Could London's future poor be banking on bikes, and is the city ready for them?

Back in the day when "a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure" (Margaret Thatcher, 1986), a man who found himself on a bicycle must have really felt at the bottom of the economic hierarchy.  These days bicycles are more likely to be associated with aspiring Prime Ministers (both of them), Lord Sugar and the affluent classes, not to mention the well-documented rise of the monied MAMIL and the migration of the golf set on to two wheels.
Perhaps this has helped to bring about a perception that people cycle out of choice and not necessity; that their journeys could be easily supplanted with a trip by car or on the Tube if conditions are unfavourable; but as cycling rates grow in London so will the profile of its cyclists and we could soon find ourselves with a new "cycling tribe"; one that is very poor indeed.

This week sees the overhaul of England's social welfare system and unless you've been living under a rock you won't have been able to escape all of the media chatter about benefits and the so-called bedroom tax.  In the coming years poorer people within our society are likely to find themselves initially less well off; its claimed that inner city poorer people will move to cheaper suburban areas and poorer people with limited mobility already living in suburban areas could have to give up running a car.  Government minister Iain Duncan Smith may think it is possible to live off £53 a week, but most people would struggle and be looking to make economies where it is possible.  With diesel fuel currently costing around £1.40p a litre and a one day Zone 1-4 Transport for London Travelcard coming in at £11, or £43.50 for a week, the bicycle makes the most sensible choice for people with decreasing incomes to get around.

How will the profile of London's cyclists change in the coming years?

Transport consultants Steer Davies Gleave recently released a discussion document outlining how cycling levels will grow across London in the forthcoming years.  A "contagion" effect will see cycling growth ripple out from boroughs with already high levels of cycling, such as Hackney, whilst new centres for cycling will grow in the outer London boroughs.  Outer London locations with no cycling to work will decrease to 7% down from 42% in 2001, based on projections modeled on 2001 and 2011 Census data, whilst across the capital 95% of locations will include people who cycle to work, compared to just 66% in 2001.

Cycling to work levels across London in 2011:
Projected cycling to work levels across London in 2021;
As more people turn to using a bicycle as the most economic mode of transport as a consequence of their personal financial situation, we should expect to see people from a wider spectrum of London's society riding.  Very cheap second-hand bicycles and sub-£50 supermarket bikes will become as ubiquitous as City racers on high-end road bikes.  People will begin to use bikes more in poorer outer London areas where previously there was little or no bicycle use at all.  Using a bicycle out of necessity rather than by choice means you are less likely to be able to afford to switch transport modes in the event of inclement weather; we can expect to see more people riding through winter, riding in the dark and riding in wet and extreme-weather conditions.  Most people I know who currently ride do so because they have a certain passion for bikes, a love of the ride, but this emerging new sub-group of cyclists will have a different approach.  Many will feel they have no choice but to ride, as alternatives are untenable - as pointed out in the now defunct Sustainable Development Commission's excellent report Fairness in a Car Dependant Society;
"The cost of public transport alternatives to car ownership have risen substantially in real terms over the last decade, while in many cases services have worsened. A transport system that offers only limited and expensive public transport options can exacerbate unemployment issues. The Social Exclusion Unit’s report found two out of five jobseekers stated that lack of transport is a barrier to getting a job and the two most common problems for young
jobseekers were “lack of personal transport” and “no job nearby”.  For those currently hoping to move off benefits, transport problems can be a major worry. Research for the Department for Work and Pensions found: “Of all the factors associated with concern about moving off benefit, one (access to transportation)
stood out as especially important in predicting anxiety.” (page 26)

Drawing Rings data blog's heat map of cycling collisions in central London show that the "hottest" areas are also some of the poorest; Elephant and Castle, Whitechapel and the Euston Road feature strongly alongside more "traditionally dangerous" corners of the capital such as Blackfriars and Trafalgar Square.  Conversely, some of these areas are perceived to be poorer areas because of the way in which they are blighted by motor traffic, which in turn is the source of the danger.

In short, the pace of change needed to accommodate London's future cycling communities needs to increase, and quickly.  If we are to turn around the worrying trend of cycling in London becoming more dangerous with the more people who cycle (the venerable CTC's words, not mine), then concerted efforts are going to be needed across all of our boroughs and not just where the coolest (or most vociferous) cyclists reside.  We need to see an increase not just in the types of cycling shops prepared to sell and service the kind of bikes this new, less wealthy market will demand, but also a dedication from local boroughs - in terms of both allocating resource and road space - to keeping these new cyclists safe.  The alternative; of poorer people being killed or seriously injured getting about by bike because they felt they had no alternative but to ride, is too terrible to contemplate.

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Paul M said...

Well, Maggie never was particularly bright, just very high on self-belief.

The wealthiest man I personally know travels on the bus from his mansion overlooking the Regent's Canal to his office in Mayfair. His net worth certainly has 8 zeroes, possibly nine, on the end. He got there through his own efforts and abilities, including a double first from Cambridge and an MBA from one of the US' most prestigious business schools. Calling him a failure?

It is a very apparent fact that cyclist in central London are, for the most part, well heeled. I have obseved more than once that bankers, brolers, city accountants and lawyers are among the most enthusiastic cycle commuters. A bicycle is "aspirational".

I only wish that less well-off people could see through the crap and take note of that, just as "mondeo man" once saw the car in similar terms. Dave Horton however tells us a lot about the poors' attitude to cycling which doesn't offer that much hope, founded as it is on similar notions of "failure" or worse - the escape mode of choice for crack dealers.

And I hope they don't all go out and buy the cheapest supermarket bike, because they will be wasting their money and will soon be discouraged if they do. If anyone attempted to make and sell a car that cheap, it would fail its MOT test from brand new.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't put ANY faith in an extrapolation of that magnitude - too much could change in 10 years, and indeed may change fairly shortly, as you explain in the article. Indeed, based on your explanation, the 2021 map appears to be simply a contrast-enhanced version of the 2011 one - pretty unsophistcated stuff and not worth discussing in terms of trends (IMO). What is interesting, though is that it looks like there's a doughnut in the middle of London from the first map. Is that because people work rather than live in the middle & cycle in, or is it hostile cycling conditions? If the former there's a problem because I thought census data were tied to addresses. Some of the darker areas in SW London, best shown on the contrast-enhanced 2021 map, are the Thames path, and the southern and eastern paths through Richmond Park. Who lives there? In that area at least it looks more like a throughput map rather than tied to addresses, in which case, how does it relate to the census data? On the other hand, for the areas I am familiar with, it does seem a fair representation of how hostile to cycling the roads are (the lighter tint the more hostile).

Any coherent policy of encouraging cycling would of course focus action on the pink and grey areas, thus completely negating the 2021 extrapolation.


ibikelondon said...

Thanks for your comment Paul. I think you might be right about Thatcher, though its frightening where a determined self belief can take you!

My heart is duly warmed by the story of your colleague on a bus - there is hope for humanity after all, it would seem. Good on him.

I think that you are right that there is a message which is failing to get through to less well-off communities about the benefits of cycling. I've seen Dr Horton's Walking and Cycling report and the comments made by those interviewed from poorer backgrounds and it makes both alarming and depressing reading. In an anti-failure society, it seems as though the bicycle in certain circles is the epitome of failure as oppose to the aspirational product we know it to be in the City. It's the famous "I look down to him/ I know my place" sketch writ large through transport choice. As to how we improve this situation and get the message out there, I'm not sure, but it is certainly a debate that needs to be had.

ibikelondon said...

@GIGO Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts.

I agree that the images cooked up by SDG are not especially accurate - the datasets used (01 and 11 census) to cook them up are problematic and of course there's only so much guess work that can be done when the ground is shifting so substantially in terms of population movement and the shifting of 'classes' (for want of a better term). They are useful however in acting as a springboard towards discussion about the wider issues and ideals London is facing, which is what I've hopefully done in the post above. Essentially, we need to get people thinking about this issue more because it is already on its way.

The donut effect you're referring to is well-documented elsewhere - essentially there is a cordon seperating and restricting movement between inner London and outer London. The donut roughly follows the path of the north and south circular roads; roads which have given rise to a girdle of blight and poor housing and industrial building stock that encircles the city. These kind of barriers can be both mentally as well as physically difficult to cross (and not just on a bike, as explained by Lynsey Hanley in her book "Estates: an intimate history".

As to who lives in Richmond Park or on the Thames Path, well, people *do* live in these areas and they're usually extremely well off, which in turn perversely means they are more likely to use a bicycle than their counterparts at the other end of the economic spectrum. The "poor man's wheels" have become a "rich man's toy" it would seem.

Anonymous said...

It’s all part of this Tory Government’s cunning plan – reduce benefits & wages so poor people can’t afford to eat - solves obesity crisis. Keep costs of public transport rising so poor people have to walk or take to bikes – also helps with obesity! While subsidising stupid new unnecessary road-building around the country, reduce grants to local councils so their budgets are squeezed and they can’t afford to invest in safety for cyclists or pedestrians – helps kill off the poor who can’t afford a metal box to protect themselves!

Simple really!

ibikelondon said...

@Anonymous I'm not sure if the current (coalition) Government is quite *that* Machiavellian but your assessment of the situation did make me smile.

Reminds me of Jonathon Swifts "modest proposal" for dealing with the poor from the 1700s!

Edward Catmur said...

The Thatcher quote is a famous misattribution; see
Notwithstanding the efforts of parliamentary enemies and opportunists to attach the sentiment to her, it hardly fits with the kind of low-church Tory she was.

Fred said...

Shame on Islington for having ownership of two cycling collision hot spots. It's a borough rich in nice words about cycling, but not so much in the way of action. We're sandwiched between Camden & Hackney so it's really hard to think what the excuse is!

David Arditti said...

I thought the "doughnut" being referred to was the hole in the middle of London in these maps, corresponding to Westminster, RBK&C and the City. As I understand it these maps are residence-based. Therefore people living in Westminster, RBK&C and the City don't cycle to work as much as people in the inner suburbs. Is this because few of the VERY rich cycle, because they get taxis, or don't need to go anywhere, or because they live close enough to walk, or is it because of the lack of decent cycle routes in these places?

But I think elsewhere in this argument things are being got upside down. The people in outer London who don't cycle may be less well off, but it's not because of the social perceptions of their class that they don't cycle, fundamentally, it's because the conditions for cycling are appalling where they live. If I lived in Primrose hill, I would probably cycle every day. In Edgware it's little fun, and not worth the candle. I think there's self-reinforcement going on. Because in bad cycling environments cycling is an alienating experience, people lower down the socio-economic and educational spectrums will see it as an option that society frowns upon, and they will therefore downgrade their beliefs about it. I therefore don't think much will change merely as a result of people getting poorer. They will simply get more into fuel poverty but keep driving where they can. Only government policy can turn this around by actually making cycling attractive in the lower cycling locations where it is tremendously unattractive at the moment.

ibikelondon said...

Thanks for the clarification @Edward Catmur - it seems a misattribution will go half way round the world before the truth has caught the bus...

@Fred Smith Thanks for the insight in to Islington. It could be worse, you could be in Westminster (eek!)

@David Perhaps you're right that there's a lack of clarity in the argument here; more than anything else I just wanted to stimulate debate and awareness on this subject because I am not sure it is something that is being considered at all. Of course we both know that the solution to having more people on bikes all over London is making the space between buildings fundamentally more attractive for cycling - as I hint in the last paragraph of my post there is a lot to be done!

Goodwheel said...

It may be the case that the future of London cycling is that it will attract those who cannot afford a car and that is the great irony of London cycling.

I cycled today through Kilburn to Central London and passed many Porches stuck in traffic.

I kept a constant 15 miles an hour whilst they spent much of the time at 0 mph. And these are people who bought their car because they were attracted to the idea of speed.

So who's really richer and who truly poorer?

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