Get Refugees Cycling!
The Bike Project
A London project helps refugees make connections by acquiring abandoned or discarded bikes, making them roadworthy and donating them to refugees
London is a city that is rich in opportunities. But getting around the city can be difficult – particularly so for refugees and asylum seekers without their own transportation and limited means. A bike can help refugees who are trying to find their feet connect with the many resources that London has to offer: food banks, lawyers to help their application process, home office appointments, healthcare, education and much more. And, if they are lucky enough to receive status, it can help them get to work.
The Bike Project, describing itself as a ‘community of refugees, mechanics and volunteers,’ acquires abandoned or discarded bikes, restores them to roadworthy condition and donates them to refugees. Working from a storefront in South London, the project also offers free workshops to refugees on how to ride and fix their own bikes.
Cycling helps refugees develop physical ownership of their city and encourages newcomers to move freely and confidently through the streets of London alongside their neighbours. “I feel fresh when I ride the bike. It keeps my mind busy. It feels like therapy,” says one beneficiary.
Importantly, the Project also helps the newcomers regain trust and form long-term supportive relationships. Project volunteers participate in workshops to develop bike maintenance skills and to learn more about London’s refugee community. Along the way, new friendships are formed and friends become colleagues. Today, The Bike Project has a rolling pool of about 15 core volunteers, half of whom are refugees who came to get a bike initially, and have since become core members of the team.
Doing the Math
The cost of life in one of the world’s most expensive cities is formidable for most Londoners; for refugee families, every purchase –from groceries to school supplies and winterwear– requires careful budget choices. Travel in a sprawling city of 8.5 million is unavoidable, making the cost of public transit for the city’s poorest residents a significant everyday challenge.
Founder Jem Stein, who grew up in Oxford – a cycling city – set up The Bike Project in 2013 after witnessing first-hand the problems for refugees and asylum seekers caused by London’s soaring transport costs. A 2014 report comparing transportation costs in New York and London found that in London, where the hourly living wage was £8.80, a worker would have to work 24.9 hours a month to buy a monthly pass for the Tube. Indeed, for most refugees in London, a living wage is a distant aspiration since they are not allowed to work until their asylum applications are processed.
A bike may seem frivolous in the grand scheme of any newcomer’s life until you do the math: a bike can save a family over a £1,000 in bus, tube and cab fares in a single year. Or, as one bike beneficiary put it: “When you go from charity to charity to feed yourself, a bike becomes very important to your life.”
For Stein, the logic was indisputable: “On one hand every year in London, 27,000 bikes are abandoned; On the other hand, 20,000 asylum seekers arrive in the UK every year. So you have the supply of a resource and the demand (from) people who need them. My vision was to match the two.”
Simple Solutions to Complex Problems
The Bike Project solution was simple – get as many refugees cycling as possible!
At an event co-hosted with the Klevis Kola Foundation for young people, the happiness the bikes gave was tangible. One 18 year old was thrilled with the freedom it would give him to get to football training sessions quickly and for free, without an agonizing decision about an extremely long and slow bus ride versus the expense of a train. Many of the young people The Bike Project works with are frustrated that they cannot afford to go to a gym, take exercise classes or swim as it is prohibitively expensive. Owning a bike gives them independence, healthy exercise and a way to socialize with friends. According to Eleanor Brown, Youth Club and Mentoring Co-ordinator, it also opens up the whole of London to them: “One of our group was so excited at his new found freedom that he cycled from Crystal Palace to Tower Bridge, getting terribly lost on his way home, but delighted that his horizons are no longer limited to his small corner of South West London.”
“This is a really easy concept to get on board with – for those donating old bikes, for volunteers that help us fix the bikes, and for our refugee visitors who will use a bike to help improve their lives,” says Project coordinator, Sarah Morpurgo, who attributes the success of the project to its simplicity. In principle, to set up a project fixing second-hand bikes for refugees, you only need three things: unused bikes, a mechanic, and refugees who want to cycle. In practice, Morpurgo cautions, it takes money to provide new helmets, lights and a lock for each bike, and the cost of tools, parts and safety equipment adds up quickly even when the bikes are free. So fundraising become a necessary part of the equation. However, Morpurgo insists The Bike Project can be set up on a very small scale: “Begin with unused bikes from friends and family, and scale up from there!”
Teaching Refugee Women to Ride
An example of how The Bike Project is scaling up is its newly launched Cycle Training for Refugee Women Project. It teaches women to cycle in London safely while giving them some independence and pride of ownership. It’s helping boost the confidence of many women worn out or traumatized by their refugee experience and lengthy asylum and settlement processes.
Sarah Morpurgo comments: “A key turning point in the project was when we noticed that not many refugee women were coming down to our project. So we spoke to some ladies, and it became apparent that whilst there was a fervent desire to use a bike to get around London, few had had the opportunity to learn to cycle in their native countries. And if they had, they certainly did not have the means to acquire a bike now, often decades on from the last time they’d ridden. So in response, we launched a Cycle Training for Refugee Women project. This is now running with great success and participation, and is actually one of the highlights of my week.”
Success begets its own challenges. Demand for refugee bikes is outstripping supply. To date, the Project has donated close to 1,000 bikes. Where to find more, and why, has become part of their story and how they connect their work with refugees to the broader community.
Morpurgo: “We have to continuously get the word out about the project, and think of new sources for abandoned bikes. We have worked with councils, police, housing associations, and many public buildings with bicycle racks. But we need to keep racking our brains for ways we can access abandoned bikes and get them to our workshop!”
The fledgling organization won the 2015 London Cycling Awards Community Project of the Year, decided by public vote, officially honoured for its community spirit and commitment to bringing cycling to a wider audience in the city. The Bike Project has reached out across the English Channel with the August 2015 launch of Bikes Beyond Borders!, a special event organized to get bikes and other provisions to refugees in Calais, France.
Morpurgo is not content to leave it there. Her goal is to get as many refugees cycling as possible, in London and globally.
“At the moment, our weekly workshop is full to the brim (and spilling out onto the street!) and our women’s cycling lessons are at capacity. And then there are all the other refugees in London, and the UK, and Europe, and globally, that would benefit from a bike. And all the abandoned bikes that can be found in these other cities. So whether that means we set up Bike Projects in other cities, or help other cities to do it themselves, we aim to provide bikes for as many refugees as possible. We’ll have to wait and see how The Bike Project grows and changes down the line!”
For stories on other cities promoting social inclusion through biking, please see:
• Bristol, UK: The Bristol Bike Project
• Copenhagen: Integration in Action: Cycling Lessons For Better Social Inclusion
Making it Work for You:
- Adult sports and other active recreational activities provide an often overlooked opportunity for community building
- Look for opportunities to provide newcomers with the skills or background to physically engage in the life of the city
- The best ideas often start small, using existing resources and networks in innovative and effective ways, and scale up from there.
- Looking for funding? Think broadly about where your project fits into the community landscape. Bicycling, for example, can be categorized as transportation, environment, health promotion, or as a recreational activity.
For this Good Idea contact:
Sarah Morpurgo, The Bike Project
12 Crossthwaite Avenue
London, United Kingdom,
+44 (0) 7506808085