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.

 
 
 
 

Marseille and Paris are crawling with rats. But it’s your problem too

A Parisian rat. Image: Getty.

You can very easily have a fine time in Marseille, but it is likely to be interrupted by rats.

The bloated and brazen beasts are so utterly convinced they own the place that they barely register any human presence to distract from their hedonistic excesses – throwing wild street parties, burrowing holes in overflowing bins, and darting in and out of exclusive harbourfront restaurants. We only really intrude when the occasional, blissfully oblivious rat is splattered across the cobblestones by a scooter.

For many residents, the whiskery foes have gone some way beyond a nuisance to represent a genuine menace. Rats have infested schools and taken over canteens. Pest control services claim they have broken into cars and gnawed through cables, which may have contributed to accidents. It is also alleged that they have caused Internet outages by attacking fibre-optic cables – continuing the venerable horror movie tradition of cutting the power seen in Aliens and Jurassic Park. Rats are also infamous and prolific traffickers of disease and have raised the threat of Leptospirosis.

Rat populations are fiendishly difficult to quantify, given their nocturnal lifestyle and that many live off-grid in the sewers; but by some estimates they now outnumber Marseille’s human inhabitants. Distress calls from the public to the city’s sanitation department and pest control services have increased, and the unofficial fifth emergency service has expanded its operations in response, laying poison traps and sweeping the gutters.

Several factors have contributed to the rat supremacy. Marseille’s Mediterranean climate has always been hospitable to rats, and a series of unusually warm summers – often passing 30°C – have made it more so. (Rats tend to stop breeding when it’s cold.)

City officials also bemoan the wanton waste disposal habits of their citizens, which have allowed large and easily accessible piles of appetising trash to accumulate. Marseille’s councillor for hygiene Monique Daubet recently complained the city has become a “five-star restaurant for rats”.

Others have suggested a series of strikes by garbage collectors gave the rat population a turbo charge it barely needed. A single pair of brown rats can spawn more than a thousand descendants within a year.

That formidable birth rate is one indicator of what the city is up against: the urban rat is almost a perfect predator. Millennia of human ingenuity has failed to remove them from our midst or negate the threats they pose. Rats are supreme survivors – scientists marvel at their survival on nuclear test sites – and they thrive in the most inhospitable environments. They can eat practically anything, but are neophobic, meaning they shy away from all but the most devious poison traps. The rodents are intelligent, resilient, and their ability to colonise new habitats rivals our own.

Faced with this adversary, the local authority has assigned more resources to the fight, through both the city’s sanitation department and the private extermination service A3DS. Both are reluctant to discuss their tactics and whether they are having an impact. But officials are also taking a tough line on public responsibility, insisting that residents dispose of trash after 7pm in sealed bags or face fines. The city has also proposed measures such as mobile dumps and new model bins that rats should find harder to access.

The Marseillais are also keeping a close eye on events in the capital: Paris’ rat problem may be even more severe, driven by flooding from the River Seine that has forced the rodents to seek higher ground. In recent years, rats have overrun the Louvre and forced the closure of public parks, as well as starring in viral video nasties that do little for the city’s image as the capital of romance.


Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has sounded the alarm and invested millions of euros in a campaign against rats, which has seen thousands of raids in hundreds of parks and buildings, as well as the introduction of more secure bins, and fines levied against people accused of feeding the enemy. Her administration has also despatched an envoy to New York to study the city’s approach to its own notorious rodent community.

An international approach makes sense given that rats are on the march all around the world. Reported sightings have shot up in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington. One study estimated that rats inflict $19 billion of economic damage each year in the US alone. London has also seen an increase in reported sightings. Leading rodentologist Bobby Corrigan says the same patterns are playing out in the major cities of the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

And for much the same reasons. Contributing factors include “too few resources allocated an organised program for rat control,” says Corrigan. “Also, more people in our cities means more refuse, more overloading of the city’s sanitation budgets, less thorough removal of the kind of food shrapnel that escapes typical garbage collection. Each rat only needs about 30 grams of food per 24 hours to thrive and reproduce.” A warming climate also plays a part.

Poison traps and culls can only go so far, says the rodentologist, arguing that a holistic approach is required to head off the growing threat. “The best measure is a city organised in addressing the rats across all agencies,” says Corrigan. That means mobilising departments of sanitation, parks, housing, health, and sewers, as well as mayoral administrations themselves.

Society-wide civic participation is also essential. “Controlling rats takes everyone: every homeowner, shop owner, restaurant, grocery store, airport, and so on. Not to do so invites the risk of a “new and/or highly virulent virus” developing among our old enemies, he adds.

Research into sterilisation programmes offers some hope of a new weapon to repel and reduce the rodent hordes. But not enough for us to evade responsibility while rat populations grow and the threat increases. “If we don’t work together as the wise species we claim to be and present a scientific, multi-faceted organised effort against this very smart and organised smaller mammal, we can have no hope of defeating it,” says Corrigan. Time to man the barricades.