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.

 
 
 
 

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.