Lies, damned lies and statistics … and the cycle lane

Image above: C9, Chiswick High Rd at 6.00pm on a Saturday in July; photograph James Willcocks

The American author Mark Twain was fond of saying “there are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies and statistics’. Statistics, like the bible, can be made to support pretty much any case you want to make, but it doesn’t mean they should.

There’s been a ludicrous conversation carried on in Chiswick over the past few weeks over ‘proof’ that cyclists are using the cycle lane in sufficient numbers to justify its existence. LB Hounslow and Transport for London have been trumpeting the success of C9 based on the increase in the number of cyclists using it since they started collecting data in February (1,239 users) and June (2,316). There are more people using it, therefore it’s popular and it’s a success, the argument goes.

READ ALSO: TfL & LB Hounslow claim C9 is a success

Think about that for just one second. Would you rather cycle in February (daytime temperature range -2° to 16°) or June (daytime temperature range 15° to 27°)? Surely there would  be more people cycling in any year on any road as the year went on and the weather got warmer? What else might have affected the numbers of people cycling? Oh yes, lockdown. People had fewer reasons to travel until the restrictions began to be eased in March.

They have no data to compare it with over the same period in previous years or at other times of year and even if they did, statistics collected during and coming out of lockdown would be atypical. There could be more people cycling, but equally there could be the same number or fewer. As far as I can see you may as well sacrifice a bull and look at its intestines to find out.

Then this week a historically great national newspaper, which really should have known better, printed a story based on a ‘spot check’ which it claimed proved the opposite.

Image above: Daily Telegraph article by Maighna Nanu and Dominic Penna, published 7 August

The Daily Telegraph does a ‘spot check’

‘Cycle lane hailed as shining example of No 10’s low traffic scheme half as busy as billed’ shouted the Daily Telegraph’s headline.

‘A spot check by The Telegraph casts doubt on the scale of use of the cycle lane in west London’.

A ‘spot check’ in the school holidays to provide evidence of traffic flows? Are they having a laugh? It is the silly season, I suppose, when newspapers have always made stuff up to fill the space when all their usual sources of stories have shut up shop and gone on holiday. But are their readers really that stupid, that they might find a ‘spot check’ in August evidence of anything?

On any given day over the last decade or two you might have found Chiswick High Rd empty, or gridlocked, or somewhere in between, depending on the weather, school holidays, whether or not there were roadworks nearby or an accident on the M4, or whether some dignitary was passing by in a cavalcade on their way from Heathrow or there was an important football match on. Yet the Daily Telegraph (did I already say they really should know better?) decided their ‘spot check’ on one day was a statistically useful exercise.

It’s August. That time of year when Chiswick empties out and people go on holiday. Even cyclists go on holiday I believe. The clue should have been that in their evidential photograph there were no cars either.

For once I find myself agreeing with a Government minister. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said recently that traffic schemes to support cycling must “be allowed to bed in” and not removed by local councils before they’ve had a chance to be tested against more normal traffic conditions than we’ve seen over the past year.

This is not because I hold a candle for the cycle lane. As a driver I have very nearly turned left from Chiswick Lane directly into it, as old habits die hard. As a pedestrian I have several times stepped into the road without looking both ways, but I am getting used to it. Surely we all have to get used to it and to new patterns of work an travel, the ‘new normal’, whatever that will be, before we have enough information to make any sensible judgement about it.

Image above: Cllr Hanif Khan with Boris Johnson and Grant Shapps at a Downing St reception

Overviewed, scrutinised and rejected

This particular Overview & Scrutiny committee was called because eight Conservative councillors ‘called in’ the Cabinet decision to modify the cycle lane by scrapping last year’s Experimental Traffic Order and drawing up a new one, introducing some changes.

Bear in mind here that OneChiswick were taking the council to a Judicial Review of last year’s decision, based on last year’s Experimental Traffic Order. I’d love to find out from a lawyer whether they still can, given that last year’s Experimental Traffic Order has been scrapped.

Cllr Biddoph, who wrote a submission, was not at the meeting, as she was isolating. Cllr Sam Hearn spoke for Chiswick councillors and made the case that (a) it was illegal for the council to go ahead with the new Experimental Traffic Order without consultation and (b) unless there was evidence of a ‘modal shift’ – ie. people were changing their habits and getting out of cars and taking to bicycles – the cycle lane was not worth pursuing.

Cabinet Member for Transport, Cllr Hanif Khan, told the meeting there was no legal requirement for consultation, because the scheme itself was in effect a consultation, as it was temporary and under constant review. He was backed up by fellow Cabinet Member Katherine Dunne and Council officer Jefferson Nwokeoma, Assistant Director of Traffic & Transport. They said they were in fact giving 21 days of consultation over the introduction of the changes, even though they were not required to do so by law.

In answer to the ‘modal shift’ point, they cited the aforementioned dodgy statistics as evidence of an increase in people using bikes. “It’s the only data we’ve got” they said, (rather defensively I thought).

The councillors deliberated for a couple of hours. It was all very civilsed and polite. No shouting, no invective hurled across the virtual chamber. Cllr Khan even refrained from rubbing the Tories’ noses in it by mentioning that he’d popped into Downing St the previous week to receive praise from their Prime Minister for his good work on the cycle lane and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. He said not a dicky bird about it. Very dignified.

READ ALSO: PM and Transport Secretary thank Hanif Khan at Downing St transport reception

Then one by one the councillors on the committee explained why they were satisfied the council was doing the right thing and they would not be referring the Cabinet’s decision back to them for further consideration.

“If it doesn’t work within 18 months you can remove it” said Jefferson.

Right. Can we please not hear a peep about the damn cycle lane until February 2023? By then they’ll have some sensible data and then we can review it. OK?

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