Namely, the claim that Mayor Boris Johnson exacerbated the problem of congestion in London
by removing the western extension of the congestion zone and by reducing road capacity in central London by 25% on key routes through the introduction of cycle superhighways [my emphasis]
Elsewhere in the report [p.26] this claim is even wilder –
… by removing the western extension of the congestion zone and by reducing road capacity in central London by 25% through the introduction of cycle superhighways
I’m not even going to bother with that one, because it’s so plainly ludicrous (at best only 3% of roads in central London have protected cycleways) and because it is most likely the result of a mistaken omission of ‘on key routes’.
But even the former claim is mysterious. Given that there are effectively just a handful of new superhighways in central London – CS5, CS6, CS3 and parts of CS2, how on earth has a figure of ‘reducing road capacity in central London on key routes by 25%’ been arrived at?
Charitably, we might interpret the claim as being a reduction in capacity on some key routes in central London by 25%. (This is an explanation some of those who have disseminated the statistic are desperately falling back on). But if that was the claim that was being made, why isn’t the word ‘some’ actually included, anywhere in the report where this claim is repeatedly made?
Further, in the context of the passage, the implication is quite clear – road capacity has been reduced on key routes by (allegedly) 25% overall, enough to justify comment. To put this another way, if road capacity had been reduced on just a handful of main roads, why on earth would that merit comment in a passage about London-wide congestion? This attempt at an explanation is incoherent.
We then come to the problem of ‘key routes’ themselves. Funnily enough TfL were careful to avoid ‘key routes’ for buses as much as possible when they build the E-W and N-S Superhighways, as you can see from this map of key bus routes, spotted by Jono Kenyon.
These high-profile interventions barely co-exist with these key bus routes, using routes where there is relatively little (or no) TfL bus activity. If there has been a reduction of 25% on ‘key routes’ it isn’t the ones buses are using. The Embankment, which has seen a reduction in the number of motor traffic lanes (a very different thing from capacity) from 4 to 3 (a potential source for a ‘25%’ claim) is very much not a key route for buses.
So where did this dubious statistic even come from in the first place? The answer (thanks to some digging by Carlton Reid and Peter Walker) appears to be from a Transport for London presentation made by Helen Cansick to the London Travel Watch board, on May the 12th last year.
… the 25 percent statistic is not as robust as it was portrayed in the bus report. For a start, it’s not from a written source. Professor Begg told BikeBiz:
“The statistic comes from Transport for London. Helen Canswick of TfL network management gave a presentation to London TravelWatch at which she was asked what the reduction traffic capacity would be as a result of roads modernisation. She told members they had modelled a reduction of network capacity in the central area of 25 percent.”
Extraordinarily Begg himself confirms here that “the statistic” is actually about reduction in capacity due to the road modernisation programme – a programme that encompasses improvements for cycling, but also public realm schemes and improvements for walking and public transport – and, err, road schemes.
This much is plain when we look at the minutes of the meeting during which the Canswick presentation was made.
The Policy Officer asked what the total reduction in road capacity would be under the modernisation plan. Ms Cansick said that following completion in December 2016 there would be a reduction of road capacity for motor vehicles of 25% within the inner ring road.
Exactly the same statistic that Begg says he used (albeit erroneously). Who might this Policy Officer be?
— Peter Walker (@peterwalker99) June 13, 2016
Vincent Stops is of course a London TravelWatch policy officer, one who was present at that meeting, and clearly the person who passed the ‘25%’ statistic on to Professor Begg.
The only remaining question is at what point a figure about 25% reduction due to TfL’s overall road modernisation programme became converted into a 25% reduction due specifically to cycling infrastructure, as the claim appeared in Begg’s report.
If by any chance you’ve missed it, do please read Paul Gannon’s forensic analysis of a report produced by David Begg for Greener Journeys, entitled ‘The Impact of Congestion on Bus Passengers’. I don’t really need to add much to what Paul has written; he has done a great job wading through the detail of a report that has some fairly odd things to say about cycling.
However, there is a curious case of repetition that bears further scrutiny. This paragraph appears on page 30 in the Begg report –
What is less well-known is how relatively affluent cyclists in London are compared with bus passengers. Transport for London describes the London cyclist as “typically white, under 40, male with medium to high household income”. A report by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Transport & Health Group in 2011 describes cycling in London as disproportionately an activity of white, affluent men.
It’s a passage that corresponds closely to this one in a Dave Hill piece from October last year –
A study by academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) published in 2011, explores why in London “cycling is disproportionately an activity of affluent, white men” or, as Transport for London (TfL), has put it, why the London cyclist is “typically white, under 40, male, with medium to high household income.”
Exactly the same two sources on class, gender and ethnicity and, more tellingly, exactly the same two quoted passages, from those two sources. These are essentially two identical paragraphs, barring some shuffling and switching of words.
Coincidence? That seems extraordinarily unlikely, given a) the wealth of material out there on class and ethnicity, b) the age and relative obscurity of both of these sources, and c) the small chance of these two identical quotes being plucked from them. The blindingly obvious explanation is that exactly the same person has supplied exactly the same two sources to these two different parties, who have both parroted it uncritically.
This wouldn’t matter if the evidence being cited was convincing. However, (and sadly for both Hill and Begg) it isn’t.
As Paul points out, these sources are being used by Begg to present ‘cyclists’ as a more influential lobby than bus users by virtue of their class and wealth; to argue that they have more ‘power’ than bus users and are hence able to twist the urban transport agenda to their advantage more effectively than bus lobbyists. The section on cycling affluence in the Begg report follows closely after this assertion –
The more affluent and generally well-educated the traveller, the more vocal and powerful a lobby they form to be able to effect change that is advantageous to their choice of mode.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that they appear to be being fed exactly the same information, this is also a line of argument used by Hill.
@joelcacooney Middle class professionals dominate London cycling demographic. That's why they are listened to & bus users are ignored.
— DaveHill (@DaveHill) June 7, 2016
And this fairly explicit agenda was ‘recycled’ in an extraordinary TransportXtra piece that extends the class-based argument to Britain as a whole.
Unfortunately – at least as far as London is concerned – this ‘argument of power’ is far from persuasive. Even if we accept that the cycling demographic in the capital is ‘dominated’ by influential middle class professionals, the number of people cycling in London is still tiny relative to those taking the bus (a point that bus lobbyists are of course more than happy to point out). Around ten times more journeys are made by bus every day in London, compared to the number that are cycled. This means that the number of middle class professionals taking the bus in London will far outweigh the number of middle class professionals who cycle, given that ‘bus passengers are not primarily those on lower incomes, but are representative of the profile of Londoners.‘
What we are left with, then, is the deeply implausible assertion that the ‘influentialness’ of a middle class professional transport lobby flows not from its actual size but from the extent to which it ‘dominates’ its mode of transport. By this logic, if a town has just 100 cyclists (70 of whom are middle class professionals), and 1000 bus users (500 of whom are middle class professionals), its ‘cycle lobby’ will be more influential than its ‘bus lobby’. Make of that what you will.
We might also point out that ‘the London bus lobby’ isn’t simply composed of bus users; it’s also composed of large and relatively powerful bus companies – companies like Stagecoach (2015 revenue, £3.2bn; operating profit, £225m), Abellio (a subsidiary of the Dutch national railways group) and Arriva (a subsidiary of the German national railways group). By comparison, the London cycling lobby has… well, membership organisations like the London Cycling Campaign, and individual campaigners and bloggers. If this motley lot are more influential than bus companies, then I’m a Dutchman.
As for the evidence itself used to make the claims for the influential, well, they are unconvincing. As Paul observes in his piece, the statistic ‘only 1.5% of those living in households earning under £15,000 cycled compared with 2.2% of those living in households earning over £35,000’ doesn’t even appear in this study – it appears in another study (this one) that is merely referenced by the first LSTHM study. Paul points out how this statistic has been presented omitting the detail that, in households with an income of £15,000-£35,000, the cyclist percentage is virtually identical to that in households earning over £35,000 – 2.1%, compared to 2.2%. Even if we take these kinds of differences seriously, they really are negligible in the context of overall cycling share – see how these statistics look when they are presented as below.
Remember, it is actually being argued here that almost imperceptible differences between income groups at very low overall levels of cycling somehow makes the cycling lobby influential.
Cycling is not ‘disproportionately’ an activity of the affluent. Unfortunately, nor is it ‘disproportionately’ an activity of ‘whites’. More recent TfL research – from last year, not from 2011 – found that ‘cycling levels among BAME Londoners and white Londoners are very similar’ and that ‘there is also very little difference between white and BAME Londoners in frequency of cycling’.
The evidence that cycling is ‘disproportionately’ the activity of allegedly more influential members of society is weak or absent, and even if were present, the theory of ‘cycling influence’ fails to explain how an allegedly powerful cycle lobby is so influential despite being so relatively tiny compared to the numbers of similarly influential people taking the bus.
So here’s the thing. If bus groups want to lobby for more bus priority, they should do exactly that. They should lobby for bus lanes at the expense of private motor traffic, not at the expense of cycling. Crucially, they should be arguing for these bus lanes alongside cycleways, rather than instead of them. If you are concerned about the flow of buses, bus lanes full of people cycling are not efficient, and if you are not providing cycleways, that is where the people cycling will be. They won’t disappear into thin air; they will be in your bus lanes, holding up your buses.
So I’d like to see a bus lobby that is arguing for the right things – a coherent, fast system of bus priority at the expense of private motor traffic, rather than at the expense of cycling. I don’t want to see a bus lobby that is relying on dubious sources to launch a misguided and counterproductive class war against other modes of transport.