Culture, equity and cycle infrastructure

Cycling is not equitably distributed across the UK population. While men and women walk around the same amount, and walking participation only declines slightly with age, the picture for cycling is very different. Statistics from the DfT suggest only one in thirty English women over 65 does any cycling – mode share for all trips being well under 1% for this group. Effectively nothing.

And such a contrast to the Netherlands where older female riders are a common sight. After young adulthood, as age increases cycling mode share grows, with women’s rates generally higher than men’s. For example, Dutch women over 60 make around a quarter of their trips by cycle, in both urban and rural areas. The bike is for that group a normal mode of travel, used for shorter trips where it makes sense. In the UK, older women are largely prevented from cycling.

Graph: Anna Goodman, from Dutch National Travel Survey data

Graph: Anna Goodman, from Dutch National Travel Survey data

When I say ‘prevented from cycling’, of course, there’s not usually someone standing there insisting they don’t ride. (Although, in my qualitative research on cycling, I did find instances where men did try to stop daughters, partners or wives cycling).

I mean prevented from cycling as in the society they live in failing to provide them with the resources they need – infrastructural, social, cultural and so on – to ride.

Problems of under-representation are often seen as ‘cultural’ (implicitly locating the problem in the group, not with service planners and policy-makers), but even if so, that doesn’t mean the solutions should be cultural. I recently found a fascinating PhD thesis by Camille Fink entitled ‘More Than Just the “Loser Cruiser”?’, looking at ‘modal stigma’ attached to bus travel in the Los Angeles context. As people riding bikes are stigmatised, in many places people riding buses are seen as ‘outcasts, disruptors, and freeloaders’, and bus users fight to separate themselves from these painful stereotypes. Fink concludes by suggesting new transit developments can help combat the modal stigma:

‘As the transit landscape of Los Angeles changes and develops in coming years and transit becomes a more viable, accessible option for people, the stigma of transit, and buses in particular, may decrease’.

The implication is that transit stigma might be challenged both by creating infrastructure that enables a larger and more diverse uptake, and by providing services that send a signal that people who use transit matter – they deserve a consistent and reliable service. I’d say transit stigma is also present in the UK; most of all in relation to buses, and particularly strong in areas lacking London’s consistent and frequent provision. I’m sure it’s one reason why in my teens I was so desperate to drive.

Interestingly though, bus stigma isn’t individualised in the same way as cycling stigma, and to some extent has remained unacknowledged. One positive result of this perhaps is that – unlike cycling – we don’t see current bus users regularly harangued for giving bus services a bad image and putting others off using the service. The problem’s implicitly recognised though in shiny promotional posters of happy bus users, rather obviously seeking to send the message that bus use is normal, even sexy, although these are less apparent in London where bus use really is normal.

However, even within the bus marketing literature there’s a strong focus on the problem of service quality. A paper by Enoch and Potter, focusing on marketing and promotion, begins by bemoaning the failure of bus companies to promote their services. But it also states categorically that promotion means nothing without a substantial improvement in service quality.

‘The starting point is that improvements in public transport provision can only be brought about if a package of measures is introduced that ideally including car restraint as well as bus priority, and high service quality.’

I would love to see research comparing levels of bus stigma across the UK, measured by examining attitudes towards bus users. My hypothesis would be that in London and some other places (e.g. Nottingham and Oxford), where bus services are also relatively good and widership relatively diverse, there are lower levels of stigma. While I’d guess the relationship is two-way – places where bus users matter are likely to provide better services – I’d think the improvements these places have seen have helped reduce stigma and improve the image of bus services, partly through a greater diversity of usage, and partly through the message sent by a better quality of service, implying bus users are worth caring about.

For cycling, the problems are slightly different. During the post-war car boom, transport cycling (like bus use in fact) became increasingly associated with poverty. Yet we have more recently seen cycling grow among more privileged demographic groups. The intriguing thing from a sociological perspective is the continuation of the poverty stigma alongside other stigmas (stigmata?). For example, not only might you, as a cyclist, be seen as unable to afford a car, you might also now alternatively be seen as a humourless eco-warrior, a health freak, a middle-class cultist trying to impose your values on others – the list goes on.

There’s a stigma for everyone, it seems – but some are more affected by stigma than others. My research found that in Cambridge, poverty stigma wasn’t generally so strong; it was much stronger in Hull where I was told ‘lawyers don’t cycle’. But in Cambridge, what poverty stigma remained disproportionately affected working-class and self-employed people; more concerned about appearing poor than university dons, who might not even realise the stigma still existed in their city.

The workings of identity and stigma are complex. However, the low social status that cycling experiences as a mode does not affect everyone equally. A paper by Steinbach and her colleagues has found that for some largely white, professional men, adopting a (marginalised) cycling identity can even function as a badge of distinction. By contrast, a dissertation I supervised recently on barriers to cycling among Camden’s Black community found that ‘the low status associated with cycling as a mode of transport’ represented the major ‘cultural’ barrier to cycling. While a car would enhance status, cycling’s low status was seen as an identity threat.

Of course, it’s not only among Black people, low income people, women, or older people, that cycling has a low status. Cycling has a low status in dominant policy and media communities, among the most advantaged as well as the most marginalised groups. In relation to the car, Mimi Sheller has cogently pointed out that ‘Especially so long as high income-earners and professional elites continue to equate car worth with personal worth, the young and the disempowered will continue to use cars for status compensation.’ Similarly, while sustainable modes are associated to some extent with the failure to afford a car, the identity threat this represents can hit the marginalised hardest. (The elite don’t need to worry about being seen as poor.)

To give another example, we could think of the differential effect of sportiness. In the UK, cycling is associated with the kind of traits that threaten dominant constructions of femininity; implying bright Lycra and sweat, grimaces and helmet hair. Now of course the dominant image of femininity is deeply sexist – the ‘This Girl Can‘ campaign seeks to counter it and send the message that it’s fine for girls and women to sweat and be sporty.

But my point here is that the construction of cycling as sporty creates greater barriers for women, given current social expectations around feminine appearance and behaviour. This is not to say it’s great for men either; and of course many women challenge these stereotypes. In my mid twenties I actively enjoyed the feeling of transgression that came with nipping in and out of London’s heavy motor traffic, just as several years before that I’d enjoyed the feeling of incongruous power I’d get when a car driver stared at the punky young woman driving a battered white van for work. But part of that enjoyment in both cases was the feeling of being in a sense superior to my female peers because I was out there riding – or driving – like a man. (Not that most men would have fancied the riding I was doing, either – but I’m sure that was a bonus too). Individual resistance doesn’t change the broader picture.

Cultural barriers to cycling are not the property or problem of the particular group or community most affected by them. They are a wider social problem. And importantly they are linked to infrastructure. Brenda, my student who studied barriers to cycling among Camden’s Black community, found safety was the most frequently cited barrier while ‘the most important facility that was seen as lacking was segregated cycle lanes.’ No surprise there: but, think about the relationship between culture and infrastructure. Providing high-quality infrastructure that visibly prioritises cycling can, like high-quality transit services, help to raise the status of a marginalised mode. It can deal with a cultural problem, as well as with the infrastructure problem.

And we have an infrastructure problem.

A recent systematic review I led covering 56 relevant studies has found that across ages and genders, cyclists and non-cyclists tend to say they want separation from motor traffic. But women’s feelings are stronger (as, probably, are those of older people).

Now it could be pointed out that this is just what people say, albeit consistently.

Who knows if that’s what will really change their behaviour?

It’s a fair point. However, I’d argue that we should listen to potential users when designing services (and generally evidence about where people actually ride confirms that yes, people do prefer to cycle away from motor traffic, if routes are passably direct). I think we should listen particularly hard to groups currently under-represented among service users, and where the evidence is fairly consistent, take it in good faith. Which means that across the UK, we are simply failing to enable cycling. It’s analogous to providing a limited bus service every hour, and then being surprised that people are choosing to drive. And the low quality of cycling environments, along with the low status of cycling, has unequal impacts.

I’ve argued above that poor or absent infrastructure is a cultural problem, which disproportionately affects some groups. Poor cycling environments reinforce the low social status of cycling: and groups that are most excluded by cultural barriers to cycling have precisely the greatest need of excellent infrastructure, to help overcome these barriers. In the UK we have created a cycling environment where one must be fit, brave, and sporty to cope with the conditions: in the Near Miss Project I found that slower cyclists had around three times the near miss rates per mile of the fastest cyclists. In those conditions no wonder those who can’t or won’t be ‘sporty’ are put off, with predictable impacts on age and gender (im)balance.

But infrastructure is also, obviously, an infrastructural problem.

In places where cycling does have policy support, where we’ve built, and for whom and what journeys, could have unwittingly helped to reinforce inequalities in cycling rates. Lower-income neighbourhoods often suffer disproportionately from LULUs (locally unwanted land uses), including busy roads that cause severance and degrade cycling and walking environments. Little work has been done to map, let alone address, how these inequalities affect UK cycling. TfL’s reasonably interesting 2011 paper on barriers to cycling amongst ethnic minority groups and people from deprived backgrounds focuses largely on ‘cultural’ problems and programmes, with no discussion of the interactions between culture and infrastructure, or socio-spatial inequalities in cycling environments.

By contrast in the US, advocates have studied access to bike routes in relation to class, deprivation and ethnicity, and are increasing able to evidence and challenge under-provision of cycle infrastructure. There a recent survey showed that ‘people of color ride bikes for transportation more than white people, and they were also more likely to say that the presence of protected bike lanes would encourage them to ride more.’ Yet access to infrastructure remains unequal and community activists continue to advocate for equalising access to bike infrastructure.

We need to be doing this kind of analysis, with equity integrated into our cycle infrastructure planning. But more than this: we need not just to look at where the infrastructure is in relation to where people live, but also to look at creating routes to where people want to go. Beyond neighbourhood characteristics, another reason why some groups are under-represented among those taking up cycling in London might be the kinds of journeys they make, and the destinations they going to. This type of inequality has been pointed out in relation to bus service provision: bus routes have often traditionally served town centre shopping areas, but some communities’ shopping areas may be somewhere else entirely.

We need to be sensitive to different journey needs. While for men in their thirties, one in three trips are commute trips, for women in the same age group, the figure is one in six; and as people get into their sixties and beyond commuting declines rapidly in importance. Creating high-quality routes is great, but we should ask: are we creating routes that cater for those commuting to central areas, but leaving behind those shopping in a local market or taking their kids to school? Of course, we should have both, and it’s good to see that London’s mini-Holland schemes are aiming at the latter.

So building for all types of trip is important. As is building direct. For women and older people, the propensity to cycle trips declines much more sharply as distance grows than for men and younger people: so building direct routes, which will often involve high-quality separated infrastructure on main roads, is particularly important for under-represented groups. If we build wiggly indirect routes, we unnecessarily lengthen journeys and build in inequality where it’s not needed. Even though women’s propensity to cycle declines faster with distance, women generally make shorter trips so this doesn’t have to mean less cycling (it doesn’t in the Netherlands).

My take-away point is: pretty much everyone says they want direct and convenient cycling routes that keep people away from motor traffic. Let’s build that, and build it where it will serve the needs of a range of communities, ages, genders, and trip purposes. This way, we address the cultural barriers (such as the idea that cycling is only for the fit and the sporty) that block equity, at the same time as dealing with the infrastructural barriers that do the same. Some of this stuff is complex, but dealing with it is at least in principle not that difficult. We just (!) need to mainstream both equity considerations and high-quality cycle provision into planning.

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9 Responses to Culture, equity and cycle infrastructure

  1. I’d never thought of cycling use in terms of status and stigma but your findings just make a lot of sense to me. Living in a very affluent area of the US with some good cycling infrastructure, I do get the feeling that some people who wouldn’t otherwise ride do so because they think it’s kind of a treat or a novelty that they live in an area that has this. It becomes a mark of higher status that they want to embrace.

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  3. Sydney Brown says:

    Thank you for putting this collection together. I am a year-round commuter, cyclocross racer, and cycling infrastructure proponent who will also be teaching a design class this spring to university freshmen and I am hoping to work with a local “bike kitchen” for our projects. Your collection of links will be helpful content for my students.


  4. Tony says:

    You say that we should listen to potential users when they say that they would cycle more if they had more segregation but is there any evidence that that is anything other than a rationalisation for not cycling rather than a reason?

    Cambridge* has very little segregated (or any) cycling infrastructure but Dutch levels of cycling. Stevenage has Dutch levels of segregated infrastructure but cycling is below the UK average. The surge in segregated infrastructure in London is following the surge in cycling not leading it.

    If you look further afield, the widely praised cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands has not affected low cycling levels in minority communities. It also didn’t increase cycling levels over pre-infrastructure levels meaning the over 60 women you point to were most likely cycling before the facilities came into place, not as a result of them (either that or if they started cycling, then some other group must have stopped cycling to maintain the constant numbers across the period).

    If you go back to the pioneering studies of Kurt Lewin, people will give all sorts of reasons to rationalise a behaviour but that does not mean behaviour will change if that reason is removed. They’ll just come up with a different rationalisation. Do you have any evidence that what potential users say is anything other than rationalisation because if it isn’t a lot of money could be spent building something that will make no difference rather than spending it on things which could.


    • admin says:

      Hi Tony – thanks for your comment 🙂 A lot of points there, but just quickly on evidence for good quality protected infrastructure having an impact on uptake. It’s growing – for instance, some recent work has been done by CEDAR at Cambridge University as part of their Commuting and Health study, which evaluates the Busway Cycleway using longitudinal methods which provide high quality data but are relatively rare (partly as we haven’t built that much good infrastructure to evaluate, partly because longitudinal surveys tend to be costly and require long-term follow-up). For a summary of one of their papers see

      • Tony says:

        The busway is not really segregated infrastructure as most people understand it though. Its a completely new route that was not available before in a place where there are few other route options. Interestingly it also stops from the northern boundary of the city across the city centre to the railways station so most of the people using if for commuting have to mix it with traffic in the city while Hills Road remains the more popular option for getting to Addenbrookes because its a more direct route.

        Against that if you look at the London boroughs, the one that has seen by far the biggest growth in cycling is Hackney which is the one borough to resist segregated infrastructure while Camden which has championed it has seen much less growth, especially in those parts where the segregated facilities are.

        I would suggest that far from growing evidence there is already a large base of data that says the evidence is lacking – before and after data from places where significant builds have taken place – Denmark, Dublin, the Netherlands, Stevenage, Milton Keynes, Germany……..

  5. Jean says:

    You are correct: even when wanting increased diversity among cyclists across race, ethnicity and gender, one must create safe, logical routes with logical destinations along the way. Hopefully with bike parking.

    Do you plan to conduct research on cycling patterns among non-white in U.K.? There’s already strong communities there.

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