How Cycling UK’s Scottish projects tackle inequality

With the cost-of-living crisis never far from the headlines there is more scrutiny than ever on the cost of transport. Our head of development for Scotland, Suzanne Forup, looks at how cycling can tackle inequality and the role Cycling UK's projects are playing

Transport choices are often complex and determined by the hard practicalities of work, family, and caring responsibilities as well as finance, culture and habit.

With prices at the pumps soaring, train strikes and temporary timetables introducing uncertainty on the rail network, more people are looking at alternative options.  

But what about those households with limited transport choices or in financial circumstances that makes budgeting a day-to-day struggle to makes ends meet?

Prior to the pandemic, 19% of Scotland’s households were living in ‘relative poverty’, with two thirds of those in working households – a definition that means that a couple with two children have less than £25,500 a year to live on (this compares to the Scottish median of £42,500 for the same type of household). There is evidence to show that people on the lowest incomes are hardest hit by rising inflation, with the highest price rises on essential items.

Cycling is often portrayed as a cheap and accessible transport option, but access to a bike, like access to a car, increases with affluence; whilst 73% of those on higher incomes in Scotland (households where the total income is over £50,000 a year) have access to one or more bikes, less than 30% of households on lower incomes (below £20,000 a year) have access to a bike. Security, storage, and housing compound the financial implications of bike ownership.

This means that those in the most challenging situations have least choice about how they get around. For many in transport poverty (where you spend a disproportionate amount of your income on transport), the only choices are between a long walk (perhaps at the end of a tiring work shift or with heavy shopping bags), an expensive public or private transport journey, or not travelling at all. For those living in mobility poverty (e.g., where there is no public transport, or it’s inaccessible), such as those in very rural areas, there isn’t even a choice.

Many of our proogrammes support people that experience financial exclusion, live on an income that reduces their transport choices or need a non-standard cycle that isn’t affordable. Cycling UK believes that everyone should be able to enjoy the benefits of cycling and be able to contribute to a low carbon future for Scotland.

Cycling isn’t a viable choice for everyone, but many more people can get around by bike if a suitable cycle and the support to use it is provided. Over the years many of our project participants have trusted us with their life stories, revealing some of the hard realities that they face so that we can design projects that work to reduce inequalities in cycling. Many reflect that their own needs are not their priority:

“The kids come first; my needs are way down the list. I could never justify the expense of a buying myself a bike.” Jay*, WheelNess participant

Invest to save – people and planet

A lower quality bike may be ‘cheaper’ at the point of purchase than a good quality bike, but it will be more expensive to maintain and keep roadworthy, likely to find its way into the waste stream sooner as it will be harder to recondition or repair and reuse. But those on lower incomes have little opportunity to invest in quality cycles, or the equipment needed to bike safely and comfortably all year round, including in poor weather.

In Inverness we were able to provide new, high quality cycles to 224 people in transport poverty or living with long-term health conditions and explored with them the barriers to, and opportunities provided by, cycling. We found that people cherished their cycles, 63% using them for everyday journeys by the end of the project (only two people had at the start) and 98% reporting significant benefits to their health and wellbeing:

“[The e-bike] opened a whole new world. It has given me a real sense of freedom. My health conditions trap me in my own body; the bike gives me a new option – a choice!”  Lesley*, WheelNess participant

Keeping a bike roadworthy is vital in enabling people to stay cycling. We established the Scotland Cycle Repair Scheme (SCRS) in 2020 as a Covid response measure, enabling people to get unused cycles back into use with £50 of free repairs (£100 for disabled people with a non-standard cycle) at over 300 bike repair organisations.

A man wearing a cycle helmet sitting on a bike

Although the immediate Covid crisis is now over, Transport Scotland is continuing to fund the Scotland Cycle Repair Scheme as it enables people on lower incomes to keep their bike roadworthy and stay cycling safely. Around 30% of the beneficiaries of the Scotland Cycle Repair Scheme are from communities high on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, confirming that we’re reaching those most in need; our evaluations show that we’re enabling people on lower incomes to keep cycling safely all year round:

“I cycle to and from my work every day all year round… if it was not for this help financially from Scotland Cycle Repair Scheme, I would not get my bike checked or serviced as I could not afford to get it done as I am a hospital porter and do not have the money for things like this.” Connor*, Scotland Cycle Repair Scheme participant

Scotland Cycle Repair Scheme is providing immediate support to individuals to keep their bike on the road, but we need to do more to close the loop, creating a circular economy where most unused cycles can be repaired and resold and waste is limited. We’re working with other organisations to maximise the opportunities possible from bike recycling, not just in terms of carbon and waste reduction but increasing opportunities through training and employment.   

Innovate, learn, change

Last year we launched the innovative Access Bikes programme, and its first intervention with two credit unions. Designed to enable people on lower incomes to obtain an interest free loan to buy a bike, most people that applied for a loan were rejected because of their financial situation (even before the current cost-of-living crisis).

Frequently this was because, they did not have sufficient ‘available reserve’ in their monthly budget (that’s around £100 between income and fixed expenditure such as rent and utilities) available to repay a small loan or because of their financial record:

“They declined my application due to my credit. I had to give my job up six years ago to look after my son who has autism full time. I was put on benefits which took two months to sort. This has ruined my credit.” Mary*, Access Bikes participant

The project also uncovered many of the practical reasons why people on lower incomes are unable to commit to cycling, as issues such as cycle storage are out of their control:

"Unfortunately, I’m unable to keep a bike either in my house or my close. I’ve been in deliberations with my landlord but it’s not going to be allowed.” Klaudia*, Access Bikes participant

Over the last year we’ve seen the cost of bikes increase; an analysis of the sub £500 bike market we conducted showed that prices had risen by 16% over a 12-month period, taking bike ownership even further out of reach.

Recycling centres are also seeing an increase in the price of parts, which will push up the price of second-hand cycles. Talking to project participants made clear the need for radical solutions, and, with continued support from Transport Scotland, this year we are working with community organisations to provide capital grants that will enable organisations to purchase cycles for individuals on lower incomes.

It's not (always) about the bike

Access to a bike is just one aspect of reducing inequality in active travel; we need an integrated and equitable approach that enables individuals and communities to access the mobility options that meet their needs and reflect Scotland’s ambitious journey towards net zero. The Scottish Government commitment to increasing the active travel budget has the potential to be transformational and create the cycling infrastructure we need to make sustainable changes in travel behaviour.

However, there are other measures that are needed to enable everyone to participate in the cycling revolution, and through our campaigning we’re working on that too. For example, the development of inclusive 20-minute neighbourhoods so that services are in places where people live is vital, just as ensuring that new employment or housing sites are designed and built with sustainable and active transport options as the first, cheapest and easiest choice.

As many commented during the Covid crisis, we can all be in the same storm but our capacity to survive it depends on the boat we’re in. As a cycling charity we can’t dismantle the fundamental and systemic inequalities in society, but we are working to reduce the impact of those inequalities through our projects and campaign work, and at least help people stay afloat.

* Participants names changed to keep them anonymous