Cycling equity and the city

Cycling equity and the city


Written by:

Ansgar Hudde

First Published:

31 May 2023, 3:09 am


Cycling equity and the city

Cycling is not only good for the environment, but also for the individual as it is healthy, low-cost, and fast in urban settings. However, these benefits are not equally distributed, as cycling behaviour differs between social groups.

In German cities, people with tertiary education take the bicycle around 50% more often than those with lower levels of formal education. These disparities persist even when controlling for variables such as trip length, city of residence, age, and family situation (Hudde, 2022).

The difference in cycling frequency across educational groups represents an equity gap: those with lower education, an already underprivileged group, benefit less from the advantages of cycling.

What may explain these educational differences in cycling? One explanation could be that those with higher education more often live in cycling-friendly neighbourhoods. Additionally, the social status that is attached to different transport modes may play a role.

On average, people with higher education face less danger that their surrounding sees them as poor or unsuccessful, that is, they suffer less from status anxiety. A heart surgeon can ride an old, rickety bicycle without being perceived as unsuccessful by their peers. Without such status anxiety, they can profit from the fact that cycling is associated with environmental and health consciousness (Hudde, 2022).

The link between education level and cycling might not be the same everywhere – and this is what a recently published study is about. Do cities with a high cycling rate make cycling more accessible and equitable for everyone, regardless of their level of education? This could occur if these cities have quality cycling infrastructure spread out across all neighbourhoods, and if cycling is not symbolically charged but simply the normal thing to do for everyone.

Specifically, my research aims to determine whether and how the educational gap in cycling is influenced by the overall cycling rates in different countries and cities. I analyse survey data with information on about 150,000 trips made by about 50,000 residents from 143 cities in the Netherlands and Germany.

The results reveal that the educational differences in cycling exist not only in Germany, but also in the Netherlands, where the cycling rates are higher than in all other Western countries. Further, when comparing between cities with different overall cycling levels, there is no clear or strong link between the overall cycling rate and the size of the education gap. That is, the effect of education is similarly large in cities with low, medium, or high overall levels of cycling.

When we look for inspiration and role models in terms of cycling, we naturally turn to the Netherlands and cities like Amsterdam or Utrecht. Indeed, these cities have achieved remarkably high cycling rates overall, but educational differences are large: those from lower educational backgrounds pedal much less. This shows that having more people cycling overall does not guarantee cycling equity.

For cities that aim for cycling equity, where people from all educational levels benefit from this cheap and healthy transport mode, this means that they need to do more than just follow the suit of Amsterdam or Utrecht. Rather, they need to address cycling equity in a more targeted manner and encourage and facilitate cycling among those with lower education, who are surpassed by the cycling boom that is currently happening in many cities.



Hudde A (2022) Educational Differences in Cycling: Evidence from German Cities. Sociology 56(5): 909–929. 


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.