Women in Cycling

In London twice as many men cycle as women - across the UK women account for only 27% of cycle commuters. Rosie Downes investigates

Across the UK, areas that already have relatively high levels of cycling (such as Cambridge) have a better gender balance but where cycling is increasing from a low base the proportion of women cycling isn’t increasing. Why not? There are a number of explanations put forward, some more useful than others:

  • 'More women work part-time in the UK than men. That’s often given as an example of why women cycle less, as it’s more practical for them to travel by other means outside of peak hours.' says Rachel Aldred, Senior Lecturer in Transport at the University of Westminster. 'But more women also work part-time in the Netherlands, where that fact is used to explain why more women cycle than men'
  • Others argue that men are more likely to cycle because they’re happier to take risks than women. Actually, there are plenty of men who don’t like taking risks. And, of course, there are women who say they are quite happy to be seen as risk-takers

Infrastructure needs to work for everybody

There are many complexities at play, but some things are clear. Number one is that problematic cycling environments make everyday journeys and tasks more difficult to do by bike. For example, there is no inherent reason why you can’t cycle with children or carry shopping on your bike. And while some men cycle with children or do the shopping, it is currently true that women still do the bulk of the caring work in the UK. If the cycling environment is problematic, the school run or shopping become far harder to do by bike.

Local routes need to be suitable for adapted bikes, cargo bikes, or bikes with tag-alongs or trailers. If the cycling environment is made safe and inviting for all ages and abilities, those barriers are removed, providing benefits for everyone. Infrastructure needs to work for everybody - then whether it works for women shouldn’t need to come into it. But we’re still working towards a city with high quality, safe space for cycling, so the imbalance in caring responsibilities between men and women may be an underlying gender issue that impacts on the number of women (not) choosing to cycle.

Women have a key role to play in ensuring that planned infrastructure is going to work for everybody. Carlton Reid, campaigner and author of Roads Were Not Built for Cars, says that in recent years women have been at the forefront of cycle advocacy.

He writes about Claire Morissette, one of the co-founders of Le Monde a Bicyclette and a key reason why Montreal now has 600km of cycle lanes. Morissette was also influential globally, and her ‘cyclodrama’ ideas are still popular today - die-ins and other stunts to goad transportation officials and grab media attention were first used in Montreal in the 1970s. The Claire Morissette bike path in Montreal was named after her in 2008.

The role of cycle campaigning

Diversity within cycle campaigning can also make a real difference. The London Cycling Design Standards (LCDS), published by TfL in December 2014, owe a lot to LCC’s Love London, Go Dutch assessment tool, developed to ensure proposed infrastructural projects or options are suitable for all ages and abilities. LCDS says:

Taking account of user needs must be an inclusive process. Planners should actively seek views not only from typical existing users but also from under-represented groups, including people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act (2010).

Yet while the LCDS represents a step forward in this area, we’re a long way from standards that demand space for cycling that’s safe and inviting for everyone of all ages and abilities, including mums and dads cycling with their kids.

There’s a case to be made that greater diversity among decision-makers results in more inclusive provision for cycling. The countries with the best records on cycling have greater representation of women in parliament:

  • 39% of seats in Danish and Dutch parliaments were held by women between 2010 and 2014, compared to just 23% in the UK
  • In New York, Janette Sadik-Kahn, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013, tripled the amount of bike lanes in her first year as commissioner

When many UK politicians think ‘cyclist’, they think of a young, white man, clad in helmet and Lycra. Boris Johnson had a certain type of cyclist in mind when he described riding around Elephant & Castle as 'fine, if you keep your wits about you'. As Mayor he declared his desire to ‘de-Lycrafy’ London. While there are issues with sidelining a large user group, it was a sign of progress that, at least in London, decision-makers were beginning to recognise that thinking of catering for cyclists as purely providing for a young, fit minority is a problem.

'Everyone and Cycling'

Of course, the ultimate goal is to reach the point where we don’t have to think about ‘women and cycling’. Cycling should automatically be for everyone. The bike industry has been guilty of trying to cater for ‘road, mountain bike, BMX, women’, as if women are a mysterious sub-group whose needs are addressed with floral decals and targeted marketing featuring the colour pink!

Whether it’s industry or infrastructure, we have to move away from this. If we focus on creating environments that are safe and inviting for all - be that road infrastructure or within our bike shops - then we’ve cracked it. But what’s very clear is that women have an enormous role to play in getting us to that place.

Image: Gary Knight, 'Bike, Baby, Basket', under Creative Commons license