Cultural Barriers to Cycling in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area

By Titi Onabanjo, Assistant Program Manager

There has been a lot of discussion over the past few months about racism, equity, and barriers that Black, Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) communities face in their daily lives, including within the realm of transportation.

At pointA, we seek to encourage more people to take sustainable forms of transportation by providing incentives, education and support to workplaces through our programs. With the rise of the global pandemic, cycling has taken centre stage as a great sustainable mode to get around while being socially distanced. However,  to encourage more people to start and stay cycling , we need to better understand our target audiences and the barriers they face. Knowing why someone doesn’t currently cycle to work helps inform the solutions. When looking to encourage more people to cycle, it’s important to understand the barriers certain groups may face, as well as how they perceive certain forms of transportation.

For example, I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, where there was barely any cycling infrastructure. This might be similar to the experience of someone who grew up in the suburbs in Canada. Owning a car or being driven around was regarded as a status symbol, so if you saw someone on a bicycle, you knew it wasn’t by choice. When I moved to Toronto, I came with the mindset that owning a car meant one was ‘comfortable’ and I didn’t consider cycling as an option for commuting.

Cycling for necessity vs. choosing to cycle

There are two types of cyclists: those who cycle because they choose to and those who cycle out of necessity, with underrepresented BIPOC communities in the latter group. According to a survey conducted in the United States, only 7% of White households do not have access to a personal vehicle, while 24% of Black and 17% Latinx people do not have access to a personal vehicle. Similar figures can be extrapolated for Canada as well. It is important to note that despite their differences immigrant and communities of colour share similar barriers and attitudes towards cycling.  Cyclists that cycle out of necessity are mostly comprised of new immigrants and people of colour. However, over a prolonged period, the desire to own a personal vehicle among immigrant communities increases and thus their cycling share decreases over time once they obtain a personal vehicle.

Cycling infrastructure in the suburbs vs. downtown

In the city of Toronto, cycling infrastructure is concentrated in the core of the city and people who live and work in the core tend to cycle at a much higher rate than those than live in the suburbs. In Toronto, the cycling mode share in downtown is 7.5% compared to less than 1% the far western and eastern edges of the city.

When you compare the map of areas where cycling rates are higher to a map of where immigrant and BIPOC communities tend to live, it starts to paint a picture of who cycles in Toronto and who doesn’t.

Immigrant communities tend to be found in the periphery neighbourhods of Toronto, and Toronto’s Black communities are also far from the city centre, with a large population of Black people residing in northwest Toronto, where cycling infrastructure is limited.

The lack of cycling in these communities is further compounded by the distance residents must travel to get to work. Cycling may be a way to connect between different modes of transportation but this becomes unrealistic when many of these areas lack proper transit connectivity . thus furthering the desire for a car.

Representation and perception of cycling

People are copycats by nature, and social interactions and circles influence behaviour. If people you know are cyclists, you may feel more encouraged to take up cycling yourself. Conversely, if you don’t see many people that look like you cycling, you may feel less inclined to start cycling.  

Cycling is viewed as a white middle class activity by BIPOC communities, with the stereotypical image of cyclists being mainly white men clad in lycra, otherwise known by the acronym “MAML” (middle-aged men in lycra). Many cycling clubs lack diversity and there are fewer cycling clubs in BIPOC communities. This presents a barrier for minorities to feel included when they do not feel represented.

Cycling infrastructure and fears of gentrification

Cycling may be viewed by some as a sign of poverty, but conversely, when new cycling infrastructure is built, gentrification is a common concern in lower income communities. It’s not the cycling infrastructure itself that causes gentrification, ; instead, city planners often use cycling infrastructure to drive development investment in neighbourhoods that were already changing, rather than building cycling infrastructure to connect lower income communities to the rest of the city.  

Cycling advocates and Transportation Management Associations (TMAs) have a role to play as well in building trust with community leaders and shifting perception of cycling in lower income or BIPOC communities and can work with governments to ensure that community voices are represented and included in development and planning consultations.

Initiatives encouraging cycling among BIPOC communities

Initiatives such as Scarborough Cycles and Markham Cycles  are making cycling more accessible by offering tools, do-it-yourself repair clinics, workshops, and group rides.

Another organization working on removing barriers to cycling is CultureLink, which has a Bike Host program that matches newcomers with experienced cycling mentors.

At the grass-roots level, BikePOC organizes group rides to help people of colour feel more comfortable cycling and was one of the organizers of the Critical Mass ride in support of Black Lives Matter – Toronto on July 31, 2020.

There’s lots more to be done to make cycling more inclusive and equitable, but understanding the barriers is the first step towards better transportation equity in our cities. It also means that government investment in infrastructure generates a greater return and allows for BIPOC communities to also reap the many health, economic, and environmental benefits of cycling.


Photo by Agung Pandit Wiguna from Pexels

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