Published: 29th OCTOBER 2020

Celebrating Black leaders who are making it easier for people to walk and cycle

Black History Month aims to promote knowledge of the culture and heritage of Black people throughout history and today. It works to build a collective voice and empower people to think critically about historical narratives. In honour of this, we’re celebrating Black leaders whose often overlooked achievements are contributing to a shared vision of a healthier, happier future.

Jools Walker Talking At Women And Cycling Event In Scotland

Jools Walker encourages people from all walks of life to try cycling.

There are many who share our vision of making spaces that are safer, healthier, happier and more accessible for everyone.

People from all different backgrounds and cultures, whose work has shaped our past, present and future in very positive ways.

At Sustrans, we not only want to work harder to recognise this, but we also want to celebrate this more often.

We know we have a long way to go to better represent the communities we work with.

You can read about the action we are taking to address this, as well as how we can actively raise the ambition of the whole sector at the end of this blog.

Celebrating Black History Month

Our 2019 Bike Life survey found that 74% of people from ethnic minority groups do not cycle (in comparison to 66% of White people).

And 33% are not confident in their cycling skills (in comparison to only 24% of White people).

Black History Month has encouraged us to share this blog and acknowledge the often-overlooked contributions of Black people who are making it easier for people everywhere to walk and cycle.

Here are some inspirational figures and groups, past and present. We want to celebrate and thank them for their work.


Maria Adebowale-Schwarte

Founding Director of Living Space Project

Maria Adebowale-Schwarte is a strategist for public spaces with a focus on the environment and inclusivity. She is an expert in city design and place making.

She was the first to receive the Environment Fellowship from the Clore Social Leadership Programme. A programme that develops leaders with a social purpose so that they can transform their communities, organisations and the world around them.

Maria is the founder of the Living Space Project. A social enterprise that helps communities create green neighbourhoods in urban areas.

In 2017, she was appointed by the London Mayor to be a commissioner on the London Sustainable Development Commission. Her job was to develop ways of improving the quality of life in the city. 

Maria is also the author of The Placemaking Factor. A book that looks at how we define place making and the environment. Through research, interviews and stories, her book observes the human connection to the places we live, love, work and play in.

TedX asked Maria:

“If you could change one thing about the world through your work, what would it be?

She replied:

“Everyone would have the right to a decent home and access to spaces where they can live, play and love without fear.”

Maria’s work continues to be invaluable for making our towns and cities greener, more inclusive and better places to be.

Elsie Owusu OBE

Architect and Designer

Elsie Owusu is an urban architect and designer. She is an expert in transport and infrastructure as well as the issues facing emerging economies.

Elsie believes that architecture and spaces should look like the people it serves ( and was named by RIBA as a role model for her support of inclusivity and diversity.

Her work has inclusion and art at its core. For example, Elsie redesigned the entrance at historic Green Park station in London. This involved introducing step-free access to all three lines. Lifts, a new ramp from the ticket hall into the park, beautiful green space and artwork were installed.

In 2003, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE), granted by Queen Elizabeth II, for her services in the field of architecture.

Elsie is the founding chair of the Society of Black Architects which ‘arose out of a need to integrate fully the contribution of ethnic minority professionals as providers and consumers of architectural and design services’ (Society of Black Architects Facebook Group).

In her recent talk for TEDx, Elsie states:

“Today’s architects are not representative of the population in the UK”.

She discusses the importance of equal representation amongst designers and who they are designing for. Adding that the pipeline for bringing young people, women, people of colour and working-class students into the profession is fundamentally broken.

Her words ring very true for all work that involves designing spaces for people in the UK. Whether it’s designing buildings or outdoor spaces and streets.

In our guide for inclusive cycling in cities and towns, we wrote:

"When people in power and people who govern, design and deliver transport and cycling do not represent the wider population, unconscious and conscious bias can mean decisions, policies and schemes are not designed around the needs of everyone as they are not fully understood or considered."

Elsie's work in looking at who is designing our spaces and in ensuring we are making them safer and more inclusive is testament to that.

Maurice Burton

First black British champion in cycling

Maurice Burton is an English cycle shop owner and former racing cyclist. He was the first black British champion in cycling, taking first place in the junior sprint race in 1973.

From a young age he practised at Herne Hill Velodrome in London and by the age of 16, he was winning most championships. At 18 he was selected for the Commonwealth Games.

Maurice faced a lot of racism in the sport at this time.

The height of this racism came to light when he got booed as he won his race at the Commonwealth Games in 1973.

Maurice’s passion and determination is a big inspiration for young people who love to cycle. Especially those who are marginalised.

Following his retirement from professional racing Maurice founded Team De Ver Cycling Club in the 1980s.

The Team De Ver Cycling club website says:

“Maurice’s vision was to increase the accessibility of the sport to all sections of the community irrespective of race, gender or background, and encourage a wide and diverse group of people into cycling and enjoy the sheer pleasure of riding a bike.

“Maurice encouraged local men and women of all abilities and from all backgrounds to join his group. The group trained together to gain bike fitness in order to enter various charity rides raising money for a variety of charities.”

Today Maurice speaks honestly about the racism he experienced at that young age in the UK and how it stifled his career.

And we agree with Maurice, who believes more can be done to encourage diversity in what remains a predominantly white sport (Sky Sports News - Roger Clarke 2020). 

Jools Walker, aka Velo City Girl

Award-winning author, freelance writer, host and public speaker.

Jools Walker encourages people from all walks of life to try cycling. She explores and showcases the many different forms of cycling and believes “there is something for everyone”. And we couldn’t agree more.

Jools is amazingly inspiring, just take a read of some of her website bio:

“My debut non-fiction book, Back in the Frame (How to get back on your bike, whatever life throws at you), was published by Little Brown UK in May 2019.”

“In October 2019, Back in the Frame was ranked No.5 in Book Authority’s “100 Best Cycling Books of All Time” awards list.

“Leading UK publication BikeBiz named me as one of the most influential women in the UK cycling industry.

“I’ve spoken about cycling culture on platforms as varied as BBC Newsnight, the Design Museum, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 6, Southbank Centre’s WOW Festival, Wilderness and at various literary festivals around the UK.”

Jools supported our ‘Cycling for Everyone’ report in partnership with ARUP, which sets out recommendations for the transport industry to help tackle inequalities in cycling in urban areas.

In her foreword she writes:

 “Witnessing some improvements occurring in planning better infrastructure and accessibility in cycling has been encouraging, but at this point, it’s still not enough.

“It’s not enough when those who have the power are not factoring in the needs and concerns of marginalised groups and those who don’t cycle.

“It’s not enough when these groups aren’t reflected by those who sit on these decision-making boards.”

A women wears her Hijab under her helmet riding her bike in the city

There are a number of groups in the UK who are working hard to make cycling easier and more representative.

Cycling groups which aim to increase diversity

There are a number of groups in the UK who are working hard to make cycling easier and more representative.

The Black Cyclists Network

The group aims to connect cyclists from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. And they are using their platform to encourage people of colour to take up cycling.

Brothers on bikes

A UK-wide cycling club that aims to share their love of cycling with brothers from all faiths and beliefs.

Cycle Sisters

An award-winning organisation which inspires and enables Muslim women to cycle. They work to address the inequalities in cycling by ensuring that the needs of Muslim women are understood and met.

Women of Colour Cycling Collective

A friendly, supportive space for any woman of colour that rides a bike or is thinking about riding a bike. The group includes roadies, leisure riders and newbies, and is inclusive of trans women, non-binary people and people from multi-ethnic backgrounds.


What are we doing?

In 2019 we worked on a new part of our strategy to focus us on making walking and cycling accessible for everyone.

This is embedded in our strategic priorities:

There is a tremendous commitment, energy, drive and passion at Sustrans from our employees and our volunteers.

But a lack of diversity means that we do not reflect the demographics of the UK.

Working hard to support everyone

Our ‘for everyone’ strategy aims to strengthen diversity and inclusion across the charity and through our work.

There are many examples of the brilliant work we do as part of our commitment to 'for everyone'.

This includes actively collaborating with an increasing variety of people during the design phase of projects and schemes.

For example where we worked with the local community to transform a busy, car-dominated street in Stirling.

And our Five Acre Wood project where we supported young people, some with learning difficulties, to improve their local train station.

We're also working with communities to improve accessibility and reduce exclusion to walking and cycling.

For example, we recently teamed up with a number of other organisations to provide free bikes to key workers in Nottingham during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But it is clear that we can do much more.

Moving forward

In September 2020 we started a new, 18-month programme to really embed our ‘for everyone’ principles into our work across the charity.

We'll share our progress as we move forward, so keep an eye out on the news section of our website.


What can the transport sector do?

Earlier this year we teamed up with our friends at ARUP to create a guide to support people in local government and the transport sector to make cycling a more inclusive activity for everyone.

The guide outlines a series of recommendations for local and national governments to make cycling more inclusive and to help address inequity in society.

Download the guide and read our recommendations for change.

We're also currently working on a Walking for Everyone report and guide for the sector. We'll share this soon, so keep an eye out on the news section of our website.

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