Joe Cush discusses cycling inequality in the UK.
For transport policymakers the Coronavirus lockdown has led to a period of problem-solving in the face of two disturbing truths. The first is the recognition of a longstanding public health crisis in the UK, where air pollution claims the lives of up to 36,000 people a year. The second is the need to resume everyday commuting life with social distancing measures in mind, as to not exacerbate Coronavirus infection rates.
Cycling has seemingly provided the answer to this transport conundrum, owing to its unparalleled space efficiency coupled with indisputable health and environmental benefits. The Government has paid much lip service to establishing cycling as a principal mode of transport: in May announcing a £2 billion package to spend on cycling and walking infrastructure and a £250 million emergency fund to make cycling and walking safer in the immediate period of Coronavirus mayhem.
However, a stumbling block to the successful rollout of new cycling infrastructure is the woeful record of existing policy at making cycling an accessible transport option for everybody. Research has consistently revealed that stark inequalities ravage Britain’s cycling network, with many demographics either obstructed or unable to take up cycling as a regular mode of transport.
A gendered disparity is the first of many such inequalities. Resultant from deterrents such as the harassment, abuse and dehumanisation female cyclists often face from male drivers, a greater concern over (a lack of) safe cycling infrastructure, or the feeling that cycling is an activity incompatible with sexist expectations of femininity, the UK now finds itself in a situation where only a quarter of cyclists on UK roads are female.
Cyclists in the UK are also generally drawn from affluent households and neighbourhoods, and are often better educated. Perhaps the authoritative voice on cycling inequality, Bike Life, found that out of socio-economic groups D and E only 10% cycle once a week and 75% don’t cycle at all. Poverty represents a great barrier to cycling uptake, where workers on precarious wages often cannot afford the lump sum of buying a new bicycle and necessary kit.
Ethnic minorities are also considerably underrepresented in cycling figures. Again, the contributory factors to this disparity are complex and often include structural issues such as a lack of robust cycling amenities in areas with high concentrations of ethnic minority groups. Cultural barriers are also frequently cited to explain the lack of cycling uptake by ethnic minority groups, all too often by established policymakers hoping to wash their hands of any responsibility for this injustice.
As is widely retorted by its critics, the current picture of the UK’s cycling network is that of dominance by young, white, wealthy, able-bodied, male cyclists. If our towns and cities are being regenerated for bicycle use these inequalities must be reversed, and fast. Otherwise, the exclusivity of cycling will only remain, while other demographics will have a valid transport option snatched away from them with no viable alternative.
Although this barrage of statistics may seem daunting, policymakers have a wealth of knowledge to rely on if they are serious about levelling the playing field. Firstly, representation must be at the heart of the incoming wave of cycling infrastructure. The causes of cycling inequality are complex, where culture, infrastructure and environment intertwine to create unlikely barriers. It is vital that these underrepresented groups are present in planning committees and policy forums so that their concerns can be heard and implemented into policy.
Developing infrastructure into more deprived areas and neighbourhoods will be key in remedying the class, and to an extent, ethnicity divide present in cycling. Currently, cycling infrastructure and bike rentals services are often engineered in wealthier neighbourhoods while poorer areas are left wanting. As such, it is precisely in these poorer areas where there is the most need for more investment, in order to normalise and promote the activity amongst these underrepresented groups.
Finally, planners must look at drastically improving the safety of cycling infrastructure. Many cycle lanes in the UK are simply inadequate and unsafe - half-heartedly squeezed onto roads that were engineered by the car-centric planners of the 60s and 70s. But there are many inventive methods we can pluck from other ‘cycling cities’ to make our streets safer and more inclusive, and planners must be held to account when they produce poor cycling infrastructure that does not meet the genuine needs of the people using it.
Joe Cush is a political science graduate, young Fabian and Labour activist.
He tweets at @joe_cush