We need to talk about diversity in the cargo bike industry
22 OCT 2022
AN EXTRACT FROM THE ICBF MAGAZINE WINTER 2022|2023
BY TOM PARR, IN COLLABORATION WITH MJ SOMERVILLE
6 MINUTE READ
This article appears in the ICBF Magazine Winter 2022|2023 edition. There, you can also check out all past editions going back to 2016, by exploring our archive.
The humble bicycle, with its enormous capacity for positive change, played a pivotal role in the suffrage and civil rights movements as a vehicle for emancipation and social justice. And just like the bicycle, the cargo cycle is a machine that can act as a social leveller.
Partners & Supporters of the ICBF
Both can trace their beginnings to a similar period, and both subsequently fell out of favour, pushed aside in favour of mass car ownership and left forgotten; marginalised.
Recently, the advent of e-bike technology has led to a renaissance, with the cargo cycle moving from the sidelines into the spotlight. The cargo cycle industry is undergoing an unprecedented period of growth, with potential so enormous we’re not even close to realising all of it. It wasn’t for nothing that Jos Sluijsmans and I dubbed the 2020s the #DecadeoftheCargoBike.
I’ve worked in the cycling industry for over a decade now, and since I moved to the Netherlands six years ago, have focused on cargo bikes. It’s a fantastic industry that puts me in contact with remarkable, enthusiastic people who care about what they do and who make real-world, positive impacts every day.
But for a while now something has been bothering me about the industry. It is not diverse. And once you notice it you can’t unsee it.
I didn’t always think this way. For a long time, I didn’t notice it at all; because I didn’t need to. Almost everyone I worked with was like me; white, straight, cis-gendered men, most of whom were born in rich western countries, were able-bodied, slim in build and educated.
None of which are inherently bad things – as long as we see them for what they are. A set of privileges which – put together – have played a significant role in helping us thrive in this industry. People who look like me are dominant in the cargo cycle industry. It’s visible at events – online and in-person. It is visible on social media; 84,5% of @cargobikefest Instagram followers are male. Authors of industry online articles are generally male and white. I could go on.
Time for dialogue
Early in 2022, I reached out to utility cycling expert MJ Somerville. MJ is queer, trans, identifies as non-binary, and uses they/them pronouns. We had met at ICBF 2019 in Groningen, and I asked them to participate in this article as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, to relate their experiences in the industry. Throughout 2022 MJ and I held a series of remote conversations.
MJ is an accomplished bike builder, project manager, and mechanic. They grew up in Canada, beginning their career in theatre. Moving to the UK in 2007, MJ’s focus switched to bikes, working at organisations including Bike Station (Edinburgh) BikeWorks (London) and Sustrans (Birmingham and Edinburgh). Since January 2022, MJ has been based at the Edinburgh Open Workshop where they are the authorised UK producer of XYZ CARGO cycles.
It was during their time at Sustrans that MJ led the establishment of the NGO’s Cargo Bike Library. One of the first of its kind, the scheme loans cargo cycles out to small businesses and organisations, allowing them to try before they buy, also providing rider training and full fleet maintenance. So successful was the idea that libraries have popped up across the UK and as far afield as Sweden, Canada and Australia.
MJ first describes an important concept to me which relates back to my social standing near the top of the ladder. “Intersectionality is all the layers that make people” they explain. “For example, the intersectionality of a person’s experience can affect how much money they make, what education they can have and what opportunities are available to them; a working-class person: a person with mental health issues; a person who is vulnerably housed; a person of colour; a trans person; a woman; a fat person. All of these things bring in to a person’s story. In other words, intersectionality describes the combination of factors that affect people’s life-chances in a system of power where “normal” is cis-gendered, male, white, rich, slim, neurotypical, heterosexual etc.”
“In the cycling industry specifically; hetero-normative cis white men are rungs above everyone else on the ladder of privilege. So much so that they sometimes can’t see anyone else. As you mentioned, trade magazines are a perfect example. The titles to job announcements might as well be “white man gets job, yay white man”. We also see this in the cycles that are produced and who they are marketed to.”
“My queerness has nothing to do with my technical skills. My trans-ness has nothing to do with my project manage- ment skills. My body size has nothing to do with my technical knowledge – at all. But it has everything to do with my ability to thrive and to develop those skills. Gawed, it has everything to do with finding a cargo cycle that fits! Cargo cycles are built by tall people, for tall people. I have had to start my own business and build customisable cycles because I’m not tall enough to ride any other on the market. I know women running cargo projects that have to ride their entire fleet standing on their tip-toes.”
“I want to thrive, not survive. But I’m not like them; I’m not part of the ‘tribe’ that built the bike industry. And although it seems to be slowly changing – I would say only in the last five years – as a gender non-conforming person I am considered as ‘other’.”
“Why don’t we talk more about the actual elephant in the room; an industry that is almost entirely run by white men and what that means for people who are not part of that group. How do we thrive?”
“To be clear” continues MJ, “I do not speak for all people’s experiences of oppression. I can only speak of mine; and I still walk through this world with a fair amount of power. I am white, come from middle class, educated and I am an English speaker.”
“Yet, I know the hurt of being dismissed, not believed or outright ignored or sneered at. I do not want that for others. I try my best, I am accountable for my mistakes and I can do better. I can always do better for the rest of my life.”
Being taken seriously
One of the most frustrating things MJ runs up against is the struggle to simply be taken at face value. “There’s this concept that to fix a bike or understand technical information, you need to be male. To understand any aspect of the bike industry, you have to be a man.”
“I’ve had instances where a man walks in to my workshop and asks me: ‘Where’s the man that runs the project?’. And I tell them: ‘Me. I run the project’. They’ve replied: ‘No, no, I mean the man. Who’s the man that runs the project?’. I’m like: ‘That’s ME. I run the project!’, and it goes back and forth until I am yelling ‘there IS no man!’.”
“What is frustrating is that attitude generally has more to do with their feelings of ‘not enough’ and the belief that power is finite than it does with me specifically. These actions send the message that I am not allowed to thrive because ‘you’ need to work on your emotional intelligence.”
So how does MJ deal with that? “I’ve learned to be bold and look for loop holes. I am smart and efficient. Still, I need to be 110% versus 60%. I try to forge my own path without needing them. It does affect me though and tend to sound defensive or over explain myself in situations I feel uncomfortable in.”
An eventful question
Next, MJ turns the tables and poses a question: a thought-experiment. “OK, you’re invited to speak at a cargo cycle event. What are your fears?” I give a fairly standard answer about how anxious I become when speaking in public: that I’d forget something, not be articulate, or make a fool of myself – that sort of thing.
“I’ve got all of the same fears as you,” MJ states “then I’ve got a few things on top of that.” The first again relates to being dismissed before opening their mouth: “I really, really know what I’m talking about, technically. But I also have the fear that I will be refuted because I’m not in a body that looks like yours.”
“I have been to many conferences where the assumption is if there is a person with non-dominant intersectionalities then they are there to talk about a marginalised group or gender versus engineering, mechanics and technology.”
“You’ll also never really see me staying too late at drinks networking. I prefer to leave early if I don’t know the people or the city. I have to take extra measures like staying close to the venue for my personal safety – just to be sure. I fear being gay-bashed on the way home.”
“Just from speaking at a conference at which I know what I’m talking about, those are all the extra fears I have to deal with. Do you also fear those things?” I admit that I do not. It’s sobering.
MJ’s experiences should make us reflect. But what they tell us doesn’t only apply to trans people or even those under the wider LGBTQIA+ umbrella. Those struggling to thrive in our industry, in 2022, include women, people of colour, people with disabilities and older people. The list is far from comprehensive.
Decision-making. Hiring. Design. Marketing. Manufacturing. Events. All are spaces MJ and I discussed in which we – as an industry – should be considering systemic change. It is up to those who are dominant in the cargo cycle industry to adapt their behaviour. And if that makes you feel defensive – I get it. It’s uncomfortable. In her book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo addresses how to deal with this defensive impulse: “Breathe. Listen. Reflect.” In other words, take a moment and understand that this really is not about demonising you personally or any group in general.
It begins with empathy and accountability. Those who are dominant in society constantly ask marginalised groups to fight for themselves. Right now they are doing all of that work – emotional work – that still does not allow them to thrive.
It is our work, not theirs.
It’s not a case of ‘having to watch our words these days’, but simply having concern for the effect our words and actions have. Yes, for the benefit of those struggling to thrive in the cargo cycle industry, but also for the good of us all. In short; we are not fulfilling our potential if people – whether colleagues or customers – are excluded – this is something we should want.
In their book The Transgender Issue, Shon Faye’s opening line goes: “The liberation of trans people would improve the lives of everyone in our society”. And the last phrase? “Our existence enriches this world.” For me, these two statements embody the essence of the truly inclusive, vibrant, dynamic and outward-looking cargo bike industry I want to be part of.
My own role – and the role of the ICBF – in making it happen is to do better at listening to, and then amplifying, marginalised voices. To support and encourage without gatekeeping. Sometimes to simply get out of the way. But also to unify. And to keep doing it forever. This is just the start of what I hope will be an industry-wide process. What’s your role? What’s your organisation’s role?
We are all familiar with the many ways in which the cargo cycle is better than cars and delivery vans. Change is possible; the cargo cycle itself was once marginalised and is now booming. Let’s take inspiration from it and be better ourselves. We can. We must. And we will. Because as we all know, when the cargo cycle industry flourishes, the world becomes a better place.