Cyclists in London are typically white, under 40, male and with a medium to high household income. These aren’t my words, they are Transport for London’s.
The most recent data, which unfortunately is from 2011, suggests that only seven per cent of London’s cyclists are from ethnic minority groups. The statistic is made doubly strange when you consider that 41 per cent of Londoners are non-white.
Sadiq Khan, London’s Mayor, has committed to spending a further £770m on cycling infrastructure by 2022. And yet numbers of ethnic minority cyclists remain stagnant. So why has London’s cycling revolution left black and ethnic minority communities behind?
Dillon Harindiran, 22, was introduced to the sport at school. Born to Sri-Lankan immigrants, he speculates that a lack of experience of cycling in urban environments, combined with a lack of storage space for those living in small flats in London (ethnic minorities are more likely to live in overcrowded homes in London) may be why more BAME people do not cycle.
Dr Rebecca Steinbach, an assistant Professor at the London School of Tropical Medicine, who conducted research on this very topic in 2009, expands on Harindiran’s suggestion with the claim that another major barrier for cycling uptake in these underrepresented groups is the image of the stereotypical cyclist.
Because cycling is still such a rare form of transport in Britain (only two per cent of journeys are made by bike), Steinbach’s research found that to most Britons, cyclists have a specific identity: they are environmentally friendly, left-wing, and vegetarian. They are also typically someone who cares about their health and for whom riding a bike is not a risk to their social status. Steinbach also found that certain ethnic minority communities viewed cycling (in their community at least) as a sign of poverty.
This fear, unsurprisingly, does not exist among London’s high-flying bankers, for whom two wheels has become such a norm that The Financial Times even published a lifestyle piece on bankers who use cycling as a networking tool. In certain London cyclist circles, state-of-the-art bikes are now status symbols.
The lack of ethnic minorities on bikes perpetuate the notion that cycling is the sole domain of the white professional. Sports coverage contributes to this image: Team Sky, Britain’s most notable cycling team, is, you guessed it, all white.
Yet it is not just about exclusive cycling subcultures. While many cycling activists point to the success of the normalisation and gender parity of cycling in Amsterdam, the relative lack of ethnic minorities who cycle in the Dutch city is less discussed.
To be a cyclist in London, one must stand one’s ground and be assertive. Zoe Banks, a community organiser in Bristol who helps train women to cycle, says historically marginalised ethnic minorities and women may not feel this sense of empowerment on London’s busy streets. Though specific to the US, a study conducted by Portland State University found that harassment and fear of crime are larger barriers to women and ethnic minority cyclists than white men.
As a woman of colour, she says she understands why ethnic minorities would rather sit in the safety of their cars than open themselves up to harassment on a bike. Most female cyclists she knows, especially those who wear hijabs, have been verbally harassed while riding a bike. The Portland State University study also found that cyclists who were people of colour were more likely to be hit by a car than white cyclists. The dangers of cycling in London were highlighted last October by a Business Insider reporter and cyclist who filmed his commute in the city for a month.
Val Shawcross, London’s Deputy Mayor for Transport stated “we know that one of the reasons that people don’t cycle is the perception that it’s unsafe.That’s why we’re pushing ahead with the next phase of segregated Cycle Superhighways in inner and outer London, investing more in Quietways, and improving some of London’s most dangerous junctions.”
Steinbach says while increasing infrastructure is a “necessary precursor, in of itself it won’t shift the culture.” Dr Rachel Aldred, a reader at the University of Westminster in transport, also questions whether the “infrastructure we are building are serving areas where all of our diverse communities live?”
Santander cyles – or, as they’re more affectionally known by Londoners, Boris Bikes – are funded by London’s boroughs themselves, which meant they were present in wealthier boroughs such as Kensington and Chelsea or Wandsworth several years ago, while the city’s more deprived areas had to wait until recently, as is the case in Brixton, or are still yet to receive them.
TFL points to its TFL Cycling Grants London programme, which has funded groups encouraging ethnic minorities to take up the sport, yet London’s cycling culture continues to be the province of the young, healthy, socially conscious urbanite with a disposable income.
Steinbach says in the nine years since she conducted her research, little has changed in this cycling culture. Until cycling becomes more representative of London’s population, can we ever really call London’s cycling boom a success?
Update: This story was amended on 6 April with corrections as to the boroughs in which Santander Cycles were made available earlier.