Public transportation

London's Bicyclists Have a Diversity Problem, City Officials Say

The attempt to boost minority cycling rates is more about paternalistic nitpicking than social justice.


Sabine Katzenberger/

London's cycling commissioner, Will Norman, is dismayed at the demographic makeup of the city's bikers, finding them to be too white, too male, and too middle class. "It touches on something which is a real challenge for London cycling, which is diversity," Norman told The Independent. "Even when we have seen the growth in the number of cyclists, we haven't seen that diversity."

London has been doing its level best to boost the number of people biking around the city. Mayor Sadiq Khan, who pledged to be the "the most pro-cycling mayor London has ever had," has committed to spending £770 million ($1 billion) over his term on biking infrastructure. That's about twice what his equally pro-bike predecessor, Boris Johnson, spent to build the city's Cycle Superhighway network. Khan has promised to triple the network's size from 12 to 36 kilometers.

The effect of all this investment has been to increase cycling's share of trips taken from 1 percent to 2 percent. In addition to pissing off drivers, who blame the new bike lanes for increased traffic congestion, the heavy investment in cycling has created equity concerns, since the people who use the network the most tend to be privileged white men.

To remedy this problem, Norman floated the idea of diversity targets for London's cycling population. That would complement Khan's current diversity-boosting efforts, which include diversifying the board of Transport for London (the city's transportation department) and awarding grants to community organizations representing deaf people, Orthodox Jews, and other demographics that do not bike as much as the city thinks they should.

These equity concerns start to look more like paternalistic nitpicking when you realize that London's ethnic minorities are just as likely to bike as WASPs. They just tend to do it less often.

A 2016 Transport for London survey found that 13 percent of nonwhite residents were regular cyclists (defined as people who bike at least once a week), compared to 14 percent of white residents. But nonwhite cyclists bike less frequently, accounting for about 15 percent of all cycling trips despite making up 40 percent of London's population. Accomplishing the city's cycling equity goals therefore is less about getting more minority residents into cycling and more about prodding those who already bike into mimicking the government-approved transportation habits of their white counterparts.

Transport for London and Khan are far less concerned about the racially disproportionate impact of transportation policies that discriminate against modes of travel they don't like. Last September, Transport for London stripped the ride-sharing company Uber of its license, ostensibly because of safety concerns. The decision provoked anger and charges of hypocrisy from many of the 40,000 Uber drivers in the city, the vast majority of whom are nonwhite. Khan applauded the move in a Guardian op-ed piece.

The more London spends on bike paths, the more it exacerbates another kind of inequity: forcing motorists and public transit commuters to pay for cycling lanes they don't use. More than 80 percent of Londoners of all colors and creeds don't bike anywhere, and most of those who are identified as cyclists in surveys don't bike very much. Half of "regular cyclists" ride a bike no more than two days a week. Only 2 percent of Londoners bike five or more days a week.

Khan's plans nevertheless call for spending some 5.5 percent of Transport for London's budget on cycling. Expanding bike infrastructure often means converting all-vehicle lanes into bike-only lanes, meaning motorists and bus riders are being asked to pay for making their own commutes worse.