One of the more interesting criticisms of campaigning for dedicated cycle infrastructure is that, unlike The Netherlands in the 1970s, the impending effects of peak oil and/or peak car will create favourable conditions for cycling without the need to alter the built environment. To a certain degree, both theories rely on the idea that as oil production goes into decline, no viable alternative energy sources for personal motor travel will emerge and motor traffic volumes will reduce, with the assumption that this will produce ideal conditions for cycling. Many of the same assumptions are used when suggesting the use of a large increase in fuel duty as a means of promoting a modal shift away from the private car.
There are a few problems with these arguments. Firstly, it works on the assumption that cars and oil are inseparable; the decline of oil production will definitely signal the end of the private car. Whilst this may end up being the case, it seems short-sighted to bet the everything on it. Alternative technologies may yet allow us to preserve the custom of taking over a tonne of metal and glass with us everywhere we go.
Peak car is slightly different, being basically a result of much of the road network running at capacity (that is, car capacity) at peak times. The result is that without further road building, car usage peaks and enters a slow decline as it loses its competitive edge over other transport modes. Significant further road building is unlikely to happen because it will merely induce yet more demand and in many areas would be politically unpopular. Whilst peak car should end growth of private car traffic, it certainly does not preclude the possibility of car traffic stagnating at a level which is still too high to permit significant rates of cycling amongst normal people.
Assuming that peak oil and/or peak car do lead to a significant reduction in motor traffic, this will still take time. During this time cycling may grow, but it will do so not because people feel the conditions are safe to do so. Instead, growth in cycling will come from those who have been forced into it, roughly in order of their income. This raises the unpleasant possibility of a stigma arising because of the association of cycling with poverty, as with the turnip in Germany.
I get the impression that those who believe that peak oil and/or peak car would render any separate cycle infrastructure useless because they imagine that the rest of the road would be completely unused in a post-peak oil/car future. I’m not sure if they imagine that almost all local travel will be done on foot and bicycle and that longer-distance travel will be significantly reduced and generally done by train, leaving the main carriageway of our unnecessarily-modified roads largely empty.
A common theme in cycle campaigning is to look back to the time when cycling was a mainstream mode of transport here in the UK. At the same time in our history, the main carriageways of the sorts of roads which the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain advocates the construction of separate cycle infrastructure on carried far fewer cars. However, what they did carry was buses, trolley-buses and trams. Even if peak oil/car did lead to the end of mass motoring and a return to favourable conditions for cycling, cycle infrastructure in the sort of places we need it now would still be needed because the entirety of our road network would never be given over almost exclusively for the use of cyclists. After all, I don’t fancy the idea of “taking the lane” with trams & trolley-buses in the future any more than I do with cars today.