other).

  2. livinginabox says:

    Many excellent points. Especially the boiling a frog metaphor.

  3. lorenzo3249 says:

    Yes, unbelievable shortsightedness from Mr Wellings, and an excellent destruction of his arguments.

    I’m slightly reminded of this:-

    • Tim says:

      That’s a great article! – “My drive to work is unbelievable. I spend more than two hours stuck in 12 lanes of traffic. It’s about time somebody did something to get some of these other cars off the road.”

  4. jerryash says:

    A great post, as ever. What I’d be interested to know more about is whether your efforts, and those of the Rachel’s, Bez’s, Ranty’s, Mark’s, Carlton’s, Hembrow’s etc are ever read by, and reacted to, by the influential people they’re aimed at? As you say, the arguments and benefits of cycling are so absolutely clear cut, and powerfully made across your blog and elsewhere, that it’s about time people like Richard Wellings were being won over. Genuinely interested, and keen to play a part. Do things ever get sent to land on people’s desks, or does the engagement generally happen, if at all, via Twitter?

  5. A good post. I’m constantly amazed by the belief both Wellings and KP seem to hold, whereby today I’m a hard working person whose journey is vital (I took the subsidised train and bus to work), whereas yesterday I was merely a freeloader whose journey was unimportant.
    The fact that when I cycle I arrive at work more alert and happy, and am thus more productive, appears to have bypassed Wellings.

  6. Wellings doesn’t ride a bike and probably never will. I like the bit about positional goods – cars should be rare, then they would be great. We have Ford to thank for making the car something for every man. Imagine if someone had tried to do that for flying planes? Legislation took care of that. If anything, the only mode of transport that shouldn’t be riddled with laws, licences and restrictions IS the bike.

  7. ORiordan says:

    I have an idea that I am sure Wellings would applaud as an example of the free market and rolling back the frontiers of the state – privatising speed cameras. For example, a group of local residents could obtain a camera for their street and use the proceeds to improve the street and maybe even to increase their income.

    Somehow I don’t think he would like it very much…

    • cyclestrian says:

      Fantastic idea, privatising speed cameras. Or even without privatisation, if instead of moaning about speed cameras being a stealth tax we had the attitude: “my council reduced my council tax bill by maintaining a healthy income from antisocial drivers who endanger my children”.

      Fantastic post, Mark. This makes me wonder whether Wellings has ever been to Holland (or other modernised regions in Europe), and if he has, whether he understood that it’s how it is due to conscious design – the quiet city streets and pleasant town centres did not happen by accident.

      • Gareth says:

        According to a tweet by Wellings about 2 years back, NL would be much richer than it is now (already has a higher GDP per capita than the UK), if it got rid of all those silly cyclists.
        Presumably if it filled its canals in, and shifted the 42% of freight moved though its waterways, onto its motorways, it would be richer still.

  8. Notak says:

    Going back to the ASLs, I don’t think perceived delay, as opposed to actual delay, has been mentioned. If you’re in one of the first few motor vehicles behind the ASL and there are 10 cyclists in front of you, the time between the light going green and you getting to move is longer than if that same space was occupied by a car. There would, of course, be only one car, and inevitably one car moves off quicker than ten cyclists (even though, IME, cyclists usually react to light changes quicker than drivers – presumably because we don’t have to put the clutch in, engage gear, release the handbrake – still, we don’t do ten times as quick). So the driver behind feels delayed, because they see that that space would otherwise be occupied by one car if the ASL weren’t there.

    Wellings, as Head of Transport at the IEA and having a PhD in a relevant topic, most know that this is only perception. But the point of the IEA (like most think tanks, I suspect) is not so much to research problems and promote solutions as to push for ways of attaining ideologically motivated goals. This in turn means (picking up on Jerryash’s point) that think tanks are probably not susceptible to argument. Rather, the way to counter Wellings’s argument would be to support the counterarguments of more cycle-friendly think tanks at the DfT.

    • ORiordan says:

      Owen Jones’ book “The Establishment” argues that organisations like the IEA often act as “outriders” who voice policies that are currently outside mainstream thinking but by publicising them, they get discussed and eventually may be part of political orthodoxy. (google “the Overton window” for background…)

      The counter would be another outrider organisations with policies challenging the hegemony of cars (“privatise and localise speed cameras…”, “congestion charging at the M25 boundary”) and see if these policies begin to influence the mainstream.

      Not that I think that Wellings comment about ASLs is an outrider policy. It just sounds like a typical ill thought out rant from behind a steering wheel.

      • Notak says:

        What, then, I wonder makes some outrider policies take off while others do not? Perhaps (and I’m merely speculating) it’s because, while outlandish, they are off to the far wing of what is already the majority. or at least a popular, opinion? For instance (you’ll have to forgive the political diversion) UKIP seem to have acted as quite a successful outrider organisation, getting their policies into the mainstream while they fail to get MPs; but (some of) their views chimed with what was already a sizable chunk of backbench Conservative opinion (and of course the general public).

        In cycle-campaigning terms, I guess that might mean privatised speed cameras and congestion charging in metropolitan areas could possibly be made to appeal to the neo-liberal, decentralist tendency. Perhaps if cities were to charge differentially for local and out-of-area vehicles, for instance!

        There’s also the fall guy method, putting up a far-out plan deliberately to get it knocked down and make your preferred option look the reasonable one. As Boris has done with his Airport Island resulting in LHR expansion becoming accepted by pretty much all parties. Again, you’re starting from a generally accepted problem though. So to reduce congestion in London, someone with a serious rep could propose banning all private cars from Zone 1, making the pedestrian-cycle-isation of the City acceptable as a moderate proposal. Or something – maybe!

  9. Jessica says:

    The key to all this IMO is getting people to think of cycling as a mode of transport… I ride a Dutch style bike, and use it to commute to work and back. I am constantly being told BY OTHER CYCLISTS that I really should get a racing bike/mountain bike/anything else other than what I’m riding now as there are “so many drawbacks” to riding to Dutch style bike — but what these cyclists are all refusing to see is that, for me, this is a mode of transport, not a form of exercise or a leisure activity…

    • That’s a poor attitude by them. Most UK cyclists using road bikes do so because the road conditions frequently gear cyclists towards speed over comfort. For short journeys, a slower bike that doesn’t require getting into special kit is by far the more practical solution.

    • Ha! I was recently desperate to get my fourth bike: an upright 3-speed with dynamo lights. Much more practical as a transport bike: low maintenance, good riding position for busy city streets, lights always available and on the bike, stop-start less frustrating. Much less faff to get on the bike and get going with it.

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      Yes, and why not make the omafiets/mamachari the positional good du jour? In that respect bikes (and, personal hobby horse, e-bikes especially) are pretty badly marketed in the UK: the rare ads tend to focus on the freedom, the competition, the exercise. Your cycling acquaintances seem to have swallowed that. Why not: beat the jams! know exactly how long your journey will take! park almost anywhere! Virtually maintenance free! Do you drive a car in rush hour? What a sucker etc etc.

  10. pm says:

    I find it hard to understand why organisations whose main function is lobbying for the interests of the wealthy people who fund them, are allowed charitable status.

    • Mark Williams says:

      Generally; because lunatics are well and truly in charge of the asylum (where the asylum has an anachronistically state-owned monopoly on deciding the rules) and it has been that way for many decades, at least. Most of the plebs seem to prefer this system—and its outcomes. It must be one of those `British values’ we are constantly being piously lectured about, but which are mysteriously never defined?

      Specifically; it is no more puzzling than why CTC et al. are so desperate to have this status. It comes with its own set of red tape—more easily evaded by some `charities’ than others, no doubt. The tax implications are surely irrelevant (presuming neither organisation makes enormous surpluses or sit atop mountains of assets). But it does make a lot of never-ending `busy’ work for the hangers-on who do it… The hypocrisy of this doesn’t appear to embarrass the IEA too much, either. Perhaps another of those `British values’?

  11. Har Davdis says:

    A more efficient use of road space can be achieved by getting more bums on saddles. As stated in the article, a person on a bicycle takes less space than one in car, and you don’t need a PhD in anything to come to that conclusion, some common sense will get you there. Only this morning I was surrounded by swarms of kids on bikes on their way to school, a slight nuisance when you think of all the cars I had encountered if their parents had driven them. I have no idea what a Head of Transport at the Institute of Economic Affairs does to earn his keep, but the present one should venture out once in a while, preferably as a pedestrian or cyclist, to see what kind of a world we all are living in.

  12. SteveP says:

    Car is King in London. As you allude, rich drive, poor cycle or walk or bus and the UK is still a very class-ridden (no pun intended) society. Until that gets fixed, cycles will always be an afterthought (which would mean having decent schools for all, so don’t hold your breath).

    • pm says:

      It’s not really true that the poor cycle in London. Though certainly lower-income people are far more likely to be dependent on public transport (and plain old walking). And its also still true generally that the wealthier you are the more you drive.

      But cycling’s demographic seems very complicated, for such a small group. There is absolutely no shortage of affluent professionals who cycle, though they aren’t the only cycling ‘tribe’, and some of them are cycling as a kind of competitive sport as much as just a means of transport.

      Still, the way I see it is, those who identify with the more powerful in one sense (economic) are quite likely to side with those they see as the strong in other domains as well. That seems to be the way it works with right-wingers like the IEA.

      Motorists have power on the roads, just as much as the wealthy do in the ‘market.

      But I don’t think attitudes to cycling entirely map onto left/right divisions in general. For every Tory Mathew Parris talking about killing cyclists there’s a Peter Hitchens (definitely right wing but far from a “petrohead”). And on the other hand, people like Kevin McKenna or Rod Liddle like to use the very existence of affluent cyclists as a way to justify their support for totally irrational transport policies, by depicting cyclists as the ‘elite’.

  13. rdrf says:

    A point you haven’t made is about Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA).

    This basically a kind of voodoo economics which attempts to firstly quantify, and then monetize, the alleged benefits and costs , giving a Benefit Cost ratio upon which planners are supposed to base their activities.

    It (rightly) has lots of criticism from the likes of John dams and others (why should you be able to buy the “right” to shorten my life by paying what the appropriate amount is supposed to be?). My view is that it basically serves to prop up the status quo of forecasting for more car usage and road building in transport economics.

    So why mention it? Well, conventional economists, such as the IEA, do tend to like it because it refers to the externalities. or “external costs”. of a project or – in this case – a form of transport. It is quite easy to do a conventional CBA and come up with a case that motorists are paying far too little for the costs they incur. (For a discussion on how this happens and what CBA is, see ). In fact, I believe even the IEA has argued that motorists are not paying their way because they are allowed to eave cars parked on the road for free (or at east in most cases – even typical parking on-street charges don’t match the kind of rent that might be charged on car parking).

    I do think motorists should pay much more for driving (not least because they won’t use more fuel-efficient cars or drive more fuel efficiently until they are pushed into doing so). I’m not happy with using CBA to argue for this because of the ethical problems of doing CBA in the first place. However, you can suggest to a conventional economist (albeit ultra-neo-liberal one) that logically they should be arguing for drivers to have to pay more and for cyclists to pay less and/or be paid to cycle.

    On a minor point: in rush hour cars in London tend to have 1.2 people in them (when the photo at Theobalds Road is taken). They go up to 1.8 in non-peak times.

  14. Eric D says:

    Ah, yes

    I love your Horsham photo – OK if I borrow it for my post ?
    “Here, the tables are turned : seeing that the segregated cycle-path has been blocked to facilitate gardening work, the motorists have considerately driven two-abreast in a single lane so that cyclists may safely overtake them !”
    I linked the photo back to here.

  15. Mark Hewitt says:

    I suspect much of the issue is the fundamental misunderstanding that one must be either a driver or a cyclist, the two are completely mutually exclusive and one cannot switch between them at all.

    The idea that someone may choose to cycle instead of driving seems impossible, why would you choose to use a bike when you have a car?

  16. fIEtser says:

    Reblogged this on iNLand fIEts and commented:
    We in the Inland Empire often hear that there is “no space” on our roads that are chronically overbuilt for safer biking infrastructure. As usual, that claim just doesn’t make a shred of sense. Here’s yet another reason why.

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