5 reasons why you should care about the lack of BME cyclists in London

Only six per cent of Boris Bike users are black or come from ethnic minorities. 

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Earlier this week, Will Norman, London’s walking and cycling commissioner, said something that shouldn’t be at all controversial – and that, in truth, isn’t even very original. 

According to Norman, London’s cyclists are too white, male and middle-aged. This is backed up by evidence. While 41 per cent of London’s population is black or from an ethnic minority, only 15 per cent of cyclists are, according to Transport for London figures. Moreover, only 27 per cent of London’s cyclists are women.

Norman went on to say that for cycling to be considered a success in the capital, it must be taken up by a more diverse population, which, coincidentally, I also said last month in the New Statesman

Twitter, of course, went ablaze at Norman’s suggestion for setting diversity targets. LBC conducted an online poll (taken by over 26,000 people) in which 80 per cent rejected Norman’s indictment (it did not disclose what per cent of these were white and middle aged). Leave.EU went so far as to call Norman a “moron.”

To the online mob, this is just another case of the liberal elite seeing racism in everything. Cyclist critics of Norman have argued that if more money is spent on cycling infrastructure, it will lead to a more diverse population of cyclists. Others acknowledge the problem, but say it is low on the priority list. 

Here’s why they are wrong:

1. It’s BME taxpayers’ money

Mike Brown, the commissioner for Transport for London, also apologised earlier this week, saying London’s cycle lane expansion had been “ill judged” and rushed. There was a perception, he acknowledged, that increased funding into cycling was being seen as a way to get “middle-aged men cycling faster around the city”. Yet the spending continues. Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, has promised to spend £169m on cycling schemes in the capital for the next five years. This money is largely being spent on increasing cycling infrastructure such as Quietways and new cycle routes. 

The logic appears to be: make cycling safer and more people will cycle. While this makes sense, it ignores the very different barriers facing people of colour and women wanting to take up cycling. Norman has previously noted that outreach cycling programmes are a highly efficient means of getting more people from underrepresented backgrounds on two wheels. 

TfL has ploughed money into its Cycling Grants programme, which it says is predominantly targeted towards BME cyclists (47 out of 66 projects). Yet in a city the size of London, these schemes do not address the issue on a large enough scale. Two-fifths of Londoners are BME. If so much of the taxpayers’ money is going to be spent on cycling, surely it should be effectively targeted? 

2. More spending does not equal more inclusivity

Hackney is the only London borough in which more people cycle to work than drive. Its success has been attributed to the borough’s engagement with schools, free cycling training to all residents, a 20mph speed limit on residential roads and reducing car traffic on main roads. 

Yet even in Hackney, where 36 per cent of residents are white, a 2016 survey found that a whopping 82 per cent of cyclists are white. Councils and boroughs like Hackney have focused primarily on increasing numbers of cyclists, without paying attention to the types of people taking up cycling. 

In other words, the borough undermines the idea that spending more money on cycling infrastructure alone will make it more inclusive.

3. London needs more cyclists

London’s rail, tube and road networks are under pressure. The air is polluted. Cyclists take up less space and leave less damage behind. A report by TFL on London’s “cycling potential” found Londoners make 8.17 million daily trips by motorised transport that could be done on bike. It found that BME groups account for 15 per cent of current cycle trips, but 38 per cent of potentially cyclable trips. In other words, London’s future growth in cycling is reliant on more BME residents taking up cycling. 

4. Cycle share schemes may not be the answer

Boris Bike docking stations are funded in part by individual councils. A study conducted in 2012, found that Boris Bike users were more likely to be male and live in areas of low deprivations and high cycling prevalence. These cycles have cost taxpayers more than £200m over the last eight years, yet zone two, where many ordinary Londoners spend the bulk of their time, is still hardly covered by the scheme. Only six per cent of the 300,000 members of the Santander Cycle scheme are BME.

New dockless bike schemes such as Mobike and OFO (costing the taxpayer nothing) have appeared in boroughs not yet serviced by Santander cycles such as Hounslow, which is 49 per cent BME. However a recent equality assessment by Brent Council found that dockless bikes would disproportionally benefit white residents, for the simple reason that white people are more likely to cycle, and therefore more likely to take advantage of the scheme. 

As Dr Rebecca Steinbach told me previously, increasing infrastructure while a “necessary precursor, in of itself won't shift the culture”. A study by Portland State University found that harassment and fear of crime were larger barriers to women and cyclists of colour than white male cyclists. 

Spending more money on cycle share schemes, without discussing or engaging specifically in the reasons for the lack of BME users is self-defeating, as these schemes are intended to increase cycling uptake in those who do not tend to cycle. Yet for these schemes to work, and for cycling to become mainstream, a far more nuanced conversation on cultural diversity and integration must be engaged in by the public and transport officials. 

5. This really should not be so controversial

Five years ago Boris Johnson, then the Mayor of London, said the same thing that Will Norman said this week. But you would not have guessed that from the backlash. In a world in which people cannot acknowledge that bikes in London are ridden predominantly by white middle aged men, how can we expect to talk about immigration or the refugee crisis? 

The fundamentals of the problem are clear. Only two per cent of journeys made in the capital are done by bike. For far too long, London has simply thrown money at the problem – be it through cycle superhighways or on Boris Bikes. In essence, London’s transport commissioners have taken their cue from Tom Cruise in Field of Dreams: if you build it they will come. 

Yet we have enough cycling data to acknowledge this is patently untrue. Targeting potential BME and women cyclists must now become the heart of London's cycling strategy.

Jason Murugesu is a postgraduate student in science communication at Imperial College London, and a former Wellcome Scholar at the New Statesman.