Cycling in the UK has increased over the last decades. In 2016, the number of miles cycled was 3.5 billion, an increase of around 23% compared to 10 years before, and 6.3% more than in 2015.
There have been some positive steps towards increasing cycling rates. For instance, last year the government announced the walking and cycling investment strategy, which sets out the government’s ambitions to promote cycling and walking. In London, Sadiq Khan has similarly pledged to spend £770m on cycling infrastructure by 2022.
4% of people say they cycle every day
Despite these figures, the UK has one of the lowest levels of cycling in Europe, with lower rates only in Luxembourg, Spain, Cyrus and Malta. According to a report by the European Commission, only 4% of people say they cycle every day, while 69% say they never cycle. This is compared to 43% of daily cyclists in the Netherlands.
The dominance of white men in UK cycling is not mirrored in other parts of Europe. In the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, women are just about as likely to cycle as men.
In 2016, men made three times more cycling trips and cycled four times as far, compared to women. In 2011, only 7% of cyclists in London were from minority ethnic groups, despite the fact that 41% of Londoners are non-white. Nor do increases in cycling levels necessarily result in greater diversity, as Dr Rachel Aldred of the University of Westminster points out.
So what are the barriers different demographics face and what can we do to improve this?
Barriers to cycling
A long-term lack of investment in cycling infrastructure has resulted in an unsafe road environment that leaves many groups unwilling to take up cycling. Evidence consistently shows that safety is one of the main deterrents to cycling and that roads are perceived as unsafe by both men and women, but that the latter feel particularly concerned about it.
In 2011, only 7% of cyclists in London were from minority ethnic groups, despite the fact that 41% of Londoners are non-white. A survey by sustainable transport charity Sustrans found that safety was women’s biggest concern, with 67% of women saying that having cycle lanes separated from traffic would be the number one thing that would get them cycling.
Safety is clearly an issue with women as well as older people, but it is possible that some demographics, such as women, feel more able to express their preferences towards safety compared to men. Other barriers affecting women in particular include physical appearance expectations, harassment and home and family responsibilities.
In 2011, only 7% of cyclists in London were from minority ethnic groups, despite the fact that 41% of Londoners are non-white.
Cycling and social identity
Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine took London as a case study to explore how cycling is viewed across different groups. Through 78 interviews, they find that perceptions of cycling are bound up in social identity. There was a sense that a cyclist could be identified as a ‘kind of person’, described by one participant as ‘somebody who’s quite environmentally friendly, probably quite independent, maybe a bit of a leftie, vegetarian’.
These views of cycling – as a healthy, independent way of travelling but also a dangerous and aggressive one – strengthen some professional (mostly white) men and women’s identities. Conversely, these characteristics of cycling do not meet the needs and aspirations of other demographics, and is therefore less appealing.
The researchers also find that, the lack of visibility of Black and Asian cyclists reduces their opportunities to see it as a candidate mode of transport. This is coupled with barriers of particular significance to BAME groups, including time, affordability, accessibility and negative perceptions of cycling.
Improving cycling rates and diversity
The dominance of white men in UK cycling is not mirrored in other parts of Europe. In the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, women are just about as likely to cycle as men. This is due to long term investment in infrastructure that promotes a safe environment to cycle, alongside pro-bike policies and promotions. This environment is in contrast to the UK, in which cycling is a marginal activity and tends to attract a specific demographic.
We need to mirror these countries’ land use policies and focus on mixed use development and compact settlement patterns, as well as investing in walking and cycling infrastructure.
Earlier this year, the RTPI published a research paper outlining the role planning can play in shaping urban form and creating more sustainable places through a shift from car-oriented development towards public transport and cycling.
Making cycling a more appealing mode of transport or active leisure has the potential to be an effective tool to tackling many pressing issues we face, including climate change, air pollution, public health and strains on public services.
But more than creating infrastructure and policy conditions that result in a white, affluent male majority on bikes, we also need an environment that addresses other demographics’ barriers to cycling.
Blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.
Zoe Abel is Research Assistant at the RTPI.