Cycling struggles, 6

We know some groups are more likely to cycle than others; but we rarely stop to examine this situation, to interrogate why. But we should do so, if ‘the cycling call’ is not to remain premised on white, middle-class (perhaps male, perhaps suburban) conceptions and assumptions.

This post examines attitudes to and practices of cycling within one of Britain’s South Asian urban communities. I’m calling it a ‘minority cycling story’ with some irony. The community whose attitudes and practices are reported here is conventionally understood as a ‘minority’ group. Yet their attitudes and practices towards cycling might be better typified as ‘majority’ ones. It is unfortunately those who cycle ‘ordinarily’ that remain in the minority.

6. A ‘minority’ cycling story

Off familiar territory

The area

During the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, Dr Griet Scheldeman and I spent three months in a largely non-white urban area. The local population is mostly of South Asian origin (many of East African Asian heritage). Besides English the main language spoken is Gujarati, and the largest religious group Hindu.

The area’s class profile is not straightforward; Census data suggests it is very deprived. There are certainly pockets of deprivation, but also considerable local variation. Many people who might have moved out remain in the area because of bonds based around ethnicity, culture, language and faith; the children and grandchildren of these first generation immigrants might disperse residentially, but they themselves often stay put. As we’ll see, and in contrast to the community depicted in Cycling struggles 5, many people here can afford to own and run a car.

The community is between one and two miles from the city centre, and consists mainly of residential streets of late-Victorian and Edwardian terraced housing. Many of the commercial establishments on the main road through the community cater for the south Asian population, and – especially at weekends and during festivals – draw people from further afield. There’s a good range of local facilities, including temples, supermarket, library and park. The area feels busy and vibrant.

Local shop

The main road is big and busy; its pavements are wide, but there’s no dedicated provision for cycling. Despite its proximity, the neighbourhood feels isolated from the city’s centre; severed by an inner-ring road, and a resulting sizeable zone of land which feels neglected and unpeopled. There’s a way-marked cycling and walking route between the neighbourhood and city centre; this is along back streets and through green spaces and is seen as the best walking and cycling route by the city’s transport professionals, if not by most local people we spoke with.

Typical residential street

Our research methods

The city’s sustainable transport practitioners were hugely helpful in getting us locally oriented. But to actually break into South Asian networks we utilised local community and health professionals, and local politicians. We ran focus groups in local community centres to build up contacts, and gradually managed to develop research relationships with specific individuals and families. We spoke with people in their homes, travelled with them, and– as best we could – tried to see the world from their perspectives. We also explored the area intensively on foot and by bike; undertook structured observations of many streets (both main roads and back streets) and junctions; spent a lot of time ‘hanging out’ in local spaces (cafes, restaurants, swimming pool, library, park); and spoke with people wherever we went.

Corner shop

Attitudes to cycling

Positive attitudes to cycling are shaped most by discourses of health and fitness. Obesity, diabetes and coronary heart diseases are major concerns, especially amongst older generations, and people know exercise is important. But as we’ll see the focus on cycling for health rarely translates into utility cycling, and only occasionally into leisure cycling.

Cognisance of the relevance of cycling to good health (if not actual cycling) grows with age. As people become more susceptible to health problems, they perhaps become more receptive to healthy lifestyle messages.

People tend to like the idea of cycling for leisure, and particularly the health and fitness benefits; but most have little conception of cycling as a mode of transport, and no real sense that they should do.

The categorisation of cycling, in other words, is here:

cycling = toy +/or leisure +/or health and fitness;

cycling ≠ transport.

For many people the bicycle is like a rowing boat, something worth trying if/when the opportunity arises, but not part of ordinary life. Cycling might take place on a static cycle inside the home or at a gym, or else on a hire bike.

Bicycle ownership is low. Most houses are poorly equipped for parking (or rather storing) bikes, but lack of storage is not a barrier to cycling.

Local cycling advocates report enthusiasm for cycling amongst local primary school children. We also saw people teaching children to ride in the local park, and we talked to many people with fond memories of either themselves or their children sometimes riding there. But this enthusiasm is for the bicycle as a toy, and cycling is a childhood activity best left behind. Here as elsewhere we spoke to parents who were glad – relieved mainly – their children had ‘grown out’ of cycling. It meant they didn’t have to worry so much about them.

By teaching children to cycle we might think we’re giving them a serious transport option, but most parents think their kids are gaining a life-long skill that’ll be used only occasionally. Cycle training is equivalent to swimming lessons, with the prospect of future days out in the country substituting for visits to the swimming pool and annual family holidays on the beach. If parents thought we were intending their kids to ride on roads, I think they’d respond as if we told them swimming lessons were to enable their children to go swimming by themselves in the local river; not necessarily a bad thing, but quite different to swimming under supervision in a controlled and protected environment.

So children learn to ride bicycles here (although those bicycles often have to be borrowed from the school in order for learning to take place), but no one we met had any intention of their children riding for reasons of utility in the existing transport environment.

Learning to ride

The bicycle is not taken seriously as an ordinary mode of transport because the car is the form of urban transport, its use remarkably unquestioned.

We’ve got so used to cars”, says Anju. “It’s just literally, if it’s ¼ of a mile, say a ten minute walk, we’ll drive. I think it’s a habit.”

“Same with me”, adds Meera. “From here to my bank, even if it’s good weather, if the car is in the car park, then I will think ‘OK, let me get my car, it will be quicker’. And sometimes it is the same time because you drive the car, you get the parking, again walk to the bank and come back, it will be the same time. But still, as he says, it’s a habit. You think ‘let me get the car, it will be quicker and costs tuppence’.”

The car is not just a form of transport; it is also a status symbol – and if you don’t have one, you aspire to one. A car demonstrates success. Until you have a car, you are ‘lacking’. Once you have it, you use it as much as possible; other travel ‘options’ disappear.

I’m talking to two young women, sisters, Alisha and Pooja:

Alisha:   “My mum cannot live without her car, she doesn’t walk anywhere. I don’t remember the last time she ever caught a bus in her life. She needs her car.”

Dave:    “Are you saying every journey she makes, pretty much, is in the car?

Pooja:   “Yeah.”

Alisha:   “Yep, she could go to the post office which is literally about a 3 or 4 minute walk. She won’t [walk]. She’ll take the car and come back.”

Almost every adult aspires to a car of their own as soon as they’re able. Neela is a young woman currently learning to drive. A regular bus user, she nonetheless sees the car as the default option, even for the shortest local journeys; it’s just that, for now, she’s excluded from driving herself. As she said, “obviously every teenager wants to pass the driving test and get a car of their own and just zoom everywhere”.

Many households are multi-generational and comprise more adults than is normal amongst white families. Many households have two, three, or more cars. The majority of these homes are relatively modest terraces. The residential streets are dense. All this means that the key ‘car problem’ here is finding place to park.

Off-street parking

For people who don’t drive (other than those who are too young, this is mainly older people, and especially women), a culture of chauffeuring is widespread, even over very short distances. People are regularly driven not only by family members, but also by fellow temple-goers. Local social capital feels strong. Chauffeuring shows you care, and it also shows your car.

From our own white, middle-class, liberal perspectives, we were struck by how the car is so part of people’s lives in this area when so much seems to be against it: the difficulties of finding car parking space; the costs; the remarkably small distances of most car journeys. As elsewhere, but perhaps more clearly here, car use has become ‘irrationally’ embedded in many people’s everyday lives.

The car as status symbol

Attitudes to cyclists

If the car is the vehicle for transport, and cycling is seen only as a very occasional leisure activity, what are people’s attitudes towards the people we did see moving around by cycle?

As a mode of transport cycling is embarrassing; it reveals you don’t have a car. We could put this more strongly, that the bicycle is an injury to status. I’d like to reduce the strength of this claim by delimiting the attitude to older generations, but I can’t; the bicycle’s status is perhaps lowest, and the car’s highest, amongst young British Asian men. (A caveat – young men were particularly hard to reach (probably because they were off in their cars!). So until someone does further qualitative research amongst young British Asian men specifically, looking at their attitudes to and experiences of cycling, I don’t have total confidence in the claim that cycling is particularly stigmatised amongst them.

Similarly, it might easily be argued that the car’s significance is so great amongst Asian young men because: i) a gendered conception of male autonomy is particularly strong within their communities; ii) it offers an escape from domesticity which is perhaps felt particularly strongly as they commonly live in close proximity to often multiple generations of family members; and iii) if they attend higher education, they are more likely to do so nearby and to remain living at home. But although these ideas seem worth airing (and so potentially opening for better insights/discussion), I’m unable to provide sufficient evidence for them; they remain assumptions.)

Within a group discussion, Devaraj gives this anecdote:

“When the elderly are riding a bicycle the young ones make fun of them. I’ve seen it, I don’t know if anybody’s seen it when elderly people are riding bicycle, young ones make fun of it.”

Such cycling tends to be taken as evidence that you don’t have a car; it is a visible sign of low status. Devaraj told us:

“I’ve got a car and I’m proud of my car. And then all of a sudden if I park the car on one side and I’ve got a bicycle it’s like from up there I’m down here, I’ve been degraded … To me, to go out there on a bike now, I’ll think ‘what will people think of me?’.”

Ajay is a successful semi-retired businessman. The car is clearly massively important to his ordinary mobility and his sense of his self. Nothing unusual there, but he was unusual in imagining the bicycle accruing some status as a recreational vehicle, “if it’s on the back of a BMW or Merc”.

Here then we got no sense that the bicycle could ever be chosen above the car as a vehicle. We know that is not more widely the case; indeed, recent evidence shows a higher incidence of cycling amongst people with access to a car than those without.

Utility cycling

Who cycles then?

More recent immigrants have arrived from India in the last decade or so. They tend to have a different orientation to the car to that which prevails amongst longer established migrants, their children and grandchildren. These people tend to have less money, they may not be able to drive and/or don’t have a UK license, and their priority may be to save money with which to return home and/or send home. For this group, a bicycle is affordable and drive-able in a way a car is not.

People from this group tend also to have recent experience of cycling, in India; however most find the roads here terrifying, and stick to pavements (as the comments in the previous post of Amini, originally from Morocco but who came to the UK via the Netherlands, also demonstrated, cycling almost gets ‘knocked out of them’ by Britain’s streets). I’ll describe rationales for pavement cycling in more detail in the next story. For now suffice to say even regular cyclists genuinely cannot imagine cycling on some local roads; for example, referring to the local main road, Sundara says:

if you look at it there’s no way to cycle, because there is a dual carriageway and then there are pavements, but there is no cycle lane. So you definitely cannot do it … You cannot cycle on the road where there are cars. The cars are very close to the pavement so where would you then cycle?”

This predominantly pavement cycling is also fragile because of limited bicycle maintenance and repair skills. In India a puncture is quickly and cheaply repaired at one of the many cycle shops; as Sanjay says “if you got a puncture in India there is a person who does it, and it’s very cost effective, so you don’t worry about it”. But the nearest cycle shop here is far enough away that a puncture can spell the end of someone cycling.

A few people cycle for leisure, but amongst those we met this was mainly in response to specific schemes. A couple of years previously, a local temple had organised a charity bike ride among young women, and I spoke with some who had taken part. They’d enjoyed the experience but most had borrowed bikes in order to participate and no longer cycled. Neela is an exception in that she owns a bicycle and still occasionally rides it, but really, she says, “cycling is just a one-off thing”. These young women are exceptional in having given cycling a go at all. In three months of intensive fieldwork I can’t recall seeing a non-white woman cycling in the area. Hindu women don’t cycle, we were told often, because they wear saris, which make riding impractical.

Utility cycling

How to tackle cycling’s low status

Transport cycling has been wiped off the streets, and wiped from people’s imaginations. Ajay put it in this way – “the bicycle is not respected. It has been pushed out by the car.” Car use has been institutionally and ideologically embedded, in people’s hearts and minds just as much as in political power structures and decision-making processes. To paraphrase Raymond Williams, ideology is lived as culture, and culture is ordinary.

The majority of South Asian immigrants moved to Britain during the second half of the twentieth century, precisely the period during which car use was becoming firmly instituted as the urban British means of moving around. Quick learners and eager to participate in British society, they picked the idea up well. (Many are now personally suffering the health consequences, and it is not their children but they themselves who best recognise the virtues of cycling.)

As Ajay asks, “why would anybody want to cycle when everything’s geared around the car?”.

This community’s time in Britain has been the time of cycling’s removal. Transport cycling in their part of the city is rarely seen, and when it is seen and noticed it is noticed as a problem. The occasional cyclist is not somebody to emulate, but to be pitied. The institutional, spatial and cultural eradication of transport cycling have occurred simultaneously, and are connected. Make something sufficiently unusual and it might become attractive to a minority but it becomes abnormal to everyone else, and perhaps especially those working hardest to subscribe to dominant cultural conventions.


Cycling’s locally low social status results from (though is not wholly determined by) its nationally low political and spatial status.

Even people who would like to cycle feel currently unable to do so. Cycling’s low status, as a practice you’d do only if you have to, is thereby fixed in place. The interaction below captures this:

Jim: “I would love to ride a bike … But it is very unsafe.”

Amar: “Yeah, it’s unsafe.”

Jayne: “I wouldn’t ride on the roads. No way. But you see then you’ve got people moaning about it being on the pavements, but what do you do when you feel unsafe on the road?”

Mr Raj: “Cyclists haven’t got their own security to drive on the road because it has too many traffic. That’s why they drive on the footpath. Footpath is a danger for people who are walking. So give them some road for the cyclist.”

Any practice people feel they have no place to practise will remain at best peripheral and more likely ignored and avoided. This is what’s happened to cycling here. The exceptions are either people who have arrived recently and are therefore more socialised to cycling and less acculturated to the car, or those who have no alternative – mostly young men who can’t afford a car. They’ll ride on roads where they feel able, and on pavements where they don’t. Although they’re barely noticed, their presence does nothing to challenge, only cements, cycling’s low local status.

That cycling could be normalised even here is demonstrated by the following exchange. A group of local residents is discussing cycling. As usual a strong consensus is quickly (almost automatically) reached that cycling is far too dangerous. So what, I ask, needs to change?

Hua: “Cycle paths!”

Halina: “Yeah, completely separate cycle paths. These things that they put on the roads that stop and start – cars park on them. They’re no use. They’re a waste of time. You need separate – either a separated path with pedestrians, off the road. Or a cycle path, cycle route.”

Kanaka: “Over there in Holland [her son  lives in Holland] my daughter-in-law was pregnant and for nine months she was on the bike. And I used to tell her ‘don’t! Don’t!’ And she said ‘here it’s safer than going in the car’. She came on the bike from the hospital to home!”

Jun: “But they have separate bike lanes there. Not like here. Here you have a half way, stop and then start again.”

At another point in our conversation, I ask Kanaka whether her son also cycles:

“Oh everywhere! I’m the only one who goes on the tram, and feels embarrassed.”

I don’t need to spell out the inversion that’s happened here, do I?

Putting the bicycle at the heart of things

Final thoughts

It seems a dangerous game to play, doesn’t it? To provide dedicated space for cycling where so few people do it and its status is so low?

It’s a bit like what’s happening across much of the world today, and what happened across societies such as the UK during the second half of the twentieth century – building for cars in the absence of widespread, democratic culture of driving and motoring.

If the main determinants of the bicycle’s lowly status are spatial and structural, and I think they are, then re-structuring space is the most obvious way forward (though obviously as part of a much broader package of complementary pro-cycling measures). We’ve done the same for cars – indeed, we are still doing it across most of the planet for cars – so why not do it now for bikes? Or are they still, and so all the people riding them or potentially one day riding them, second-class?

Building for cars wasn’t/isn’t about giving people choice. It was/is about a world premised on unlimited oil and endless growth. With a future now framed by the need for resilience in the face of unstable and unpredictable climates and the importance of sustainability, isn’t it time to build for bicycles instead? If political decisions centre cycling, and the design and planning of space centre cycling, then cycling’s status will inevitably rise, and people’s lives will (variably but steadily) centre cycling.

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10 Responses to “Cycling struggles, 6”

  1. Cycling…phenomenography Says:

    […] Thinking About Cycling […]

  2. John Gould (@simmarian) Says:

    Very interesting insights here. I wonder whether the decision not to ride, or the perception of a bike as a toy rather than a tool, is applicable to a far wider demographic than you have studied. I suspect it is.

  3. Doug Culnane Says:

    Very interesting study. Hats off to you.

  4. Tim Says:

    Interesting how people can happily and simultaneously deal with the idea of bike-as-toy *and* bike-as-serious-sports-equipment (Wiggo-mania etc) while completely ignoring everything in-between.

    Here is a device that can potentially carry you a long way at respectable speeds, and even a child can master the basics!

    I guess that once you’ve written the idea off because there’s nowhere in your environment you can comfortably take advantage of it then you just acquire that blind spot.

    Great to read the simple truth from people who have some interest in cycling, but don’t cycle – the elusive “potential cyclist”. Halina sums it up beautifully.

  5. patrick Says:

    “…cycling is also fragile because of limited bicycle maintenance and repair skills. In India a puncture is quickly and cheaply repaired at one of the many cycle shops.”

    This may be a misinterpretation. It may not be the skills that are deficient, rather the products. From my experience – working in equivalent locations to those described in ‘struggles’ 5 and 6 – I guess that the people you’ve listened to are unlikely to have much experience of using bicycles, only bicycle shaped objects(BSOs) whose design-function is to sell, not for anyone to use after the cash hits the till or the card-payment clears.

    These products – sold mail-order and from non-specialist outlets – also kill off cycle shops as they under-cut any products bike dealers would be willing to sell. They also undermine the reputations – and break the hearts – of bicycle traders because BSOs can never be reliably fixed.

    The BSO phenomenon reinforces – and is reinforced – by the status of bicycle as a ‘toy’. If the bike is a ‘one off thing’ you go for the cheapest option and get a BSO, which probably can’t be used. If you’ve never tried to work on one of these machines it’s hard to imagine just how shonky they can be.

    The problem is further reinforced by status issues – described here in relation to cars – attached to bikes. It’s not that you can’t make a serviceable bike to retail for less than a hundred pounds. Bikes like that are manufactured by the million in India, for domestic use and export to non-overdeveloped territories. The problem is making a bike to retail for less than three figures that must resemble an expensive bike. The money goes on features – multi-speeds, auxiliary suspension, flashy paint – instead concentrating on basics.

    The BSO problem – a trading standards issue – is a significant brake on bicycle use in this country, where, if you add in machines for children, BSOs may outsell bikes? It gets (almost) no consideration because it doesn’t touch affluent bicycle advocates and it’s primary victims are either too ashamed of being ‘mugged’ to mention it, or worse actually think all bikes must be short-term and unreliable.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks very much Patrick – all very important points, which I failed to mention and with which I wholeheartedly agree.

      Of course, cheap bikes are also – when compared to the kind of bikes most white, affluent, suburban middle-class commuters tend to use – remarkably difficult to ride. That they’re so heavy and unresponsive (and often ridden with under-inflated tyres which are anyway grossly knobbly) is another reason why the pavement makes more sense than the road.

      I take your point about better quality cycles in India, but does anyone know what happens in the Netherlands? BSOs are available, and ridden, there too, aren’t they (albeit by a small minority, with the convention in the Netherlands much more clearly established than here that bicycles cost (serious) money), so have the Dutch made any interventions in the area? There more than here, I’d have thought it could very easily be established as a social justice issue. (I have been told that it is the poor, urban, recent immigrants who are least likely to cycle regularly in the Netherlands. Presumably, in terms of ‘integration’, the Dutch would particularly like to tackle this lack of cycling. And presumably poorer people from these groups are least able to afford decent bikes and to go for a BSO, which will then tend to undermine, rather than to encourage, their cycling?)

      Thanks for so thoughtfully broadening the issues here.


      • disgruntled Says:

        I believe in the NL there is a large secondhand market for ‘stadfietsen’ – ie. those bikes that you mostly ride to and from the station and leave here. They can be picked up reasonably cheaply (I think David Hembrow mentioned something like €10 for a real clunker when we were on the study tour).

        Also cheap bikes in the NL tend to be cheap copies of Dutch bikes rather than cheap copies of mountain bikes like here – so perhaps more comfortable to ride, but more likely to turn into a heap of rust once left to the elements. I don’t know whether there are active programmes to rescue abandoned bikes and sell them on to those in need as there are here.

      • patrick Says:

        There’s an important distinction between cheap bikes and BSOs. A cheap guitar may be hard to play and have a poor voice but it’s a guitar. If it won’t stay in tune it’s not a guitar, it’s a plank, a box and six wires. Cheap bikes are not as good value as investment quality machines but BSOs are worse than burning your money.
        When I wrote about BSOs in February David Hembrow, who’s a useful English Language source of information on cycling in the Netherlands commented…
        “they’re almost not available at all over here[in the Netherlands].”
        In general people in the Netherlands have a less fantastical relationship with bikes than those in the UK, and are more willing to accept – and understand the value of – a basic utillitarian specification. Uneducated customers in the UK want something that looks like a sports bike. This can cause problems at all price-points, at the very bottom end of the scale of price and quality these problems are often terminal.
        I posted a ‘cycling struggle’‘ narrative of my own, in homage to this series. It’s an account of one of the strangest conversations I ever had with somebody near the decisive point of taking up utillity cycling.

  6. John Says:

    Very interesting to read, not an area that most of us will have any experience of. It must be important that the areas that many immigrants settle in are inner city where traffic congestion is worst so cycling is unpleasant and of course, perceived as dangerous. I can’t help feeling slightly that people who don’t want to cycle surely shouldn’t be made to cycle!
    One way of getting around the question of people affording decent bikes is to have city bikes available to hire but it looks doubtful that the people in the study would use these anyway.
    Where you have an immigrant culture who are keen to integrate there might be a time lag in a change from embracing cars to taking up cycling. The change might only take place once there is already a groundswell of change in the population at large.
    I have never seen anyone consider cycling in the light of climate change and the specific changes we are seeing in the UK, i.e. I think it is raining much more than it ever used to and it’s a heavier, soaking kind of rain. I already muse that this is enough to put casual bike users off, good waterproofs are expensive and the whole business of carrying them, putting them on and then pulling them off wet is tedious. The report above includes a comment about saris precluding cycling, there may be additional considerations around clothing, wet weather gear and so on.
    You seem to have interviewed a Hindu population here, I live in a street where there are several Muslim families where the women wear robes of various sorts and also never go out unless accompanied by a male (even if it is a little boy!) so again, there may be more issues around race if I dare call it that and popularising cycling.

  7. Cycling Struggles – a summary | Thinking About Cycling Says:

    […] status is low within Britain’s south Asian community (Cycling Struggles, 6). As elsewhere people here have been working hard to incorporate cars and driving increasingly into […]

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