Can cycling help cities address inequality?

Two wheels better: a cyclist in London. Image: Getty.

Last week the biggest review of health equity in England, The Marmot Review 10 Years On, revealed inequality in life expectancy between the wealthiest and most deprived people in England had increased. Inequality in healthy life expectancy, the number of years lived in good health, was even greater. This means people in more deprived areas spend more of their shorter lives in ill-health than those in less deprived areas. Whilst the report focuses on England, the damage to health and wellbeing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is similarly unprecedented. 

Large inequalities exist in virtually every city and town across the UK. Whilst the climate emergency has become common vocabulary, we are also facing a health emergency with millions of people being left behind.

Where people live and their ability to reach everyday services, employment and to participate in society play a significant role in determining their health. 

In 2019, through Bike Life, the largest assessment in cycling, Sustrans explored how social inequality relates to cycling and transport in partnership with 12 cities and urban areas. 

The data set, a representative survey of almost 17,000 residents across these areas, showed that only 54 per cent of residents from socio-economic groups D and E (people in semi-skilled and unskilled occupations, and people not in employment) have access to a car, in comparison to 88 per cent of residents from socio-economic groups A and B (people in managerial jobs and professionals).

In the UK we have largely designed our cities and towns around cars. Whilst this policy has benefited the rich, it has been to the detriment of many people often on lower incomes or not in employment.  

Furthermore, poorer public transport provision and fewer local amenities often exist in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. And where it does exist, public transport is expensive. This means that people who are already suffering from health inequalities are either excluded from accessing the basic everyday needs that other people take for granted or pushed into greater poverty.

So how could cycling help?

Some 68 per cent of journeys anywhere in England are less than five miles. At a relaxed pace you can cycle this distance in 30 minutes. Cycling has the potential in the UK to be a cheap, fast and healthy mode of transport for everyone. However, Bike Life found only 10 per cent of people from socio-economic groups D and E cycle once a week and 75 per cent never cycle. 

Importantly, this isn’t because people do not want to cycle. In fact, 30 per cent of people from socio-economic groups D and E would like to start cycling. And the same situation exists for other groups less likely to cycle – for example women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people. 

Bike Life data shows road safety is a large barrier for people from all of these groups. However, we also found barriers more specific to people from socio-economic groups D and E: for example, 19 per cent of them do not see cycling as an activity “for people like them”, compared to just 9 per cent from socio-economic groups A and B. Cycling should be an activity that everyone, regardless of their sex, ethnicity, ability or background should feel welcome to participate in.

So what can national government and city and town leaders do to ensure cycling is a genuine mobility choice for people, especially those suffering from poor health compounded by a lack of transport options? 

Firstly, we need to ensure health outcomes are the primary objective for cycling and transport policy – the number of people cycling is less important than who is cycling and the benefits they gain. Second, we need to dramatically increase investment in infrastructure and ensure this is better connected to more deprived neighbourhoods and the needs of the people who live there. Finally, we need to support people to cycle – this includes training and community programmes but also support to access a suitable cycle, especially for those not in employment. 

Tim Burns is senior policy advisor at walking and cycling charity Sustrans. To read the Bike Life 2019 report click here.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.