Are Bike Lanes Racist?


That is a discussion going on in South Africa at the moment, and making waves internationally, as reported by Ryan Lenora Brown, who published an article on this topic in both “The Washington Post” and “The Journal”.

The reports contrasted a “frayed rope of concrete” at the side of busy roads, with bike lanes that were planned for the city centre of Johannesburg, but have now been cancelled. The mayor’s argument was that the cost could not be justified when hundreds of thousands of city residents live in abject poverty.

But while less than half of 1%of the 9 million population cycle to work, the council spends a remarkable three times what it had planned to spend on bike lanes on travel expenses for its councillors!

Ryan Brown quoted Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a populist left party, as saying “Shame on white people for demanding bicycle lanes while blacks use bucket toilets”. You can understand the view when nearly two thirds of the black population of South Africa live in poverty.

But the local government was trying to create cycling infrastructure for all, particularly for those who bike to work because they can’t afford public transport let alone their own vehicle. And – a story familiar to cyclists around the world – is that motorists see bike lanes as a convenient place to park. Driving down a bus lane is a no-no here in the UK and generally well respected, but driving along a bike lane is common practice.

Meanwhile, over in the USA, Dr Melody Hoffman has written a book called “Bike Lanes are White Lanes” in which she puts forward a view that the planning systems and advocacy groups that have led to bike infrastructure have favoured white upwardly mobile cyclists, leading to neighbourhood conflicts and accusations of racist planning. She noticed that organisers, volunteers and participants of cycling events were overwhelmingly white, after studying Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Portland, each of which has strong cycling communities.

Hilary Angus in Momentum Mag noted that in predominantly white areas of US cities, residents enjoy car-free areas and protected bike lanes, but in areas where the majority are people of colour, many streets don’t even have footpaths let alone a bike lane. It is little wonder that the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2001 that Latinos are 23% more likely to be killed while cycling than whites, and the figure rises to an even more horrendous 30% more likely for African Americans. This coincides with African Americans being the fastest growing group of cyclists.

Who Cycles Here in the UK?

The DfT reported in their “Active People Survey 2015” on which ethnic groups cycled for “Utility” or recreational purposes. The largest single group was “other white”, not just for utility cycling but also for recreational cycling; if it had just been for utility cycling (where almost twice as many White British cycle), it would have been overly simple to put this down to European migrants cycling to work, when either they had not yet earned enough to afford a vehicle, or they came from a more cycling oriented country. Is it dangerous to lean towards the latter conclusion given their prevalence in recreational cycling?

How do we explain that adults of Mixed or Chinese ethnicity show a much higher proportion cycling than in Black or Asian groups?

UK cyclists by ethnicityThe DfT report does point out that the differences may not be cultural but could be that white groups are more “inclined to live in rural areas” whilst ethnic minorities tend to live in urban areas. It may then be that urban residents are less likely to cycle (or walk) for recreation than for utility purposes. Other factors such as differences in employment, income, and vehicle ownership could have an effect.

Transport for London (TFL) published some statistics on London cyclists. They note that in England as a whole 89% of the population in 2005 was white, with the remaining 11% BME. However, in London, 30% of residents and 48% of those under 20 are from BME backgrounds and these figures are expected to grow in the future.

According to “Sporting Equals” in 2010 cycling is the 4th most popular sport undertaken on a regular basis for recreation among BME groups, yet less than 7% of all cyclists in London are BMEs. Sport England reported that 4.7% of white adults in England participate in cycling, compared to just 2.6% of BMEs. TFL’s data concurs: 57% of white Londoners say the “never” cycle, compared to 71% from ethnic minority backgrounds. White and BME men are also more likely to cycle than white and BME women: 7% of white and 4% of BME men cycle weekly, compared with just 2% of white and 1% of BME women.

It has to be a good thing that TFL is aware of the issue as the first step towards positive outcomes. Their summary of barriers to participation in cycling includes the following items:

Affordability – 57% of ethnic minority groups are excluded from participation by poverty. For those on a very low income, the cost of a bike may be a significant barrier to cycling.

Accessibility – BME groups are distanced from cycling due to a lack of culturally accessible facilities or provision, including low levels of bicycle ownership, a lack of places to cycle, inappropriate clothing (e.g. Asian women), limited places to store or clean a bike, and having to carry a bike up several flights of stairs.

Awareness – few services specifically target BMEs; as the majority of messages are communicated in English through typical English language mediums such as television, newspapers and publications, they often escape people who are culturally isolated. There is poor awareness of local walking and cycling routes amongst those who rarely walk, cycle or travel outside their immediate area.

Understanding – residents in deprived areas may not understand that cycling can improve health and fitness. In the Ocean Estate in Tower Hamlets, residents had little understanding of ‘active travel’, its benefits and how it might work for them.

Looking at two of the new cycling super highways in London and the ethnicity of the areas in which the routes are located, TFL confirmed that around 42% of CS3 users and 25% of CS7 should be BMEs, yet the actual level is 7% and 4% respectively.

It would therefore be wrong to say that these bike routes per se are “racist”, it comes down to other issues.

Sustrans ran a program under their “Active Travel” banner in some of the most deprived areas of Luton to encourage people to walk and cycle. Around 30% of Luton’s population has a BME background and 38% of participants on the program were BME. By taking cultural issues into account, programs like this have been successful in getting people to cycle.

A key finding in some of the cycling campaigns is that it is better to emphasise recreational cycling rather than utility cycling. It was seen that a number of people in deprived communities were not keen on active transport as a means of getting around, yet many have expressed an interest in riding for leisure.


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