Class war

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

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.

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 wealthiness, whiteness (and therefore influence-mongering ability) of the cycling demographic, well, it is 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.


A 0.1-0.6% difference between household income groups isn’t the issue.

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.

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16 Responses to Class war

  1. ORiordan says:

    Banning black cabs from bus lanes would speed up buses in central London anyway.

    Are the “bus lobby” calling for that?

    Anyone know the income profile of black cab passengers in London? I wonder if they are predominantly affluent white men….?

    • Bartthebikeman says:

      Good point. I’ve never understood the logic behind allowing cabs to use bus lanes. Is there any?

      • ORiordan says:

        I’m not sure of the original reason why black cabs were permitted to use bus lanes, but Addison Lee took TfL to court for the right for all taxis to use bus lanes, and Addison Lee lost, so there was some legal distinction.

        • I read somewhere during the Addison Lee case (and remember, Addison Lee wanted equality with black cabs – either all taxis allowed in bus lanes, or none) that black cabs are allowed in bus lanes because they need to pick up and drop off passengers at the kerb. Of course, if you think about this for even a second, it doesn’t really give a good reason why they’re allowed to use bus lanes freely.

  2. tfoxglove says:

    “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’.”

    I’d tend to agree with the basic premise that the lobby made up of the middle class professional users will be more vocal amongst cyclists than bus users. The 70 cycling ones will be defined by others (& possibly themselves) as “cyclists” and will have an active stake in making things better/safer for themselves.

    As you point out, people are not defined by others as “busists” & any individual angst is directed at the operator for a late service, etc and doesn’t often coalesce into a campaign aimed at the infrastructure provider . However bus operators are a formidable lobby in their own right & their representative with the local authority will be a middle class professional.

    • HivemindX says:

      The majority of cyclists won’t do any actual lobbying though. Not beyond posting on message boards and perhaps the occasional letter to the editor or radio show call in and in those activities they are massively outnumbered by disgruntled car drivers and to a lesser extent bus passengers. Cyclists do have various lobby groups but the majority of cyclists are not involved. Bus passengers don’t have one that I’m aware of but as pointed out they are ably represented by the billion pound transport companies lobby groups, who have a vested interest in improving passenger experience to improve their own revenue. Motorists of course have the AA and various business organisations who want to ensure people can drive to their shops because of the mistaken idea that cyclists and bus passengers don’t buy things.

      As far as what you quoted I agree that it is ridiculous to ignore the raw numbers of people in a given group when trying to decide how influential they are. After all I bet the demographic profile of Bentley owners tends to wealthy white men even more, but they are not suggesting the Bentley lobby has a disproportionate influence.

      • tfoxglove says:

        They do, although I’m 90 miles from my closest branch.

        “the demographic profile of Bentley owners tends to wealthy white men even more, but they are not suggesting the Bentley lobby has a disproportionate influence”

        They probably should though. as Alan Sugar’s very well publicised attempts to get Boris to rethink they cycle lane on the Embankment were given disproportionate prominence to the actual validity of his complaints.

    • Unfortunately I have to disagree! If things were bad enough, those 500 middle class professionals that use buses would rapidly organise into a lobby, in precisely the same way the cycling lobby has spontaneously organised itself, largely through the internet.

      The reason this hasn’t happened is because, frankly, things aren’t bad enough for bus passengers in London for them to get angry about.

      • tfoxglove says:

        I do think it is equivocal but it wouldn’t take much to convince me that as you are taking an active part in your journey it leads you to consider how to improve things, how to lobby people in a position of power to effect that change. When you say how you travelled somewhere, everyone has an opinion & questions your choice, you form your own arguments to support, defend a mode of transport. You are forced to become evangelical & political. You are a cyclist.

        Getting on a bus is a passive activity, you sit there you read the paper & your journey happens to you. You moan about fares, seats, frequency & delays. No one cares when you moan, not even your fellow passengers, they just hope you wont cause a scene & delay the bus, they wish you’d shut up so they can get back to reading Rush Hour Crush. You are an individual using a bus.

        Obviously I don’t have evidence to support that feeling but if I was scrabbling around for straws, could you say that it has always been this way? The omnibus was around before bikes but shortly after bikes became popular, cyclists organised themselves into clubs & the CTC etc.

  3. David says:

    In Central London buses hold up cyclists…..

    As do stationary cabs and queues of empty cabs.

  4. Carlos O says:

    Two last paragraphs are gold!

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  6. rdrf says:

    Excellent article. Key issue is about how the bus lobby is actually quite powerful. Don’t forget that it has managed to exclude private cars from (I think) bus lanes on some 150 miles of London roads.

    However, it might be worthwhile pointing out – if the bus lobby wants a fight – that actually buses are not as healthy and sustainable as cycling, and that if bus use is to compete with cycling (which it shouldn’t) cycling should win.

    Finally, my understanding is that the bus industry/lobby is jittery because their subsidy is to be cut. I think it might be taking the short sighted view that people should stop cycling and give money to bus companies instead.

  7. Notak says:

    By coincidence, I read a report of the Begg Report in the local freebie yesterday (while waiting in the chip shop… ). Their take on it was very different. It was, obviously, local and because of that it was centred on congestion (Bristol has, apparently, the worst congestion in Britain as measured by average traffic speed) and how that would drive passengers of buses. Bus lanes and bus priority measures were mentioned, but neither cycling nor class, wealth, race, sex got a single reference.

  8. I suppose the main question is why are the bus companies lobbying against cycling?

    They’re lobbying against cycling because it’s a threat to their profits. So many of their customers would abandon them, if they felt that cycling was a safe, convenient option. Any drop in passengers is a threat. No doubt the Dutch company Abellio are very keenly aware of all those journeys that wouldn’t involve them, should cycling become a viable option for everyone.

    I’ve said this before, and have always got a lot of resistance, but cycling is a massive threat to the bus companies, and now we’re seeing that the bus companies clearly agree with me! So what if they can run more efficiently without people cycling in the bus lanes? If that means that even a fraction of their cash base is gone, it’s a threat to their profits.

    Even in London, where the system is still regulated, all those £1.50s are going somewhere, and the bus companies are making a profit somehow. These multi-million pound companies aren’t idiots. They know exactly what they’re doing.

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