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The Birmingham cyclists proving that the sport is not discriminatory

After Edgbaston Conservative councillor Deirdre Alden suggested cycling was discriminatory and predominately for young, white men, Mary Griffin meets some cyclists desperate to prove her wrong

The Women on Wheels cycle club in Handsworth Park, Instructor Sabriha Abdou takes the ladies round the lake.
The Women on Wheels cycle club in Handsworth Park, Instructor Sabriha Abdou takes the ladies round the lake.

When Edgbaston Conservative councillors Deirdre Alden and James Hutchings questioned the logic of creating new space for cyclists it prompted an unprecedented backlash.

Speaking about Birmingham’s £23million Cycle Revolution , which aims to boost the number of journeys in the city made by bike from 1.5 per cent to five per cent within 10 years and to 10 per cent within 20 years, Coun Hutchings feared “hoards” of cyclists would have “a severe impact on pedestrians and motorists”.

He said: “It might be great for cyclists but it won’t be great for the rest of the population, particularly elderly people, a lot of women who don’t cycle, a lot of disabled people who can’t cycle, a lot of the ethnic minority people – do you see them cycling all over the city in their hijabs? It isn’t sensible policy.

“It’s highly discriminatory for relatively few people who don’t pay any money, who don’t insure, and I do think we do need to get away from the pretence that cycling is wonderful for everybody. Loads of pedestrians will be put at greater risk.”

Coun Alden declared: “If you look at cyclists, the vast majority of them are young, white men.

“It discriminates against elderly people, it discriminates against disabled people and it discriminates against any woman of any ethnic group who wishes to wear modest clothing, and frankly I put myself in that category.”

Reflecting on Coun Alden’s comments , Chris Lowe, chairman of Birmingham cycling campaign Push Bikes, says: “She’s talking about an affluent demographic and it might be that if she lives in Edgbaston that’s what she sees.

“There’s a visibility to commuters on road bikes. They are in traffic so they are what drivers see.

“But if she was to go to the east of Birmingham she’d see that there are a lot of people out there riding a bike-shaped object, not always among traffic, wearing normal clothes and it may be that you discount them subconsciously because they don’t fit your stereotype.”

Chris also thinks skewing cycling infrastructure to more affluent communities has an impact, with one of Birmingham’s best off-road routes running through Kings Heath and Moseley along the Rae Valley.

He says: “That changes the demographic of who can access good cycle routes in the city.

“But as you put high quality routes through other areas, like Soho Road, you may find the communities there do start to ride more because they’ve then got the same quality of infrastructure.”

Push Bikes says investment in cycling in the city over the next two years needs to continue for 20 years to make a long-lasting impact.

The group is organising a mass cycle ride to call for better funding during the Conservative Party conference. They will be meeting in Victoria Square on September 29 at 6pm.

“Where there’s proper infrastructure there are more women cycling than men”

Bordesley resident Shaz Rahman supports Birmingham's Cycle Revolution.
Bordesley resident Shaz Rahman supports Birmingham's Cycle Revolution.
 

Bordesley resident Shaz Rahman, 27, grew up in Maypole with Bangladeshi parents. He wasn’t taught to ride as a child but two years ago decided to learn and hasn’t looked back since.

“All my friends learned to ride but I never did. My mum never learned how to ride a bike either – she still can’t.

“By the time I got to be a teenager it was a bit humiliating not knowing how to do something that everyone else could.

“But later I realised riding a bike is down to muscle memory rather than skill and everybody has the capacity to do it, you just have to stay on till you stop falling off.

“I had five hour-long professional lessons and by the end of it I could ride.

“What the councillor said is half right – the majority of cyclists are young, white men.

“I think that’s partly because it’s seen as being very dangerous and around Birmingham, particularly, you have to encounter lots of busy roads.

“But in other countries where cycling is taken seriously and there’s proper infrastructure you see a bigger mix of people on bikes and there are more women cycling there than men.

“So I think she has defined a problem but then provided the opposite of the solution.

“This city has been dominated by the car since the 1960s and that psyche is still prevalent – just look at the amount of money spent on cycling compared to the money spent on roads.”

“Car ownership can be very discriminatory”

Sutton Coldfield teacher Cath Palgrave who cycles from Bournville to Kings Heath.
Sutton Coldfield teacher Cath Palgrave who cycles from Bournville to Kings Heath.
 

Teacher Cath Palgrave, 39, commutes by bike and train from home in Sutton Coldfield to Allens Croft Primary School in Kings Heath wearing her everyday clothes.

“I used to live in Bristol where you’d see people from all walks of life cycling.

“I’ve also cycled in Newcastle which is brilliant and in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany.

“But Birmingham is one of the worse places I’ve ever cycled, not only for traffic but for lack of provision.

“Trying to get across the city centre is impossible. You end up trying to go along the canal towpath or other off-road paths that aren’t surfaced properly.

“And there are cycle lanes that end up in fast traffic. But with the cycle revolution these things are going to change.

“The whole point of this cycle revolution is to try and encourage more cycling, but I think what she has said is more likely to discourage it.

“We really need to normalise cycling and make it more accessible. If people can borrow a bike instead of paying hundreds of pounds for one that’s a fantastic thing. My uncle found me my first bike in a skip.

“It’s never really questioned that we need more roads or more space for cars but car ownership can be very discriminatory.

“Cost is a huge barrier to owning a car and cars parked on pavements can mean pavements are no longer for people.

“The cycle revolution is trying to redress that balance, making cycling an accessible option for everyone.”

“Women won’t allow clothes to keep them away”

Sabriya Abdou, 23, took up cycling through the city council’s Women on Wheels scheme, promoting cycling to women from minority communities across the city. She is now an instructor, teaching other women in Sparkhill, Ward End, Handsworth and at Edgbaston Reservoir.

“For a lot of the women I teach their clothing can be a bit unsuitable.

“A lot of Muslim women, in particular, wear a loose Salwar Kameez which comes right down to the knees over trousers and the material can get stuck in the bike chain.

“But a lot of them wouldn’t feel comfortable in tracksuit bottoms either. It’s a cultural thing.

“So normally we just tie them up or tuck them in. The women will always find a way around it - they won’t allow clothes to keep them away.

“There are still barriers, though. A lot of the time it’s just the fear of what people will think because they don’t see that many Asian or black women on bikes and no one wants to be the first person to go out and change that.

“Most of the women I meet are mothers, they don’t have lots of time day-to-day, and for the school run bikes aren’t always as practical as a seven-seater car.

“But they do want to be able to take their kids out for a ride in their leisure time.

“Most of them have never been on a bike before. When they were younger girls weren’t allowed on bikes so they were never given the chance.

“The attraction of cycling is the freedom of getting on a bike, going anywhere you like and enjoying some time outdoors.”

“For me, cycling is just a mode of transport”

Donna Norford, who blogs about her bike riding, with her bike at work in Digbeth, Birmingham.
Donna Norford, who blogs about her bike riding, with her bike at work in Digbeth, Birmingham.
 

Donna Norford, 46, launched the blog She Spoke of Bikes to meet cyclists around Birmingham, interviewing bike riders of all ages right up to 91. She cycles six miles from Kings Norton to Digbeth along the Rae Valley Route each day in her office clothes.

She says: “Many people admire me for that but it’s not hard to do. For me, cycling is just a mode of transport. I launched the blog to show that you could cycle for every day life – to go to the shops or to visit your friends.

“Sometimes people who don’t cycle can’t think about all the eventualities and see that yes, it’s ok to do your weekly shopping by bike and it’s actually quite easy. “

Donna now works for sustainable transport charity Sustrans, which is running the East Birmingham Active Families project making bikes, cycle training and bike maintenance accessible in Saltley and Shard End and supporting a diverse range of groups and individuals to start cycling or to improve.

She adds: “It just isn’t the case that the only people cycling are young, white men. There are many more women cycling out there than you think.”

“Discrimination comes from poor infrastructure”

Cyclist James Avery says Virgin Trains are holding passengers to ransom by not installing extra bicycle parking spaces despite getting £300,000 from the government to do it.
Cyclist James Avery says Virgin Trains are holding passengers to ransom by not installing extra bicycle parking spaces despite getting £300,000 from the government to do it.
 

Managing bipolar depression, James Avery, 39, disputes Coun Alden’s assertion that disabled people don’t benefit from cycling investment.

He says: “In late 2010 I was stuck in a severe depression I never thought I’d get out of. There is nothing more disabling than not being able to get out of bed.

“Cycling has been a major part in my recovery. As my depression is bipolar – meaning I can have extreme high moods as well as the lows – it would be extremely dangerous to drive in a manic state. For that reason, I voluntarily surrendered my driving licence in 2010.

“Although I have a free travel pass, I rarely use it, because cycling gives me so much more flexibility and I get to exercise at the same time.

“We need to accept that in a city like Birmingham it is dependence on the motor car which is really discriminatory.

“Cars are a major cause of injury and disability in their own right, both through accidents and through air pollution.

“If Councillor Alden takes a look at all the families enjoying Cannon Hill Park and then observes why none of them are cycling on nearby Pershore Road at present, it should be clear that the discrimination comes from the infrastructure.”

“It’s not dangerous for elderly people to start cycling”

Esther Boyd of Moseley, Birmingham
Esther Boyd of Moseley, Birmingham.
 

Before retirement Moseley resident Esther Boyd, 67, commuted by bike to work as an architect at the city council. Her husband Howard, 70, has Lewy body disease, mixing symptoms of Alzheimers and Parkinson’s, and because he’s less stable on a bike now uses a trike instead.

Esther says: “After I retired we found we were hardly using the car so we gave it up and thought, ‘Let’s see if we can survive without it’.

“We worked out the expense of having the car and it was costing about £57 a week. We decided we could get a lot of taxis for that.

“We have senior rail cards and we use the buses too, but cycling gives a lot of freedom.

“Last week I met a doctor at the Children’s Hospital who’s around 50 and decided four years ago that she wanted to learn to ride a bike. She’s now part of a group encouraging cycling at the hospital.

“It’s really not the case at all that it’s dangerous for elderly people to start cycling.

“Cycling keeps you fit and strong and also means your mental health is so much better. You arrive at your destination with a smile.

“You don’t have any social interaction when you’re in a car but you have a lot on a bike.

“Fear is what puts people off but when you’re a cyclist you know the quieter routes.

“Without cycling I’d have a huge loss of freedom. It makes a huge difference to my life.”

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