Why does London have so few black or Asian cyclists?

A cyclist uses the brand new cycling superhighway, 2010. Image: Getty.

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) 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”, And 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 suburbs, such as Hammersmith, 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?

This article previously appeared on our sister title, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Copenhagen puts cyclists at the top of the social hierarchy

A cyclist in Copenhagen, obviously. Image: Red Bull/Getty.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is not a nation of cyclists? Why we prefer to sit in traffic as our Dutch and Danish neighbours speed through the city on bikes?

Forget about hills, rain, and urban sprawl: the real reason we aren’t cycling is much closer to home. It is not just lack of infrastructure, or lack of fitness, the reason that 66 per cent of Brits cycle less than once a year, is because of status.

An obsession with social status is hard-wired into our brains. As we have built a society that relies on cars, the bicycle has slipped to the periphery, and gone from being regarded as a sensible mode of transport, to a deviant fringe-dwellers choice.

Even though cycling to work has been shown to be one of the most effective things an individual can do to improve health and longevity, researcher David Horton thinks that there are a set of collective anxieties that are stopping us getting in the saddle. These include not just an unwillingness to be made vulnerable, but fear of being thought of as poor.

A quick look over the North Sea shows that there is an alternative. Danish culture has elevated cycling to the point of reverence, and the social status of cyclists has followed. As we have busied ourselves building infrastructure that testifies to the dominance of the car, Denmark has been creating magnificent architectural features, aimed specifically at bike users. The Cycle Snake, or Cykelslangen, literally suspends the cyclist above the city, metaphorically elevating the cyclist and creating a sense of ceremony.

In doing so, they are subtly persuading people of all backgrounds to see past their prejudices or fears and take it up as the clearly better choice. This means there are more women cycling, more older people cycling, and more ethnic minorities cycling. The activity is less dominated by comfortably middle class white males: there are cyclists from every side of the community.  

The Cykelslangen, under construction in 2014. Image: Ursula Bach and Dissing+Weitling architecture.

Despite abstract motivations like getting ripped and conquering global warming, it is only when the bike path becomes the obviously better choice that people will start to cycle. It can take years of traffic jams before people try an alternative, but if you make motorists jealous of cyclists, then the tables can quickly turn.

Another way that Copenhagen has done this is by taking privileges normally afforded only to the motorcar, and given them to the bike. The city has ensured that cycle routes do not include blind corners or dark tunnels, and that they form a complete, coherent network, and a steadily flowing system – one that allows cyclists to maintain a reasonable pace, and minimises the amount of times you have to put your foot down.

The ‘Green Wave’, for example, is a co-ordinated traffic light system on some of the main thoroughfares of the capital that helps minimise the amount of cycle congestion during peak times. It maintains a steady flow of cycle traffic, so that there is no need to stop at any point.


Small measures of prioritisation like this one increase the sense of safety and consideration that cyclists experience, making it natural for the citizens of a city to act in their own self-interest and get on their bike.

As well as redefining the streets around the bicycle, the Copenhagen Cycle Chic blog positively fetishises cyclists. The tagline “dress for your destination, not your journey” depicts the social fashion life of the cycle lane as a “never ending flow of happy people heading from A to B”. Its writers are  literally making cycling sexy, dispelling the idea that going anywhere by bike is odd, and helping the world to see that the bicycle is actually the ultimate fashion accessory.

So unlike in London, where cycling is still a predominantly male pursuit, Copenhagen sees a more even split between men and women. Not just because they feel safer on the roads, but because culturally they are comfortable with their appearance as part of a highly visible group.

So while our low level of cycling is partly due to our physical infrastructure, it is also due to our cultural attitudes. The mental roadblocks people have towards cycling can be overcome by infrastructure that is not only safe, but also brings old-fashioned notions of dignity and grace into the daily commute.

Of course, office shower facilities might stop cyclists being ostracised, too.