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3 reasons why Black women are not cycling

Cycling is one of the healthiest ways to get around our cities.

Cycling has well-established and evidenced health benefits. Studies by the World Health Organisation have found that cycling is directly related to improved health in older adults. Studies on women and cycling (Matthews et al., 2007) have revealed that women who cycled for transport had reduced rates of all-cause mortality, compared to those who did not cycle. This connection of cycling and health is particularly relevant at a time when Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus appears to disproportionately affect people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds in the United Kingdom.

As a black woman myself living in urban England, in my early thirties, mother to an 18 month year old and a non-cyclist (at present), I was particularly interested in why women like me or in different circumstances have not taken up cycling as a sport or as a commuting option. I must admit that I only started considering cycling for recreation or commuting fairly recently. Our move to an area with incredible, accessible and what seems to be cycle-friendly/safe outdoor space was certainly a catalyst. I have seen more female cyclists since I moved here than in any other place I have lived in the UK, and I have had the privilege of living in quite a few. Admittedly, very few of them have been black women or women from ethnic minorities.

Windsor Great Park (Source: CityPlanista)

I recently attended a webinar that discussed the engagement of BME communities with cycling: Diversity: Is sustainable transport inclusive of our city’s diverse communities? The webinar was organised by the Healthy Active Cities Research team at Salford University, UK.The webinar included talks from Hayley Al-Siaidi, a transport planner at Arup who discussed the Inclusive Cycling in Cities and Towns report developed by Arup/Sustrans, Mohammed Dhalech, a Churchill Fellow who talked about BME engagement with the outdoors and Patrick Steele who spoke about BME cycling and social inclusion groups in Manchester.

First, a few statistics.

  • BME groups, women, people from more deprived neighbourhoods, people with disabilities and older people are typically under-represented in cycling.
  • People from the poorest households and living in deprived areas are also the least active.
  • BME groups tend to have lower levels of participation in physical recreation, particularly BME women. This is reflected in poorer levels of health as many experience higher levels of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and coronary heart disease.
  • White and BME men are more likely to cycle than white and BME women.
  • There are more than three times as many cyclists with an annual household income of over £52,000 than with an income of less than £15,559.

(Source: UK Government, Policy Analysis Research Summary, Nov 2011)

What are the barriers to cycling for black women?

1. Perception of cycling

Evidence shows that there is a negative perception of cycling amongst BME communities. Cycling is often seen as an activity for males of low status and therefore it does not reflect the aspirations of quality of life and status. Culturally embedded challenges exist in understanding the benefits and value of cycling to individuals and to communities and society. Perceptions such as fear and anxiety of trying something new or training for something can be difficult to overcome. The feeling of being socially excluded and the possibility of experiencing a type of “social intimidation” can discourage women from participating in cycling. There is also a perception of danger that exists associated with cycling. Choosing to use a car is often seen as an option for women to “feel safe” especially when commuting with young children.

2. Representation & Awareness

It is unsurprising that there is poor representation of BME female cyclists in mainstream marketing media. The challenges I faced in finding a suitable photo for this post in large photo databases such as Adobe and Shutterstock (featured image), is a reflection of this very fact. As a result there are limited role models to raise awareness and encourage BME community participation. African-american pro-cycling pioneer, Ayesha Mcgowan comments in a blog post by BIKEPGH about representation by saying, “There’s progress being made but there is still an entire community of people who are being completely excluded from the picture of what a cyclist looks like and I am really hoping to change that.” She goes on to explain about how important it is for the next generation to see what they can possibly become. Media has failed to spread the awareness of the health benefits of cycling to BME communities. Few services specifically target BME’s and therefore the messages are often in English communicated through typical English language mediums. This means that they fail to reach those who are culturally isolated.

3. Limited opportunities to cycle

This particular point is relevant to most women and not just BME women. A barrier to participation particularly for women is the demand on time and availability due to caring responsibilities. BME women can often be found in multi-generational homes looking after children and other members of the family. Therefore, the time to commit to learn to cycle is lacking. Other limitations include the accessibility of cycling such as culturally accessible facilities, safe places to store a bike and physical accessibility issues such as having to carry a bike up several flights of stairs. The urban environment itself can be disabling with concerns about personal safety and traffic. Affordability is also a key limitation leading to exclusion by poverty.

These factors are by no means conclusive. Instead they suggest there is a need to understand in more depth the barriers that exist for BME women. Institutional barriers such as limited funding opportunities and programs need further exploration.

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