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.
If you read the headlines, you might hear that Transport for London are spending ONE BILLION POUNDS ON CYCLISTS. Or that they are spending FIFTY MILLION POUNDS ON ONE CYCLE ROUTE FOR CYCLISTS. Crazy, right? That’s a huge some of money to be spending on a cycle route. What have cyclists done to deserve all that cash?
One response is of course to point that these big, scary sums of money are actually quite trivial in terms of the overall transport spend in London. Ranty Highwayman has already done the sums, so I don’t have to go over the same ground, but to take just one example, just stopping the Hammersmith Flyover from falling down cost £100 million – basic road maintenance on an ageing bridge for motoring easily outstrips all the spending on cycling infrastructure in London, thus far.
But another way of approaching this issue is to place ‘spending on cycling’ in historical context. Let’s take, say, the Blackfriars Underpass, just one small part of the contemporary east-west Superhighway route. It was built in 1967, to facilitate the flow of motor traffic. As is apparent from the film below, the convenience, comfort and safety of anyone walking and cycling in the area did not feature in the scheme.
In ‘1967 money’ it cost £2.6m, which funnily enough is equivalent to around fifty million pounds today – more than the entire cost of the east-west Superhighway itself.
Or take the aforementioned Hammersmith Flyover, a structure designed purely to facilitate the flow of private motor traffic, built in 1960 at a cost of £1.3m, which in today’s money equates to around £27 million. For – effectively – an 800 metre bridge across a roundabout.
Or take Park Lane, widened at around the same time to six lanes, at the expense of 20 acres of Hyde Park and a number of buildings, at a cost, in contemporary terms, of roughly £21 million, again for a very short stretch of road.
Or the Westway and West Cross Route, part of the (aborted) inner London motorway box, built in the late 1960s at a total cost of £36.5m, or around half a billion pounds in today’s money.
I could of course go on, listing scheme after scheme just in London, without even touching on other major projects in other British towns and cities. In reality, the twentieth century was a period in which our entire road and street system was reshaped and rebuilt to favour motoring, at enormous expense, and at tremendous cost to cycling in particular, but also of course upon walking.
Roads did not spontaneously arrange themselves into the kinds of form shown in the picture above. Political decisions were taken to shape our towns and cities around the car, a programme that required vast sums of money to be spent. ‘The natural order of things’ that is today being challenged by a small number of cycling schemes on a tiny, tiny proportion of the overall road network is not ‘natural’ at all – it’s the outcome of political choices, made over several decades. Just because we’re living in that environment today without appreciating how it came into being doesn’t make those political choices any less real.
Another picture from “Carscapes”, of Leeds today. The war on the motorist in evidence pic.twitter.com/O2KUsvcU
— Mark Treasure (@AsEasyAsRiding) February 15, 2013
It’s also worth pointing out that, at the time many of these decisions were being made, the motor car was still very much a minority mode of transport.
At the time of the ‘Traffic in Towns’ report in 1963, there were only 6.4 million cars in Britain, for a population of 54 million people. Of course, car use was growing, and may have continued to grow, even without any of the changes to the built environment that were occurring both before and after the Buchanan report. But I think it’s reasonable to point out that, essentially, you end up with the kind of transport use that you plan for. If you build very big roads in your towns and cities that make it easy to drive about, and difficult or inconvenient (or even dangerous and intolerable) to walk and cycle about, then we shouldn’t be surprised which mode of transport people decide to use for short trips.
As well as undoing the twentieth century’s failure to consider existing, established modes of transport in road design, the investment in cycling infrastructure that is taking place in Britain (albeit barely scratching the surface in London and a handful of other cities, and non-existent pretty much everywhere else) is really just an attempt to tip the scales slightly back the other way, towards a mode of transport that has never seen investment in any significant way, and that was erased from our towns and cities by an enormous historical programme of investing in motoring that we don’t notice today because its effects upon our built environment are so ubiquitous.