We can't all get on our bikes until inequalities are addressed
Cycling as a lifestyle choice does not have the infrastructure to make it a working-class pursuit
A few weeks ago, I got my first ever bike at the age of 29. Growing up in a single parent family, with four siblings, we couldn’t afford one. Like many, we lived week to week with the constant spectre of financial ruin always on the horizon.
I do remember learning to ride a bike. A pal of my Mum’s had given the family a second hand one.
It was covered with stickers of aliens and flying saucers. When I picked one off, I realized they were to cover the rust.
As I cycled it, I loved the freedom it brought but at the age of ten, I soon understood that access to this freedom depended on whether we could afford it.
The family bike didn’t last long. It was left behind during yet another midnight flit to escape my Dad, who had tracked us down. Everything that we owned had to be put into black bags and piled into the back of a taxi. The bike didn’t fit.
The very next time I can remember riding a bike was when I was in care. My foster carers children used to go on long bike rides. I stayed in my room, withdrawn and reading Harry Potter. To make me venture outside they lent me an old bike. It brought me that same freedom. It was, however, another bike that wasn’t mine.
There were no alien stickers this time. Instead, this bike came with yellow tassels on the handles My pals laughed at me. And I set about ripping the tassels off.
Reflecting on this has made me realise that when I was growing up, I never had choice. I had bikes that always had remnants of the last user.
It is, with that in mind, an enormous privilege that I was able to purchase a bike through a cycle to work scheme. I have a stable job, so I can afford the monthly deduction from my wage. Getting ‘on your bike’ as Norman Tebbit once alluded to isn’t that easy.
As this current pandemic continues, bike shops around the country are selling out. Bike theft has gone up so much so that newspapers are running stories about individual bikes being found, so rare is their re-appearance. Edinburgh’s cycle hire scheme has even reported a record rise in the number of hires, with similar reports from the London and Glasgow.
This insatiable appetite for cycling goes hand in hand with a move to ensure better cycle infrastructure in the nation’s cities and towns. The UK Government has even ring fenced £500,000 for bike maintenance vouchers, split into £50 vouchers to help with the cost of maintaining a bike.
As the nation’s low paid workers are told that they need to return to work, they face the prospect of a public transport system which hasn’t quite managed to pivot to take account of the deadly virus, which spreads much easier in tight spaces with lots of people. Workers are being told, quite literally, to get on their bike. Which is great if you have one.
The average cost of a bike capable of handling UK roads ranges from £350-£600 with the predicted upkeep rising to £160 per year. Just as a bike would have been beyond my family when I was young, it is still beyond many families today.
The cycle to work scheme only works if you can afford to make the monthly payments and if your job is stable enough that you’ll manage to pay it off. The financial pressures many families face means this just isn’t possible. Affordable cycle hire schemes, operating in leading towns and cities across the UK, could be an option.
Papers across the UK carry, verbatim in some cases, press releases hailing the rise in users for these affordable bikes. Edinburgh’s cycle hire scheme saw almost double the number of unique users in May with 6,400 people choosing to hire a bike.
However, as you browse the cycle location maps in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London; one thing becomes clear.
Quite simply, there’s next to no presence of these bikes in the most socio-economically disadvantaged areas of the country.
Those who live in Granton, Wester Hailes or other disadvantaged areas in Edinburgh will be hard pushed to find a bike to hire near their house. The same can be said for those in Springburn or Easterhouse Glasgow.
The closest hire station to where I live in Easterhouse is three miles away. Even then, there’s only two bikes to go around.
Cycling as a lifestyle choice does not have the infrastructure to make it a working-class pursuit. Yet, those using bikes are safer from the virus than those using public transport. They will experience health benefits and they can feel good about their contribution to cleaning up the environment.
For some reason, these cycle schemes have chosen to omit the areas which would benefit most from access to affordable cycle hire. I don’t know why but if the nation is to get on their bike, I’d ask the leaders in each city one thing; how?
Since last time…saddened by the news that Who Cares? Scotland Chief Executive is moving on…grateful he helped me understand the power of my voice…enjoyed watching a game of street bingo put on by my neighbours… learned that no matter how quickly you cycle, midges will still find you…