Inequalities hold our young people back: here’s why increasing access to bikes makes a difference

25 January 2024    

Author: Ben Raw (Partnership Manager – Access to Bikes for Young People)

Three young girls cycling socially in the park

Imagine you live on the outskirts of a town or city, or in a rural village. Your family don’t own a car and public transport links near you aren’t reliable. Sometimes it can be a challenge for you to reach college, a job interview, an important appointment, or get home if your shift runs over. It’s difficult to get to the supermarket, so you rely on the local corner shop which can be expensive and has limited options for fruit and vegetables. Going to see friends in another part of town, or take part in a club or activity can be difficult so you stick to where you stay. This is the reality for many of our young people living in Scotland today.

Our next generation has inherited big challenges

Statistics from the Scottish Government show that almost a quarter of all children (24% = 250,000 children) were living in poverty in Scotland in the period 2019 to 2022. With the cost-of-living crisis, we know that the lives of many families are getting increasingly harder.

Alongside this, Scotland’s transport is the biggest contributor to climate breakdown – a crisis we all face but one which disproportionately affects people living on lower incomes. Evidence also shows us that people living in more economically deprived areas in Scotland are more likely to breath in polluted air[1].

Tackling transport poverty

Scotland's ambitious climate change legislation sets a target date for net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045. This means that we will all need to change our habits, especially by targeting those driving and incentivising them to change their habits.

Although this is essential, there are many across our country who don’t have access to a car and this leaves many experiencing transport poverty. In cities such as Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, a third of households have no access to a car[2]. This leaves families reliant on public transport which is often sporadic and, for adults, expensive. In communities across Scotland, such as Blackhill in the north-east of Glasgow, you can live less than three miles from the city centre but feel a world removed from essential services and jobs.

Increasing access to bikes

Cycling is a solution to all these challenges, connecting people to work, education, friends, family, leisure activities and opportunities. For young people, those on low incomes or insecure work, or people with disabilities or living in rural locations, cycling can be a vital way of accessing these important touchpoints in life.

Cycling Scotland is working to support partners to tackle poverty and provide opportunities for all young people to embed travel habits that will enable them and their country to have a happy and healthier future.

To date, Cycling Scotland has funded 22 organisations working across 24 local authorities, from Volunteering Hebrides working to alleviate transport poverty in the rural villages surrounding Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, to St Paul’s Youth Forum in Glasgow, where, as a Youth Worker, I saw first-hand the challenges and opportunities facing our young people.

These funded organisations identify and work with young people who would never be able to access a bike, giving them the opportunity to experience the joy, freedom and independence that cycling brings whilst creating healthy habits that will in turn save millions in funding for the NHS to tackle childhood obesity. And, because we know that families with young people with additional physical and behavioural needs are more likely to live in poverty[3], we have funded adapted bikes which opens up cycling to all young people in our society. More than 1,000 bikes have been purchased or upcycled, with a further 1,300 to follow, and – through schools, local authorities and community projects – more than 3,200 young people are set to benefit.

We also work in partnership with best practice national organisations such as Young Scot, to make sure that the expertise that young people have about their lives and the lives are their peers is fully utilised. The concept of ‘nothing about us, without us, is for us’ means that young people are able to influence and evaluate the policies that affect their lives and makes sure we identify the right groups of people who benefit the most form this scheme.

We know that stubborn inequalities exist. We know they hold young people back, but…

…from early reports, we have also seen the incredible impact the simple bike has for young people. We’re seeing young people cycling to school, getting exercise, building confidence after Covid sparked a mental health crisis, all of which in turn increases the ability to learn. 

We know that having a postcode lottery cannot define the chances and opportunities that young people have in Scotland. These things should not be seen as unchangeable, because they aren’t, and the gift or simple loan of a bike can be a cost effective and innovative way of tackling these injustices.