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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.