Deirdre Alden: “cycling is discriminatory”. True, or nonsense?

Last Thursday a Birmingham councillor attacked plans to spend £6m of the council’s money (plus a £17m Department of Transport grant) on upgrading cycle routes and handing out free bikes. The crux of Deirdre Alden’s complaint is that cycling is a discriminatory form of transport that “[only benefits] white, young men”.

The local Sustrans branch swung into action, with Yvonne Gilligan saying: “Contrary to the comments made this week, the great thing about cycling is that it’s accessible for everyone, regardless of age, gender or background.” CTC were slightly less vocal, but included a paragraph within their weekly bulletin (although I’m not sure “media storm” is really justified…)

I have a problem with this knee-jerk rebuff from the big cycling groups; I fear that Deirdre may have a point.

True, it’s not the point that she manages to put words around, but somewhere mixed in amongst it all is something worth digging out. She’s wrong to say that the activity of cycling is in any way exclusive. Indeed, it’s one of the most inclusive things out there—some people who can’t walk more than a few yards retain their independence through their bikes, trikes and quads. However, if you look at examples of infrastructure that our councils spend your money on, it doesn’t take a great leap of logic to spot the discrimination.

However, before I start on that:

Watch your words, Deirdre

This really hacked me off:

“women of any ethnic group who wish to wear modest clothing, and I count myself in that category, are not going to cycle.”Deirdre Alden, Conservative Councillor for Edgbaston Ward on Birmingham City Council

Which is equivalent to saying that women who do cycle wear immodest clothing.

Clearly Deirdre did not intend to say that all women who currently cycle are brazenly flaunting their flesh, but she did. There’s far too much deliberate sexism in cycling already (Assos’ advertising strategy, Danny MacAskill, Columbian womens’ cycle team kit designers to name three recent incidents) without people lobbing in additional harmful remarks through lazy choice of words. Many women cycle in normal clothes. Even those who chose to wear Lycra aren’t revealing any more than leggings, tights, or short skirts, and much less than you’d encounter at any swimming pool.

Whilst we’re here, what on earth does she mean by “ethnic group”? Ethnic is not a substitute for “not British and not-white”.

I think we can all deduce that she’s trying to refer to cultures where men and women tend to wear long, baggy clothing. Please, Ms Alden; just say so. You managed to be mildly racist and sexist in the same sentence.

Which leads us to:

Is cycling racist and sexist?


Almost anyone can cycle, and certainly race and gender have no effect.

I’m not even going to cite anything for that statement, it’s so obvious.

If you’re struggling with loose clothes on a bike, then you need a step-through frame and coat/skirt guards.

A bike with chaincase and coat guards.
A rather fetching town bike with a step-through frame, chaincase and coat guards to stop your gloriously glamorous clothing getting caught in spinny bits. Image from The Urban Bicycle, who make such things.

OK, is the type of cycling encouraged by our councils racist and sexist?

Now we might be getting somewhere.

I’m going to swap “racist and sexist” for “cycle-able-ist”, which is a horrible-looking compound intended to mean “discriminating against those less able (or willing) to propel a cycle quickly whilst maintaining a good sense of balance”. It’s OK; we don’t have to use it much.

So, who are we dropping into our less cycle-able category? Some elderly folk, probably (although beware the ones who’ve been cycling their entire lives and will leave you in the dust whilst showing no signs of effort). Young kids. Me, when I’m wearing normal clothes and don’t want to reach my destination in a sweaty heap. People with an injury or disability that affects their cycling. Anyone towing a trailer. Anyone moving something fragile or heavy around (children tick both boxes). Anyone who just doesn’t want to go fast at that moment. Anyone on a bike that hasn’t felt the delicate caress of oil in some time.

Does our current cycling infrastructure discriminate against that lot?

Well, most cities in the UK currently subscribe to the “vehicular method of cycling” because it’s cheap, easy and doesn’t require them to do very much—effectively you just tell cyclists to behave as if they were driving a car. The down side is that vehicular cyclists can only keep themselves safe if they can approach the same speed as the rest of the traffic.

Technically it should work at all speeds, but that relies on drivers accepting your 10mph presence in the middle of the lane and waiting patiently behind you. And you can imagine how fun that is. As a result the slower riders end up cycling in the gutter and are intimidated, maimed and killed by the drivers of other motorised vehicles not giving them enough space.

If its design means that those who can’t cycle fast get killed more often, I think we can say that the majority of UK cycle infrastructure discriminates against the less able.

We could go further and talk about unnecessary obstructions, chicanes and hairpins that block trikes and trailers from those few segregated cycle routes do exist, but I think the vehicular cycling point is enough.

A triple gate blocking a cyclepath.
Good luck getting three wheels through that. Photo by kaputnik, taken from the enthralling BOLLARDS! thread on CCE. Click for more (you wild thing, you).

So is Deirdre right? Should we not invest in cycling?

The current route network in the UK discriminates against the less cycle-able because our councils are lazy, tight-fisted, and cherish their ignorance of what quality cycle infrastructure looks like.

We could spend money to put this right and in doing so open up our road network to huge numbers of people who currently can’t get around because they don’t want, can’t use or can’t afford to use a car. As a side effect we get improved air quality, better public health, and more money in our own and our council’s piggy banks.

So no. Deirdre is not right in saying we should starve cycling of investment. Deirdre could not be more wrong. But in leaping to the offence, Sustrans and CTC have missed a trick.

We must prioritise spending on high quality cycle infrastructure.

One of the many good reasons for doing so is based on the discrimination inherent within the vehicular approach in use at the moment.


PS: You could attempt to defend Deidre by saying she’s understood all of this and is simply saying that investing in more of our existing rubbish infrastructure is discriminatory. But I don’t think anyone would believe that.

PPS: Cycle-able is a grim phrase that implies that we should all aspire to be fast on bikes and that people travelling at a more sedate speed are somehow less able. Please don’t ever use it. I promise you won’t read it here again.


Add Yours →

I emailed Mrs Alden to make a few observations along the lines above, and to be fair to her she responded. It seems that much of her animus against cyclists derives from her personal experience, of a brother-in-law rendered tetraplegic after a cycling accident. I don’t think she is correct to draw the conclusions she has from that experience, but I can hardly say that it surprises me – many other people would probably do the same. Also as a politician she is an amateur – a local councillor. I would consider such a reaction from a Westminster MP to be worthy of ridicule, but I would cut a local councillor more slack.

What I tried to put across to her was that she was getting her wires crossed between cause and effect – it is not that money spent on cycling unfairly disadvantages those fit young white men, rather than when you don’t spend money on cycling infrastructure, fit young white men are the only cycles you are likely to get. I suggested she google Cycling Embassy of Great Britain to learn more.

Mrs Alden’s views are out in the open. I would hope that local campaigners will refrain from damning her or ridiculing her, and instead attempt to engage with her, and see if they can lay out the facts and arguments before her and change her mind. Her and all her colleagues who think similarly – by no means all of whom, I am sure, are Tories.

I’ve moved to the Netherlands mainly because cycling is my main form of transportation, I am a large middle aged woman who wouldn’t be seen dead in Lycra. Cycling has been banned in the UK for me and my children, so I moved somewhere where I could continue my way of life without feeling like some freak child abuser for cycling with my kids.
Every morning muslim women covered from head to toe of all ages bring their children and grandchildren to school by bike in the Netherlands. Every size, shape and age and nationality of woman is to be found riding.
What we have in the UK is down to the fact that unless you are very fit and very brave, you cannot consider cycling to be a valid every day means of transport. This is down to the infra as I’m sure you are aware.
Can we tie this woman to a cargo bike and ride her round Utrecht for the day?

Thanks both for your thoughts.

Paul: I agree with you, it would be much more productive for us to engage with Deirdre that savage her with criticism. After all (and as you point out), she’s identified a real issue; she’s just not drawn the correct conclusion from the information. Whilst I would love for all political figures to fully research cycling issues before making comment, I realise that’s unlikely… The only real disappointment I have relates to her lazy sexism and racism (“Watch your words, Deirdre”, above)—there’s no excuse for anyone who relies primarily on communication to get that wrong.

Christine. Tempting, although probably not workable! I’d be delighted to be carted round in a cargobike, but I suspect most people have more inhibitions :p I did try and find a photo of somebody cycling in typical muslim clothes, but it’s clearly so common over there that noone bothers to record it (and so rare over here that noone has the chance…)

I will start taking photos when I am out on my bike of the people I am stopped at the lights with or riding with here in Utrecht. You are right, it’s very difficult to find pictures that show how universal cycling is when you take out the dangers that you face in the UK. One of my favourite things is to spot the strange and unwieldy things people carry here by bike too.
The outcome is that people have more freedom, they can move around cheaply and keep themselves fit in the process. Too often cycling in the UK is seen as a lifestyle choice of an elite group of white males. This has never been true in my world and I will make sure that I start posting images with tags that will show the wider internet that riding a bike is fun, free, fast and for all.

The end game of this type of inverse racism is a hot topic in the national press by virtue of revelations from northern mill-towns. It has been obvious for some time and prompting the rapid de-population of cities like Birmingham by educated young white males. As a young-ish white male I have seen many of my peers flee and i intend to leave as soon as practicable

A good response overall. I think it is a distraction to make it a gender issue just because 98% of women are afraid to cycle on the road compared to 97% of men (or thereabouts). My daughter is a lot more gung-ho about cycling on the roads than I am.

I am reminded of when I took advantage of the free adult Bikeability training that is provided by TFgM a couple of years ago. The instructor, who said there was nothing they could teach me that I wasn’t already doing, was a woman. I cycled as slowly as I could and still feel comfortable, but I still kept leaving her behind. Despite the slow speed, she was even more assertive than I am and seemed to get away with it. I do find it harder to ride assertively myself when I’m riding into a headwind, but I wonder whether that’s more down to me than the drivers; there is a proportion of them that act like dickheads no matter what speed I’m going at.

Finally, the fact that some people like me are prepared to stick at it even on our awful roads does not mean that we relish the cut and thrust of riding in traffic. We’ve no other choice apart from giving up altogether, and long for the time when we can enjoy a relaxed ride in to work in a morning, even if moving moderately quickly.

To answer your question, ‘Nonsense’ !
So many people have written why I won’t even try.

Amelia Bloomer – did she die in vain ?

Bring back ‘bifurcated ensembles’ !
the bicycle’s role in feminism, socialism, anarchism and environmentalism
For Zimbabwe’s women, a bicycle can be a tool of liberation
Cycling can free women from the daily ordeal of Harare’s public transport, and avoid predatory men
… Or London’s ?
Lots of great stuff, also available in book form !

The ‘Mary Poppins Effect’

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