A cycling session at Queen Mary homeless women’s hostel in London starts with some reflection in the tea room. Eleven women discuss how they’re doing this week, how the cycling went for them last week and what they’re hoping to build on in today’s session. Then they push their bikes to a local basketball court to practise in the safety of an off-road environment. Supported by instructors from Westminster council’s training team, they practise riding by themselves; pushing off, cycling in a straight line, looking over one shoulder, turning, keeping going.
Small achievements are important and depend on the starting point of each woman; for some, keeping going is a key goal to address physical fitness, for others it is balance or specific cycling skills. They are all working towards Bikeability Level 1 which enables them to control a bike safely enough to progress on to quiet roads, making turns and negotiating traffic. In some sessions the women learn about map-reading and planning journeys, pumping up tyres and other basic maintenance.
Sometimes they are tired, emotional or sluggish from their medication. Sometimes they are upbeat, chatty and excited for their weekly dose of cycling. But they are all determined.
“I love being part of the cycling club,” says Brandy, who has been living at the hostel for two years. “The club has given me the chance to ride a bike, which I hadn’t done since I was a child.
“I now am able to explore our city’s parks and green spaces on my bike. Cycling helps me relax, stimulates my mind. It also makes me a bit tired in the evening, which means I can get a good night’s sleep.”
Last year Queen Mary, which is run by the housing association Riverside, approached Sustrans to provide support in setting up and running a cycling club for women. We worked for the first time with women facing significant challenges. Many have low levels of fitness. All have survived challenging situations ranging from social isolation to dependence and abusive relationships.
The hostel staff, who are experienced mental health practitioners, were keen to develop cycling to boost the women’s personal confidence and help give them access to other spheres of society, such as college, community groups or paid employment. The hostel is moving away from a traditional medicalised model of mental health to a more holistic model of wellbeing, and thought cycling could be a really useful tool in helping move the residents towards more independent living.
After the success of a 10-week pilot project, mostly funded by the hostel themselves, the cycle club has recently received funding of £10,000 from Cycling Grants London to continue the club for another three years.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, homelessness and mental health often go hand-in-hand. Poor housing or homelessness can increase the chances of developing a mental health problem, or aggravate an existing condition.
Studies have shown that physical activity, including walking and cycling, can be used to overcome and even prevent stress, depression and anxiety. It can be as effective as medication and counselling, and a cheaper route to mindfulness.
Women, however, are less likely than men to take part in physical activity and cycling is no exception. Women in the UK make nearly three times fewer cycling journeys than men.
Recent research suggests the two main causes for this are logistical barriers – mostly because women still undertake the majority of childcare and household tasks – and fear of judgment emanating from societal pressure around appearance.
The expanding network of dedicated bike routes and schemes has increased cycling levels in London yet the “build it and they will come” approach ignores the fact that not all individuals start from the same point. Targeted social interventions are an important, yet often forgotten, part of the package to achieving equity of access to cycling.
Riverside have expressed an interest in rolling out this project format to their male-only hostels, an idea which the partners involved are considering for future funding bids.
In an ideal world, potentially transformative projects such as this one would not be reliant on piecemeal funding and the determination of the partners and delivery staff involved. Statutory provision of social interventions such as this could be part of a preventive approach to the isolation and marginalisation which contribute to mental health problems, as well as combatting congestion and air pollution.
- Lucy Colbeck and Emilie Charlesworth work in collaborative design for Sustrans