Friday, 10 October 2014

Motion on buses and modal share in Central London

I've got a motion with my name on it in the London Cycling Campaign AGM tomorrow, so I thought I would say something about that (to practice the arguments, as it were). Here it is:

Buses and modal share in Central London
Proposed by David Arditti, seconded by Tom Harrison and Mustafa Arif
  1. The history of cycling campaigners supporting provision for buses as beneficial for walking and cycling (by reducing demand for private car use).
  2. Figures published by the Greater London Authority showing that buses now cause more cycling KSIs per km travelled than HGVs. Reference: "News from Darren Johnson AM: Buses as dangerous as lorries for cyclists, but not as fatal", 11 April 2014,
  3. Figures published by the Greater London Authority in the Mayor's Air Quality Strategy (December 2010) showing that buses are a significant, and growing (as a percentage of total particulates) source of air pollution in Central London.
  4. Recent road schemes in Central London, such as Camden's proposed West End Project have sought to justify inadequate provision for cycling on the need to improve or maintain provision for buses and existing bus and cycling modal share.
Defining 'Central London' as the area within the "Inner Ring Road", LCC resolves to:
  1. No longer automatically assume that increasing, or even maintaining, provision for buses in Central London is beneficial for walking or cycling. Nor to automatically accept that such provision for buses is a legitimate reason to accept poor provision for cycling.
  2. Campaign for TfL and London boroughs, in every Central London road scheme, to actively consider opportunities for modal shift from buses to cycling, through the provision of high quality 'Space for Cycling'. Highway authorities should design cycling provision for the modal share likely when there is high quality provision, not based on current modal share, which is suppressed by poor provision.
  3. Seek integration of tube and bus fares (including daily Oyster / Contactless price-capping and Travelcards) with TfL Cycle Hire so as to eliminate the financial incentive that commuters have in choosing to get a bus over hiring a cycle for the final part of their journeys into Central London.
So what's the background to this? Do I not like buses or something? Actually, I do quite like buses, and use them quite a bit. I often use them for journeys when I am transporting equipment which would be impossible on a normal bike, such as the 100mm aperture telescope and motorised equatorial mount that I take to the public astronomy events organised in Regent's Park by the Baker Street Irregular Astronomers, and at Ruislip Lido by West of London Astronomical Society. It wouldn't be worth me having and housing a cargo bike for these occasional needs, and such journeys on the London cycling infrastructure as it stands would be very difficult on a cargo bike. My partner, who is disabled, and cannot get far without a wheelchair, also benefits from buses. She gets free travel on them (also on the tubes, though, of course, most tube stations still lack lifts, so that's largely academic) and with help from an able-bodied person can use them to get wherever she wishes. (One major success of Transport for London in the last 8 years has been to get the bus companies to actually maintain their wheelchair ramps properly so they now work about 97% of the time, whereas, before, it was about 50% of the time.). No, I recognise that the buses are a hugely important element to London's transport infrastructure.

However, I have a pretty clear view of what cycle campaigning should be about, and what it should be doing, as well. Cycling campaigns should promote cycling. They need to start from the view that cycling can and ought to be be a major component of the transport mix, and that a a large transfer of journeys currently made by all motorised forms: trains, tubes, trams, cars, taxis and, yes, buses, to bikes is possible and desirable. The people involved in them need to have the courage needed to articulate this as a serious point of view and to be able to picture what it would actually mean. Dave Horton (one of the authors of the important Understanding Walking and Cycling sociological study) put this point clearly:
Meetings about cycling inevitably involve different agendas and compromise. But is our struggle to make cycling mainstream so difficult because we – it’s strongest advocates – still haven’t learned how to speak about it? Are we yet to find our voice? If so, other people, understandably, would struggle to hear it. So perhaps ‘people don’t get it’ because we’ve yet to tell them?
When proposals are put forward that look like they would really make a difference to the urban environment, people react strongly (as they are doing now to the Mayor's Central London Superhighway proposals). They will like them, or they will hate them. They will get involved, and lobby one way or another. The lobbying process and the public debate will throw up arguments that will be had, taken-on, and resolved, and, as I believe the case for mass cycling, and the infrastructure necessary to make it so, is unanswerable, will lead to progress towards the vision, if, that is, as Horton points out, we have the boldness to articulate it clearly in the first place.

How the bus system would look in a cycle-ised London (to use a phrase even Boris Johnson has used) definitely has to be considered, and built into our visions of what a future cycling London would look like. It would, no doubt, still be very extensive, but it would not have to bear the large burden of short trips that it now does. A cycle-ised London would involve a conversion not only of some general road space to dedicated cycle space, but of some bus space as well. However, this should not negatively the bus experience if we also at the same time succeed in reducing the general chaos and congestion on the roads. I think it would actually impact on buses positively. They would no longer be slowed down by cyclists.

To me, there is nothing particularly stunning in the motion. It is just saying that London Cycling Campaign is a cycling campaign. Full stop. It's not a campaign for less cars, and it's not a campaign for less buses. It's not a campaign for 'active travel', and it's certainly not a campaign to 'reduce the need to travel' (whatever that could possibly mean: the need to travel is fundamental to the human species, and indeed locomotion is one of the defining features of all animals). It's just a campaign for more cycling, achieved through transfer from all other modes. And more cycling that's an extra to all existing modes, if you wish, as well (in other words, more leisure as well as utility cycling). And when I say 'all other modes', I include walking as well. You do see this, in cycle-friendly places like the Netherlands and Denmark, that cycling takes a lot of the very short journeys that are walked in the UK, because it is so easy to cycle. It actually becomes the lazy person's option.

Part of the recent background to this motion is Camden's West End Project (but there have been other similar but smaller and less-high profile examples) where, in a planned major rebuild of several streets in central London, the need to enhance bus provision was given as a reason to provide only somewhat half-hearted cycle provision. I discussed this extensively before, and some LCC members did not agree with the line I articulated. As Easy As Riding A Bike (who had a similar view to mine on the scheme) mused on this as follows:
What is quite fascinating to me is how cycling campaigners – people who think that cycling can and should play a significant role in making our towns and cities more attractive places – are often happy to sacrifice the quality of the transport mode they want to see more of, in the interests of wider scheme objectives. This isn’t necessarily a comment about the Camden scheme in particular; it’s more an observation about how cycling campaigners almost expect themselves to be selfless. 
I can’t imagine pedestrian user groups arguing something along the lines of ‘well, the pavements in this scheme are a bit awful, and not suitable for children. But bus users get a great deal – let’s support it!’ 
But effectively that’s what’s happening with this scheme, and has happened many times in the past. It’s almost expected. People wanting to see more cycling will defer to those wanting to see improvements in the bus network (for instance) in a way that would never happen in reverse. 
Of course a large part of this is due to existing mode shares in London, and other British towns and cities. It seems unreasonable to demand more for a mode of transport that, while increasingly visible, and on the agenda, doesn’t really exist, at least compared to bus travel and walking.
He hits the nail on the head here. It's Dave Horton's 'vision thing'. It only makes sense to argue for great conditions for cycling if you believe that they really will work, and really will lead to a modal shift that will post-hoc justify the decision by reducing the need for capacity on other modes. It's a leap of faith. But if it's a leap of faith that dedicated campaigners are not prepared to make,  then we have no chance of convincing anyone else either, and the status quo remains.

I can see where campaigners for improved, or at least maintained, bus provision, like Hackney councillor Vincent Stops, are coming from. I can see that they are very sincere in what they think. They view the bus, collective public motorised transport, as the transport of the disadvantaged: the poor, the sick, the disabled, the very young and very old, as a good instrument of socialism, and a social leveller. Hence the more buses the better. Why should fit people on bikes have the right to inflict damage on the system that these people depend on?

Of course, the answer to this is to look at how it actually works in the most bike-friendly cities in the world. Nobody has in these cities been disadvantaged by the extensive allocation of street space to bicycles (apart from possibly the most die-hard 'I have the right to drive door to door everywhere petrol-heads, and actually, this 'attitude' seems to die out largely in these environments). On the other hand, vistas of transport, for exactly those groups the bus campaigners see themselves as defending, vistas of independence and mobility, have been opened up which are undreamed of here. Cycle infrastructure is great for those in wheelchairs and mobility scooters, and of course enables inclusive cycling, ages 'eight to eighty', as they say, including those with a vast range of physical and mental disabilities.

Far from being some true manifestation of socialism, the argument of the radical bus promoters is a conservative one, with a small c. We have big inequalities in our society, and big inequalities in transport access. We have these problems now, with the large emphasis that London's politicians have laid on buses at least over the 14 years since Ken Livingstone first entered City Hall. Is the answer to just do more of what we have been doing, with the risks to road safety and air quality that this entails, or is to rethink the street balance afresh, from an actively pro-bicycle perspective?

We'll always need buses, or something like them (though maybe trams or trolley buses would be more comfortable and efficient in the long term), and I am sure a comprehensive bus system can co-exist with a comprehensive, safe and effective cycling system (because I have seen it). But the latter just won't happen unless cycle campaigners actually make the case for it. We have to point out that getting people cycling is better in so many ways than getting them on buses: better for road safety, better for both physical and mental health, better for the atmosphere, better for noise and stress levels, better for the planet. That means that cycle provision has to have a higher priority than bus provision, which should itself have higher priority than provision for private motor traffic, taxis, lorries and vans. Most of the London boroughs already claim this is their policy, but in practice cycling has in very few cases ever been genuinely prioritised. We may be seeing a start now on doing this on a significant scale with the proposed Central London Superhighways, and Cycle Superhighway 2 and 5 proposals. I think this progress has been brought about by effective London-wide campaigning for proper, safe, dedicated, practical space for cycling.

Motion 4 doesn't really say anything different about that campaigning. It is simply a reminder of a principle. While not wanting to make any unnecessary enemies, we are what it says on our tin. We are believers in the greater good of cycling over all motorised transport modes for the quality of city life. We are explicit about that, and we need make no apologies for it.


  1. I've only just seen this (Saturday morning) and can't make the LCC AGM this morning after all, but just wanted to say, I entirely agree and hope the Motion passes.

  2. Congratulations! Various tweeters commented on how eloquently you put your case. Well done!

  3. Delighted to say the motion passed.

  4. It seems you forgot main problem with public transport: costs for municipality. In most European cities subsidies for passengers accounts at least half of ticket price. It is a HUGE part of municipalities budget even when you don't cont money for building and maintaining the infrastructure.

    1. You are right. This is another part of the case why it is better to get people cycling than get them on buses. It is cheaper for the state/city. The Mayor's Vision for Cycling does recognise this, though TfL usually state it in terms of cycling substituting for extra tube capacity, not buses, which they could do.

    2. I live in Bristol, and I'm pretty sure there isn't any real subsidy for public transport. Not the buses, anyway. We have no central transport organisation like London. Each council in the area formerly known as Avon subsides *some* services that it feels are socially necessary (a level of subsidy which the bus companies come back on each year and say needs to increase). We have a range of smallish firms running services, but most of the buses are run by First Group. First has close to a monopoly for bus transport. And an eeevil reputation. First has a nasty reputation for running services at a loss against rivals, until they fold and give up the service (allegedly). The ticket prices are high, the services are unreliable, and everybody (disclaimer - not everybody) hates them.