#AlternativeFact: “Cyclists cause air pollution”

“Cyclists cause air pollution” is becoming one of the regular tropes to attack cycling, wheeled out by shock-jocks, NIMBYs and even black-cab drivers (possibly tweeting such views from their diesel-powered vehicles, idling at taxi stands).

It’s insidious. Have a look at this A-level physics exam paper from Edexcel:

I was alerted to the questions by my 17-year-old daughter. The exam paper is real.

More such bikelash nonsense will be in Bike Boom, published in May 2017. Sign up for updates on the right.

5 comments

  1. This question can’t be answered – please share the missing parts! The question may have been designed to show that even though the cyclist slows the cars, CO2 overall is reduced.

  2. I would say that the problem is that by simplistically assuming everything else, e.g.. the number of following cars, can be held constant (for example, not considering whether the expected journey time influences the driver’s choice of using a car for that journey, or taking that route, or making the journey at all) and by only comparing the case of ‘cars when cyclist is in front’ vs ‘cars with no cyclist in front’, rather than considering the other alternatives, like ‘cars not there at all, or driver using cars with a different emission-profile’, it’s passive-aggressively implying the cyclist is to ‘blame’ for the increased pollution of the cars.

    I have the impression that its become fashionable for science education to try and use ‘socially-relevant’ issues to ‘engage’ students… but I think it’s a mistake in the context of an exam (rather than the classroom, where debate is possible), because science-examiners usually have no special expertise whatsoever on politics or sociology.

    And, if it were me sitting the exam, the tendency to want to take issue with the questionable political and sociological assumptions smuggled into the question would distract me from concentrating on what I’m actually being examined on.

    Better to stick with dry non-poltiical topics, in my opinion.

  3. I was listening to BBC Radio London this week (Jan17) and a black cab driver rang up with this trope too blaming cycle lanes and cyclists for causing congestion and consequential pollution in this new era of ‘alternative facts’. Unbelievable!

    Sadly London’s black cabs are diesel powered and far more expensive than modern PHV competitors, they know their days are numbered but this doesn’t stop them resorting to tweeting their cab drivers to ring phone-in shows to try and promote their lost cause pushing these flawed theories.

  4. The CO2 graph is representative of real vehicles, and this is a well thought out question that is realistic in dense traffic. But the possible conclusions drawn from it are the problem, rather than substituting cycling for more car drivers another solution is enough space so that these vehicles of radically different speed don’t need to interact with each other, which would have a lower overall CO2 emission.

    Its a nice way to kick off discussion and explore the world, but possibly a poor choice for an exam where there is no follow on.

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