On yer bike!

Image: Geraint Rowland

Puru Miah looks at low traffic neighbourhoods, questions bike-induced road closures and sees a new “tale of two cities” in London

Forty years ago, inner-city areas of England were facing their worst economic depression, rising unemployment and rising tensions. There was an economic recession throughout the country, but inner-city areas were disproportionately affected. At the centre were the local BAME communities, suffering from particularly high unemployment, poor housing, and a higher than average crime rate. This triggered riots in 1981, in Brixton and in Handsworth. In response to the riots the then Employment Secretary, Norman Tebbit, made his infamous “on yer bike!” comment: “I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it”.

Things have changed since then; research and policy have been developed to tackle urban poverty and decades of progressive politics have reorientated the prejudices of public bodies like local authorities and the police. But have they?

Following the economic and health crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, Whitehall decided to resurrect the spirit of “on yer bike!” by announcing a £250m “emergency active travel fund” – part of a larger package to create a new era for cycling and walking in England. Local authorities throughout England decided to take up the call, many bypassing the common law duty to consult residents and unilaterally implementing the schemes under temporary experimental traffic orders. Over half of such schemes were in London.

The result in the capital has been a series of rolling demonstrations in London boroughs, bringing a multi-racial working class community together from different demographics, united in their opposition to schemes blocking off local roads without their consent and in anger at local political leadership which appears indifferent to their concerns. Some London local authorities have bowed to demands to either suspend or roll back schemes, culminating in the resignation of the poster boy for Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, Councillor Jon Burke. It has also generated much debate, in what the New Statesman has called a new “culture war” in London. Even in Chartist we have had views from both sides of the argument, with Paul Salveson supporting the schemes and Wendy Davis expressing concern that the schemes shut out and adversely affect households on low incomes.

I decided to carry out a survey of local multi-racial residents to assess the human impact of this state-sponsored cycling revolution, looking into whether local working class communities can take advantage of the schemes. This is in a context of rising inequality in London, perpetuated by years of regeneration policies that have been actively used to dispossess working class and low-income families of their homes – policies and outcomes that have been examined by the Institute of Race Relations and published in a paper, ‘The London Clearances’, by Jessica Perera. Do Low Traffic Neighbourhoods contribute towards tackling London’s inequalities? Or are they just another Whitehall subsidy for the middle classes?

The ward I represent, Mile End, is typical of a divided and unequal capital. It covers six large social housing estates, mixed with luxury developments and terraced houses, with both sets of residents living apart and isolated. Roughly one in five families on the social housing estates have a household income of £16,000 or less per annum, while the luxury developments are occupied by professionals employed either in the financial bubble of the City and Canary Wharf or in the Westminster bubble and its associated myriad of institutions.

The consensus was that nearly all the funding made available is for physical infrastructure, with little or no funding to tackle financial barriers that people face when cycling – creating the feeling that such low-income households are no longer welcomed and are slowly being pushed out of what historically are working class neighbourhoods.

Basic issues such as cycle storage, the cost of a bike and bike maintenance hamper the uptake of cycling for families on low incomes. Households on benefits could not afford a flat tyre let alone a regular flat white. For example, the cost of a basic tyre repair in the area costs between £12 to £15 pounds a time. Multiply that by the numbers in a household and the costs become prohibitive for a family on Universal Credit. Then there are families with young children for whom cycling and public transport are not an option. As one female resident said to me: you have children in pushchairs, it’s a cold winter day – do you subject your children to waiting at the bus stop only to find the bus space for pushchairs is already occupied with a wheelchair user or other pushchairs, or do you take the car? Then there are the families for whom the car is a means of income, either as cabbies, delivery drivers or in the building trade, solely reliant on precarious jobs in the new service sector.

Fifty Transport for London-Santander bike memberships were provided to low-income households in Mile End by a local charity. Seventy per cent of the recipients said they could not afford the membership without the assistance. Even then, many talked about the added inconvenience of having to plan journeys and having to re-dock the bikes at intervals. With no investment in affordable cycle repair, storage or financial aid, it seems many neighbourhoods in London will end up as virtually gated communities with transport infrastructure only available to those who can afford it. A working class shut out of their streets and public infrastructure, creating the feeling of an apartheid London based on income.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of these communities, faced with higher than average infection and death rates, a combination of chronic intergenerational overcrowding and being employed in frontline manual work such as transport, retail and hospitality. They now face the prospect of mass unemployment following the collapse of the precarious service sector. The response to this unprecedented crisis faced by a multi-racial working class from many London local authorities seems to be, in the spirit of Marie Antoinette, let them ride bikes.

And we all know what happened to Marie Antoinette.

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