There’s no point building cycle infrastructure because of peak oil/car

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.


17 thoughts on “There’s no point building cycle infrastructure because of peak oil/car

  1. Absolutely right. Also, remember that any decline in car usage will be slow. We’re talking about a peak in oil production followed by a slow decline, not a situation where it’s all gone overnight.

    If we assume that the roads will slowly empty of cars, there will be a period where a few rich Mr Toads start to dominate. It will be possible to behave worse on relatively empty streets. The peak in road deaths in the UK was way back in 1941 at a time when there were relatively few cars (petrol rationing) but lots of vulnerable road users. Drivers were not so well disciplined and a lot of people were walking or cycling. So much for “safety in numbers”. Casualty figures for the 1930s, when there were really not many cars at all, are also quite shocking.

    So I agree with what you are saying. Peak Oil is a ludicrous reason to oppose building of cycle-paths.

    • Indeed. The “tail” after peak oil is a long one, and will be stretched out further by efficiency increases in our usage and other sources such as tar sands.

      I also agree that there is a distinct possibility of even worse behaviour by a smaller volume of wealthier motorists, especially in the UK where the class system still influences behaviour significantly.

  2. Precisely why I get very uncomfortable when people get excited about pushing for electric cars, like our current HoC champion, Julian Huppert. It still requires energy from somewhere, at the moment mostly fossil fuel dependant power stations.

    Getting away from our insastiable need for energy is another important factor in cycle campaigning.

    • I do worry about electric cars. Whilst there is potential for them to be entirely powered by renewables, they still come with all the other wider problems of conventionally-fuelled cars. This can make them harder to argue against than conventionally-fuelled cars.

  3. Funny, but I thought the Dutch campaign for cycling development, around the “Stop der kindermoord” campaign, coincided with the Six-Day War and the oil shock of the early-mid ’70s. This was not, admittedly, an end to oil supplies, but the barrel price rose sixfold and many dire predictions of financial doom were made at the time. Evidently the Dutch didn’t think that fewer cars on the roads would make them safer!

    In any case, I don’t buy the notion of peak oil. The reserves which remain probably greatly exceed all oil so far extracted, it is just that all the easy stuff has now been mined. New reserves are either harder and more expensive and more dangerous to get at – just look at Deep Water Horizon and recently a licence to drill in a similar (but colder) environment west of Shetland, at 1300 metres below sea level – or are much dirtier, like oil shale, tar sands, or “fracking” gas reserves. What will slow down the car economy will not be lack of oil, but its cost and the political outcry about some of its sources.

    Possibly the response will be to more fuel-efficient cars, or smaller cars, as I believe is observable in the USA, but a 1 tonne metal box passing at 40mph is not really any safer than a 1.5 tonne metal box passing at 40mph – both are quite capable of killing.

    An even then, is a less congested road a safer road? I would say emphatically not – while a central London road seems, at first sight, a lot more dangerous, it is statistically much safer than a small country A or B road, and indeed you only have to ride a small country road for a mile or two to realise that it is subjectively less safe as well – instead of a wide straight road with traffic averaging 12mph and peaking at 30, you have bends and “dead ground” (humps, but aptly named) from around which fast traffic can appear with frightening suddenness.

    Picking up on a press comment on the recent budget, about how the elderly have really done rather well over the years and the “granny tax” is not so very unfair on them, our current road system is primarily designed for, and supported by, maturer folk, baby-boomers if you like, who have a disproportionate influence politically (perhaps because the get out and vote while younger people don’t) and a disproportionate share of the nation’s assets, due to final salary pension schemes now closed to new members, free higher education, once-cheap housing financed by once-plentiful credit – much or all of which was paid for by public borrowing (because people would not have accepted that paying for education etc or suffering higher taxes were the true alternatives) without any thought to how, or by whom, it was going to be repaid.

    The real divide is generational – my baby boomer generation with all of the above and a new car every three years, and young adults saddled with huge student debts, no chance of buying their own home, no job or a poorly-paid, low status one, and the choice between owning a car and living with mum & dad, or making do without in a home of your own. Or worse, according to some AA research – the choice between a car and food.

    Cycling is not (just) about resources and pollution, it is also about social justice and not simply a crude rich v poor comparison either.

    Young people rioted about the hikes in university fees. When will they finally lose their patience over their “transport poverty”?

    • The sudden hike in university fees was enough to get young people to pay attention. Transport is particularly difficult, as young people grow up in an environment which teaches them that the car is king and all other road users are second class. I have arguments with people my own age who simply can’t imagine a world which isn’t completely and utterly dominated by the motor car. It is hard for them to be angry about the transport situation in the UK when they can’t even imagine it being any different.

  4. I’ve just put up a blogpost questioning the emphasis on cycling infrastructure from a rather different point of view (I don’t think cycling infrastructure offers the assumed safety benefits and I think it’s be better to tackle driver attitudes and behaviour). But I definitely don’t buy the idea car traffic is about to decline. Cars are becoming ever more fuel-efficient and, the recent oil price spike aside, the cost of motoring is in long-term decline. This is one of the reasons why charging for road use needs to switch to charging for congestion, rather than via fuel prices. Nor do I buy the “peak-oil” theory. People will explore ever more difficult places and, as oil gets scarcer, a higher price will make it worthwhile to extract it from more difficult places.
    My post is here:

    Invisible Visible Man

    • ‘I don’t think cycling infrastructure offers the assumed safety benefits and I think it’s be better to tackle driver attitudes and behaviour’

      It’s not really one or the other though, is it? Building high-quality infrastructure does not preclude the tackling of driver attitudes and behaviour.

      That said, I agree with your comments about peak oil and peak car.

    • I agree with aseasyasriding, there is no reason not to do both things, especially as the built environment plays such a huge role in informing the behaviour of people. Telling people to make a conscious effort to play nice is nothing like as effective as removing the potential for conflict altogether, through design.

  5. Great post and great discussion all…

    Whenever I talk to people about “cycling infrastructure” the conversation immediately turns to money. “Oh, it would be too expensive to build dedicated bike lanes…” etc etc… But in the city I live in, Seattle, USA, the city streets have been laid out in a grid pattern. And there are LOTS of them. Why not just designate some streets as “cycle only” and allow people who live on them special permits to drive to their houses? These “safe streets” could be linked up in a grid over the city to allow full access to locales throughout the area with only minimal interactions between motorists and cyclists. And because the “infrastructure” already exists, it’s just be re-defined as bike only, it would be a fraction of the cost of building new infrastructure.

    Admittedly, this concept would not work well for suburban links, but for denser city plans, it could. There are streets in most larger cities where cars once drove that have been converted to vibrant pedestrian-only thouroughfares and businesses have thrived along them….


  6. “I don’t think cycling infrastructure offers the assumed safety benefits and I think it’s be better to tackle driver attitudes and behaviour”

    My sentiments exactly: which is why I’m starting a blogspot calling on the government to abolish our prohibitively expensive air traffic control system and replace it with better training for pilots, including press campaigns and (where necessary) behavioural modification workshops to make them address their inappropriate tendency to crash into other other aircraft when coming in to land at Heathrow. Honestly, if they paid more attention there’d be no need for all this radar and control-centre nonsense: anyone would think they didn’t have eyes in their heads. We’ll put a character in Eastenders who splats a 747 and 350 passengers into the ground at West Drayton because he was texting his girlfriend.

    I’m also campaining for gliders to be included in the air-traffic flow on an equal footing with powered aeroplanes. What’s wrong with that? They’re aircraft as well,aren’t they?

  7. One might argue there’s no point building cycle infrastructure because oil is needed in making bikes and tyres, so post-oil will stop cycling too.

    Oil isn’t just needed for fuel, it’s needed for the paving, too. So if oil prices go up and up, is the government going to have the money to repave the streets, or even just to fix pot holes? There are a lot of streets to fix, so one might think the money for streets will run out before the cars stop running (if they ever will). What kind of shape are the streets going to be after the cars are done with them?

    Why wait for a few decades for car free streets that might never happen? If anything, we should build now because we still have oil. It would give people a chance.

  8. A far more important question is: What’s the point of building more roads, when we’ve passed peak-oil?

  9. I use the road and I’ve never been frightened of sharing it with cars because I take the lane when I need to stop cars overtaking me or cutting me off. I haven’t had an accident in 30 years, because I ride predictably, visibly and lawfully. Also, I’ve studied the road accident statistics, all of which show that cycling is actually safer than driving. So I’ve never seen a need for specialized bicycle infrastructure for myself.

    Bike lanes and paths are great for folks who can’t get over their fear of traffic, but after a while, if cyclists study the collision studies that have been done, they inevitably come to the conclusion that road cycling is safer than infrastructure cycling. In short, bike infrastructure is a crutch.

    The road was built for cyclists in the 1890s (cars came later), and it’s just as good for us now as it was then. the sooner cyclists start using it, the safer they are.

    • If you actually want to get normal people (rather than abnormal cyclists like ourselves) onto bikes, the subjective safety issue needs to be addressed. It’s not enough to tell people to HTFU.

      As for the research, it is not enough to simply read the research, it needs to be understood. See the “Facts” section of this piece. Needless to say, approaches to segregation have been misrepresented as being all the same when anyone who takes a moment to think about what they are reading can see that different approaches have different advantages and drawbacks. When done as in The Netherlands, segregation improves safety for everyone, even experienced, fast cycling enthusiasts.

      In the 1890s, the roads were not shared between a tiny minority of cyclists and 30 million motor vehicles. Modern roads may have been initially built for cyclists, but they have long since been expanded and reconfigured to suit the needs of motorists over all others. Motorists are the only ones who gain by resisting moves to redesign the roads once more to accommodate people again.

  10. Pingback: They built it, and they didn’t come – the lesson of Milton Keynes | As Easy As Riding A Bike

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