As a campaigner for improved cycling facilities in Britain one quickly gets used to absurd arguments. The favourite anti-cycling theme at the moment is that cycle lanes cause pollution, not motors that burn fossil fuels.
Another new line of argument that I’ve not encountered much before in my twenty years as a campaigner for better cycling conditions is the class nature of cycling.
None other than the much-admired transport economist, Professor David Begg, is the latest in a line of more or less distinguished individuals who have taken to playing the class card in trying to restrict or prevent spending on effective cycling infrastructure.
Economist Professor Begg plays the class warrior in a report of which he is the author, entitled ‘The Impact of Congestion on Bus Passengers’. The report was commissioned by an organisation with the eco-friendly sounding name, Greener Journeys. Greener Journeys actually describes itself as a ‘campaign’ to promote bus and coach travel.
However, Greener Journeys is funded by bus companies. Professor Begg is chairman of the campaign’s advisory board. He is also a non-executive director of the bus company First Bus, one of the companies that bankrolls Greener Journeys.
In his report Begg points out that car drivers and rail users are usually from wealthier social groups than bus users. This has become a frequent theme of the anti-rail lobby, which is in part funded by the bus industry. The bus operators see themselves in competition with rail for customers and for public funds – an example of how the different bits of the British transport industry are engaged in actively undermining any notion of integrated transport.
Professor Begg soon switches from deriding rail users as class enemies to painting cyclists with the same brush.
“What is less well-known,” he writes, “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. [Further] A report by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Transport & Health Group (LSHTM) in 2011 describes cycling in London as disproportionately an activity of white, affluent men. 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’.”
Certainly this may look impressive: the participation rates for people cycling from rich bastard households (2.2%) are about 50% higher than for downtrodden, hard-working poor households (1.5%).
But we need to look a bit more closely at the statistics on which Professor Begg bases his assertion. Helpfully, Professor Begg provides details of where he has sourced his claim and he cites a report by a London medical college: ‘Steinbach et al, Cycling and the city: a case study of how gendered, ethnic and class identities can shape healthy transport (April 2011)’.
Professor Begg’s citation of an incomplete secondary source
However, this cited report is not actually a report on the class make up of those who cycle in London. Rather it is a study of attitudes and perceptions (as in fact is indicated in the study’s title). The interviews involved 78 London cyclists in ‘qualitative interviews’.
While this report is not the source of the statistical data, it does include the same statistics as Professor Begg. The Steinbach report says, “Cyclists are also more likely to come from more affluent social groups, with on average 1.5% of those living in households earning under £15,000 cycling, compared with 2.2% of those living in households earning over £35,000.”
‘More likely to come from’ has morphed into ‘disproportionally’ in Professor Begg’s paper, but the figures are the same, so we have at least found the intermediate source for Professor Begg’s statistics.
The Steinbach report cites as its source another report, “Green et al’ or in full, ‘Green, J., Steinbach, R., Datta, J., & Edwards, P. (2010). Cycling in London: a study of social and cultural factors in transport mode choice’.
In this report we do at last find the original statistics. Table 12 says that for households with an income of below £15,000 per annum only 1.2% cycle, whereas for those households with incomes greater than £35,000 per annum as many as 2.2% cycle, a roughly 50% higher participation rate.
So it seems that Professor Begg has made his case.
Yet, for complete view, if not just for curiosity’s sake, I’m surprised that neither Professor Begg, nor the Steinbach report which he cited, passed on the information about the other income group in the original study – the cycling participation rate of households with an income between £15,0000 and £35,000 per annum.
Looking at Green’s 2010 report we find that it does in fact provide that information – and it turns out to be 2.1%. For some reason, unexplained, Steinbach omitted it and Professor Begg copied the truncated Steinbach version.
The omission is a pity. The figure for the middle income group participation of 2.1% is very close to the 2.2% of the over £35,000 group and clearly affects the interpretation of the class basis of cycling in London.
The statistics in Green et al
Rather than the most affluent predominating in the cycling profile in London, as asserted by Professor Begg, the report shows that those households where the income is above £15,000 have effectively the same participation rate as the more affluent. The omission of this middle income group thus makes way for the insertion of the false picture given by referring only to the categories of below £15,000 and above £35,000 household income.
Obviously I don’t know why Professor Begg has omitted this middle category and I invite him publicly to explain his decision to base his argument on a limited and misleading subset of the data. I also invite him to comment on whether he stands by his assertion in view of the fact that the middle household income group has the same participation rate as the over £35,000 category. Does he think that a household income of £15,000 or £16,000 or £17,000 for people in London makes them part of the affluent?
The bulk of Professor Begg’s report is about bus times and congestion, however it is worth looking at some of the other mentions of cycling in his report.
In the first release of his report in the Executive Summary (the bit most people read), Professor Begg made the quite outlandish claim that the growth of congestion in London was down to two factors, one of which was ‘the reduction in road capacity in central London by 25% through the introduction of cycle superhighways without taking action to curtail traffic in central London.’
This amazing claim made its way into the Guardian newspaper in an article written by Dave Hill who has made his mark as a sharp critic of cycle ‘superhighways’ and of cycle campaigners. The claim initiated a stir on twitter as people realised that such a claim was utterly absurd. For some reason, Professor Begg didn’t spot the patent improbability of the assertion that 25% of central London road space had been handed over to cycleways.
Dave Hill has written a series of articles criticising cycle campaigners – this is an example of him in full flow in the Guardian
Following a series of complaints on twitter, both Professor Begg and the Guardian amended the text of their reports to a less risible claim (25% of ‘key routes’) to correct this patently false claim.
Dave Hill’s revised version in the Guardian of the 25% claim
This second claim is also made in on page 30 and elsewhere of Professor Begg’s report: “One of the most radical reallocations of road space that has occurred on UK roads in recent years has been London’s supercyclehighways, whereby 25% of road space on key routes has been allocated.”
This is still a bold statement given that the cycleways have only been operation for a few weeks and Professor Begg’s figures elsewhere in his report show congestion growing well before work started on the cycleways. Also no one has yet published any assessment of how the cycleways have affected motor traffic, let alone how total capacity has been affected by the very few cycleways that have been opened in the spring of this year. He also asserts that the result has been worsening congestion and slower speeds, resulting in the claim that “bus passengers have been the main losers.”
Professor Begg making grandiose claims but without offering any evidence
There are still several problems with this ambiguous formulation (how many ‘key routes’ and are they all bus routes, how was the calculation done and what is the evidence for these cycleways causing the claimed disbenefits to buses and passengers?). The figure needs explanation.
Professor Begg was asked by cycle industry journalist, Carlton Reid, for the source of his claim (as none was provided in the report). Carlton was told that it was sourced from a presentation made by a Transport for London (TfL) official and I understand he is pursuing the matter with TfL.
Dave Hill of the Guardian claimed in a tweet that a TfL official had confirmed the ‘25% of key routes’ figure to him, but Hill had no other information and also asserted that he was given the information on an unattributable, off-the-record basis. Enquiries are being made for the data and calculations to verify the accuracy of the claim, as secret claims by anonymous officials are not sufficient.
What’s going on here? As noted above, Greener Journeys, is a bus industry funded lobbying organisation. The bus industry has decided to treat cycling as competition to bus services, for passengers and for fare revenues and public investment. The references to cycling in the report are an attempt to create a false narrative that large amounts of space have been given to cycling in central London – and to stop any further cycleways being introduced.
Professor Begg makes this quite clear in the following sentence: “While more sustainable forms of transport should be supported, and the critical importance of reducing cycling accidents through segregation is clear, care must be taken to ensure cycling improvements are not to the detriment of bus passengers.”
There is no way to read this other than that Professor Begg is asserting the bus industry policy that improving cyclist safety is secondary to avoiding alleged ‘detriment to bus users’ (and bus industry revenues)
The reader should note the semantic sidestep from ‘reducing cycling accidents’ in the middle of the sentence, to ‘cycling improvements’ in the last part of the sentence. However, despite the semantic shift, it is clear that what is meant is that care must be taken to ensure that reducing cycling accidents is not to the ‘detriment of bus passengers’.
Of course, if Professor Begg, writing a report remember in his role as a bus company director, had said that there would be uproar.
Also as Mark Treasure pointed out on twitter, imagine if Professor Begg written this sentence substituting ‘walking’ for ‘cycling’: “While the critical importance of reducing pedestrian casualty numbers is clear, care must be taken to ensure walking improvements are not to the detriment of bus passengers.”
The bus company funded campaign is deliberately trying to create the false impression, in Professor Begg’s words, that “While there is often a conflict between catering for cyclists and bus passengers, and the London cycle superhighways are a topical case in point, policies favouring pedestrians and buses are more complementary and have greater synergy between them than many think.”
The reader may ask if I am not being a pit paranoid here, seeing a conspiracy where in reality there is just shoddy research, biased presentation and opinionising substituting itself for information. But a quick peek at the details of Green Journeys’ ‘campaign team’ shows that all are actually employed by the PR and lobbying firm MHP. The website describes the skills of key individuals:
“a wealth of experience in public affairs and media relations, and specialises in devising and managing successful business-critical lobbying and reputation uplift campaigns”
“joins the team having advised clients on a variety of public affairs campaigns and stakeholder engagement programmes “
“responsible for driving strategic media and social campaigns. As a former journalist at the Daily Telegraph, where she spent 10 years covering general news, health and media [and] has a deep understanding of what makes a good story, and uses this insight in her day-to-day dealings with transport writers across print, online, radio and television”
“his innate [sic] understanding of how news companies operate in the digital age, to help maximise clients’ positive media coverage and inform future PR strategies”
This is not a ‘campaign’ in the sense where concerned individuals get together in their spare time to lobby for improvements to their daily lives or some good cause. Greener Journeys is a campaign organization that employs highly paid media professionals (all bound to be earning well over £35,000 you can be sure) and Professor Begg’s report cannot be treated as anything other than a propaganda job on behalf of the bus lobby. Virtually everything it says about cycling is wrong, contentious or based on cherry-picked statistics.
However, it does allow us to see how lobbying companies in the powerful motor lobby work. One route they use is to compile semi-academic reports which spread misinformation and create false narratives – such as bus versus bicycle.
We can also see how these false ideas spread. Dave Hill of the Guardian uncritically repeated the absurd claim in the first version of Professor Begg’s report that 25% of road capacity in central London had been re-allocated to cycling and remained in place until challenged. But he was not the only dupe for Greener Journeys’ PR puff.
A leading transport industry newsletter, TransportXtra, headlined its report “Cycle lobby has overridden bus interest.” At least this doesn’t adopt Greener Journeys’ pretence that it is only concerned with ‘bus passengers’ when in fact its real concern is bus company interests which would benefit from the higher bus speeds and more space devoted to buses, and which Professor Begg’s report calls for.
TransportXtra headlines the urban myth (and expands the myth by it applying not just to London but to the whole of Britain)
But TransportXtra’s report dutifully parrots Greener Journeys’ lobbying message: “Britain’s [sic – note sidestep from London’s to Britain’s] predominantly [sic] white middle class cycling lobby [sic] has skewed urban transport priorities [sic] to the disbenefit of buses and their passengers [sic], says Green Journeys report author David Begg.”
We are witnessing the creation of an urban myth thanks to Greener Journeys’ and MHP’s professional PR midwifery – and all based on a dodgy dossier. Professor Begg’s report is a discreditable piece of work and should become a notorious example of how expensive lobbying operations can poison public policy discussion by inserting incorrect information.
It is important to note that Transport for London officially doesn’t play one transport mode off against another in discussing ‘capacity’: It says, “In considering the capacity of the road network, it is important to consider the capacity in terms of ‘total people movement’, including travel by public transport, cycle and on foot. Where capacity for general traffic has been moved, this often (but not always) reflects reallocation of available capacity to other forms of ‘on road’ movement.” In other words, Professor Begg’s use of the term ‘road capacity’ needs to be judged in the light of overall capacity increase achieved by reallocating road space to provide space for space-efficient modes, such as cycling rather than as the zero-sum outlook evident in Professor Begg’s bus-company oriented misuse of the term.
In the cycling lobby we have become accustomed to councillors and officials who do their best to constrain provision of cycling infrastructure and their friends in the media. But this report should alert us to the fact that as our campaign grows, we will meet a new type of opposition to sensible provision of cycle infrastructure as part of an integrated transport system. That opposition is one that will use all the tricks and opportunities that their corporate money can buy to destroy the prospects of Britain seeing a cycling renaissance – even as far as funding a cadre of highly affluent company directors and PR executives to conduct a neo-Trotskyist class war campaign against a green transport mode that they decide they want removed from our roads.
Professor Begg’s report is a clear declaration of an information war on cycling from the well-funded bus company lobby.