LCC Campaigns Coordinator Fran Graham weighs in on women & cycling

International Women's Day is an annual event and this year, Thursday 8th March sees various groups around the world celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.

2018's theme is #PressforProgress, and whilst much progress has been made in relation to women's equality, the world is still unequal and this day calls upon everyone to encourage advocacy for women's advancement everywhere, in every way. This topic resonated with us at LCC and not just on the subject of women, but in relation to all our campaign objectives.

In relation to women and cycling, Campaigns Coordinator Fran Graham spoke with six women about the challenges and push for change, which you can read here. She also weighed in herself to try and answer the question: 

How can we get more women into cycling? 

I have been cycling in London for about seven years and I cycle for many of the same reasons that many others do: it’s healthy, cheaper, quicker and way more fun than the tube at rush hour. In the last seven years I’ve seen the number of people riding alongside me increasing.

I still get a kick out of sitting at the lights, surrounded by loads of others going about their daily lives by bike. I especially like spotting fellow female cyclists.

There have been more and more of us women on bikes in recent years, and I love it. However, we are still the odd ones out on the city’s streets. Cycling trips have boomed in London — according to TfL stats, there are now more than 670,000 trips a day, an increase of over 130% since 2000. But the number of men cycling is growing faster than the number of women.

Overall, women are around half as likely as men to have cycled in the past month. But nowhere is gender equal; broken down borough by borough, there are some clear leaders and laggers. Enfield brings up the rear with women 29% as likely as men to have cycled in the past month (although that might all change as the mini-Holland settles in). Barking and Hillingdon join them at the bottom, with 33% and 35%. Hammersmith is top, but still only at 70%, with Kingston and Richmond on 69% and 68%.

If you compare that with the cycling nirvana that is the Netherlands, where over half of all cycling trips are made by women, then you know that London is dragging its feet when it comes to enabling more of us to dust off our bikes. 

Safety issues

A large part of this comes down to feeling safe on the roads. The majority of people prefer cycling when they are separated from traffic in high quality segregated cycle lanes, or on roads that are quieter, where the traffic moves slowly. This is especially true for women thinking about cycling. It’s why women are often referred to as the ‘indicator species’ of a safe cycling environment — if you have a gender balance on bikes (or more women than men cycling), it’s a sign that the area has great cycling infrastructure.

LCC lobbies so hard for good quality cycling infrastructure for just this reason. It’s not just about the people who already get about by bike; it’s about creating space in London that everyone who wants to cycle feels happy doing so. Cycle Superhighways, Quietways, the existing mini-Hollands and upcoming Liveable Neighbourhoods all have a part to play in this.

We have to make sure that when we build cycling infrastructure, it works for everyone. That means segregated cycle lanes must be wide enough to accommodate all types of bikes that make trickier trips simpler; adapted bikes, cargo bikes, bikes with tag-along trailers all make carrying home the shopping or taking the kids to school much simpler. Making these everyday trips easier, especially the ones included in care-giving tasks (because the bulk of care-giving does still fall to women in this country) helps boost the number of women choosing bikes for their journeys. 

Route choices

Additionally, planners need to listen to concerns about routes. Not only do they need to go where people want to go, like shops and schools, but there could be concerns about routes through parks, quiet streets and estates, particularly after dark. My commute takes me through a lovely park, meaning I can avoid traffic entirely. However, once the sun sets, that unlit park doesn’t feel quite like the haven it is during the day, and I end up cycling home on a busy, aggressive stretch of road I can normally skip. There hasn’t been much research on this, but anecdotally it’s an issue that needs a lot more consideration.

We also need to tackle behaviours that discourage women from cycling. The Near Miss Project — a piece of research by LCC Trustee Rachel Aldred — found that women experience twice as many ‘close passes’ as men. Having a motorist speed by, way too close for comfort, is incredibly off-putting, sometimes to the extent that people stop cycling.

It is why it’s so encouraging to see police forces beginning to take it so seriously. West Midlands launched their Close Pass Initative last year, where a plain clothes officer cycles along the road, and if a motorist passes too close, they are pulled over by colleagues further down the road and given a warning. It was highly praised by cyclists across the country, and since then many other police forces have been lining up to roll it out on their roads, including here in London.

Gearing up

The range and quality of bike gear on the shelves is better than ever before. Biking brands have recognised that the growing numbers of women cycling presents a huge market for them and are stepping up to the plate. They’ve come a long way from the ‘shrink it and pink it’ approach (y’know, make it smaller and stick some flowers and pink accents and there you go, a ‘ladies’ bike). It’s easier than ever to find the perfect bike, and if you’re not into the full Lycra look, you don’t have to look hard for stylish panniers, waterproofs, even reflective knitwear.

Bike shops have joined in on the self-reflection, and realised that sometimes it can be quite intimidating walking into a workshop. Wandering into a very male environment, worried you’re going to get sneered at for not knowing how to fix a puncture, can be so off-putting that sometimes the puncture doesn’t get fixed. The bike returns to the spiders in the shed, and its owner to the tube. A non-judgmental atmosphere can go a long way, and shops are picking up on this fast.

And it’s not just about making the shops less scary places to pop into, they are working to provide safe spaces for everyone who wants to learn how to maintain their bike — Women and Gender Variant workshops are popping up in a number of places.

Representation across the board

It’s also incredibly important to see women getting involved in everything to do with cycling. There are a number of powerful women in City Hall now, advocating for the cycling community, from Caroline Pidgeon and Caroline Russell on the London Assembly Transport Committee to Val Shawcross as Deputy Mayor for Transport.

Professional women’s cycling is becoming more visible too, with women like Laura Trott and Dame Sarah Storey leading the medal tables at last year’s Olympics and Paralympics, and events such as the Women’s Tour, RideLondon and Tour de Yorkshire putting women’s races on our screens. Many tracks are trying to encourage more female racing, with Herne Hill Velodrome and Lee Valley VeloPark both running women-only training sessions.

Greater inclusiveness

And it’s not just about gender — all under-represented groups need to be visible in cycling. Wheels for Wellbeing campaigns for inclusive cycling, supporting, enabling and campaigning for disabled cyclists. They’ve recently challenged councils and TfL to use more diverse images in their cycle and transport strategies.

If you’ve not heard of her already, look up Ayesha McGowan. She’s on a mission to become the first female African-American professional road cyclist, and flying the banner that representation matters the whole way.

What’s LCC doing?

Alongside our infrastructure campaigning and road danger reduction work, LCC is running projects to reach out to under-represented groups in cycling. Our Urban Cycle Loan scheme is running in five boroughs. People can borrow a bike, lock, helmet and hi-vis vest for a month for £10, and are given the opportunity to take up free cycle training at the beginning of the month. If they like the bike at the end of the loan, they can buy it at a discounted price. While not specifically targeted at women, we are finding that the majority of people taking advantage of the scheme are female, and they are highly likely to keep riding once the month is up. 

We’re also proud to have some incredible women as part of our family, such as our 2016 Campaigner of the Year Clare Rogers, coordinator of Enfield Cycling Campaign. She has tirelessly built support for the Enfield mini-Holland scheme, which has faced considerable ‘bikelash’, by engaging with the wider community in an intelligent and positive way, even organising a builders’ breakfast for the workers constructing the cycle tracks on the A105. And she’s often seen practising what she advocates on the school run with her kids on her tandem.

We have a Women and Cycling working group that is actively looking at how we improve the gender balance on the roads and within LCC. We recognise that having women role models at all levels of leadership - from ride leader to Board member- is critically important if we want to improve participation by women. If you’d like to find out more about this group and what they are currently working on, please email Fran (fran@lcc.org.uk).  

LCC will keep campaigning to create the environment on our roads that welcomes everyone who wants to cycle. We’ll keep listening to women (and BME, older, disabled people, and other under-represented groups) and amplify their voices. We’ll keep championing the amazing work that is happening around London: the projects, schemes and events that showcase and support women who want to cycle. And I’ll keep cheering anytime I see a fellow lady on a bike at the lights. 

 

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This article was originally published in the Autum 2017 issue of the London Cyclist