“You wouldn’t believe the difference that being able to cycle has made to the women here” says Kelvin O’Mard, area manager at Queen Mary homeless women’s hostel in Westminster where Sustrans run a cycling club.
It’s a chilly Wednesday afternoon just before Christmas, and 20 cycling Santas from the Sustrans London office have ridden across the capital with a cargo bike laden with food and festive jumpers for the hostel’s residents.
Sustrans involvement with the hostel
In autumn 2017 the hostel, owned by social housing group Riverside, approached us to provide support in setting up and running the cycling club. The staff at the hostel focus on person-centred care and support for the women, building life skills and creating a positive psychological environment. The bike club was their innovative idea to enable women to recover physical and mental health.
“ We know that cycling is a gateway to better mental health and wellbeing, and more and more health organisations are starting to look at the benefits of social prescribing. ”
Many of the women at the hostel have low levels of fitness and all have survived challenging situations ranging from social isolation to abusive relationships.
Helping regain independence through cycling
The project works with up to 10 women in 10-week blocks. The goal is that women will regain independence and head out cycling on their own, perhaps to training or job interviews.
At the club, women work to achieve the cycling accreditation Bikeability Level 1, learning to cycle safely on quiet roads, make turns and negotiate traffic. They also learn about map-reading, how to plan journeys and basic maintenance.
Making a real difference
“ I just wanted to say a big thank you, and how joyful it was to see the garden full of smiling Santas. The bounty of edible goodies will go down a treat over the holidays too. ”
Brandy, a resident at the hostel says:
“I love being part of the cycling club. It’s given me the chance to ride a bike, which I hadn’t done since I was a child. Cycling helps me relax and stimulates my mind. It also makes me a bit tired in the evening, which means I can get a good night’s sleep.”
The hostel’s area manager, Kelvin has been impressed by how good the cycling scheme has been for the women. “I have just seen their confidence grow,” he says.
Sustrans London Director Matt Winfield feels more of this work is needed:
“Being here today and hearing the women’s stories is inspiring. We know that cycling is a gateway to better mental health and wellbeing, and more and more health organisations are starting to look at the benefits of social prescribing. But transport related funding streams rarely recognise these physical and mental health benefits.
"We need to change that. Women do less cycling than men. We need to support women from different backgrounds. We need to make better health and wellbeing accessible for everyone.”
“It’s been a joy for Sustrans to have been able to help support the staff and women at Queen Mary’s Hostel throughout the year, and especially at Christmas.”
Transport for London has funded more work at the Hostel, with a cycling grant of £10,000, and as the Sustrans Santas rode through the streets of London, they were greeted by Heidi Alexander, Deputy Mayor of Transport, and Will Norman, the Mayor of London's walking and cycling commissioner on Q1, the cycleway running from Greenwich to Waterloo.
Back at the Hostel there’s a wintery chill in the air, and Kelvin’s mind is on the year ahead.
“It’s amazing to see the change this cycling club makes. Being able to enjoy a bike ride can make a real psychological difference. I feel proud of everyone who has helped and can’t wait to see what’s next.”