‘Every year there are 27,000 bikes abandoned and 20,000 refugees arriving. We match the two’

The Bike Project is making London more accessible for refugees and changing the profile of cycling, writes Lauren Van Schaik Smith

August 10, 2014 · 5 min read

Jem Stein is from a cycling city – students and townies were spinning wheels in Oxford for decades before amateur veloists stormed London – and he and his brothers grew up on bikes. But cycling mania has its detritus: a jam of jilted rides, slipped chains and flat tyres. There are so many discarded bicycles in Oxford that the city regularly conducts culls, rounding up errant cycles like two‑wheeled badgers and ushering them on to an afterlife as scrap metal. London has its own lost bicycle problem now. Stolen and recovered wheels are backing up in police stations across the city and most of them will be eventually scrapped.

Half a million trips by bicycle in London every day, tens of thousands of cyclists, thousands of bikes misplaced, stolen, or ditched for mechanical failings or new models – Jem Stein has done the sums. ‘Every year in London there are 27,000 bikes abandoned,’ he says. ‘And every year 20,000 refugees arrive in the UK to add to the hundreds of thousands already here. All we do is match the two.’

Stein’s Hackney-based Bike Project isn’t the first charity to put the two together. The Bristol Bike Project has been pairing refugees and asylum-seekers with wheels since 2008. But London’s refugee population dwarfs Bristol’s and the capital’s girth – and the practice of housing refugees in far-flung, zone-6 council blocks – gives the London version an added importance.

Refugees and asylum-seekers are forbidden from working, and are given weekly allowances of only £35 to stretch across food and transport from some of London’s least connected districts. Stein realised the relevance of cheap transport for refugees when he mentored two teenagers who’d escaped genocide in Darfur; in separate instances the Janjaweed militia had murdered their families. After being processed through the UK’s punitive asylum system they were given housing near Heathrow. Stranded near the airport, where local amenities are scant, transit is car-oriented, and tickets to central London are pricey, they were distressed, isolated, and bored. But when Stein found bikes for them, their experience of London changed dramatically.

‘Bikes were the first step toward normal living for them,’ Stein said. ‘All of a sudden they could access local amenities, Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, healthcare, volunteering, social and community resources, lawyers and Home Office appointments, and the psychological support they needed.’

Election writers’ fund

Since the donation of those two bicycles, Stein’s project has grown and grown, from a backyard where he refurbished bicycles himself to a warehouse in Haggerston, where, at Thursday’s weekly volunteering session, more that a dozen volunteers work on battered bikes. The Bike Project accepts used cycles at collection points across London and has received donations of abandoned bikes from Oxford City Council, the Metropolitan Police and the BBC. The project recently handed out its 171st cycle, complete with helmet, lock and lights.

The refugees themselves do much of the repair work and refurbishment, Stein says. It’s a valuable skill and a respite from isolation and boredom. One of those involved is Ussamane Silla, who escaped imprisonment and torture in Guinea-Bissau. He’s been working with the Bike Project since receiving a bicycle five months ago. ‘I’m a cyclist now. I must know how to fix a bike,’ he says.

After years in detention facilities across the UK, Silla now lives in a shelter in Haringey and uses his bicycle to access education. He regularly logs 40 miles a day: it’s a distraction from his asylum application, which has stalled again despite appeals from his local MP. ‘There’s nothing I can do,’ he says. ‘Just carry on, study, come to Bike Project.’

As well as making London more accessible, affordable and a little more hospitable for refugees, the Bike Project is also helping to change the profile of London’s cyclists. It is already working harder to reach less typical potential cyclists. It has received funding from Transport for London to launch cycling proficiency training courses for refugee women, who are currently underrepresented in the project. Many of them never learned to cycle in their home countries or are afraid of hitting the crowded streets alone, Stein explains. The courses will start in the park first, as the women learn their balance, but the Bike Project hopes then to lead them onto the roads.

Lauren Van Schaik Smith is a masters student at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. This article is the winning entry in our young writers’ competition, which asked entrants to write about a project or policy that addresses the environmental crisis and social or economic injustice at the same time. The judges were journalist George Monbiot and Red Pepper’s environment editor Kara Moses. Thanks to everyone who entered. This competition was kindly supported by the following organisations: People & Planet, Shake!, Woodcraft Folk and the Young Greens.   


What do we do now? Join us on Monday 16 December at Rich Mix

What do we do now?

After knocking on so many doors, the movement built in support of Jeremy Corbyn needs to stay present particularly where people feel abandoned or under attack

Election 2019: The latest attack on travelling communities

The Conservative manifesto includes yet another attack on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. We can resist at the polls - and by responding to the public consultation, says Beth Holmes

We stand with Jeremy Corbyn

Letter: We stand with Jeremy Corbyn – just as he always stood with us

Organisations and individuals including Kehinde Andrews, Hanif Kureishi, Ahdaf Soueif, Gillian Slovo, Robert Del Naja and Anish Kapoor urge BAME and migrant communities to vote for Labour


Election 2019: Tackling tech giant tax avoidance

Conrad Bower reports on the main parties’ manifesto promises to address ‘aggressive’ tax avoidance by multinationals like the ‘Silicon Valley Six’

Election 2019: Battle lines drawn in Sheffield Hallam

Sam Gregory of Now Then magazine reports on the candidates vying for votes in a key Lib Dem-Labour marginal

Jo Swinson at the BBC leaders debate

Election 2019: Anti-semitism and phoney solidarity

The faux-concerns from the party’s opponents does little for Jewish people, argues Oscar Leyens


Football’s Race Stain

Racism marred the Manchester derby this weekend. This blemish on the game is an echo of our Prime Minister’s words, says Remi Joseph-Salisbury.

Another World is Possible

Election 2019: The end of neoliberalism in sight?

If elected, the next Labour government can finally depart from the neoliberal consensus and deliver a major shift in wealth and power, argues Adam Peggs

Small change

Simon Hedges shares his famous-on-Twitter analysis of the state of the left today


Election 2019: Transatlantic socialism rising

As Sanders and Corbyn head to the polls, Peter Gowan describes a new spirit of international collaboration on the left

Jeremy Corbyn and front bench holding copies of the 2019 manifesto

Election 2019: An ambitious, agenda-setting and credible manifesto

The 2017 Labour election manifesto was good but the 2019 version is the document we’ve really been waiting for, argues Mike Phipps

Brian Eno: Why I’m backing Labour in Kensington

In 2017, Labour won Kensington by just 20 votes. Brian Eno explains why he's backing Emma Dent Coad in the seat - and why voting Lib Dem is ‘voting Tory without admitting it’


Cartoonist from 1888 depicting John Bull (England) as the octopus of imperialism, grabbing land on every continent. Public Domain.

Election 2019: Education and Empire

Following Labour’s manifesto pledge to educate the public on the histories of empire, slavery, and migration, Kimberly McIntosh explains the dangers of colonial nostalgia in the national curriculum

Support our election writer’s fund

The stakes could not be higher during this election. Help us cover what's really happening