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Why aren’t more women cycling?

A new report indicates that there is a “gender gap” when it comes to riding bikes in cities

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By Emily Baker on

A new survey conducted by cycling and walking charity Sustrans has found that, despite having a positive perception of cycling, nearly three-quarters of women in seven UK cities never ride a bike for local journeys.

The survey, which included over 7,700 residents in seven so-called “Bike Life” cities, including Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff and Edinburgh, found that twice as many men as women cycled at least once a week. However, of the women surveyed, 72% believe things would be better if people cycled more often and 68% think their city would be a nicer place to live if more people took up cycling.

So, why aren’t more women taking up cycling? According to Sustrans’ research, 59% of women believe their city is unsafe and dangerous to cycle in, while 25% believe cyclists become a nuisance on the roads. A further 22% of women believe there is a lack of infrastructure to protect cyclists and encourage new bike riders. Men were much more likely to think cycling safety in their city is good and, unsurprisingly, men feel safer riding their bikes at night – 36% of male cyclists feel safe riding their bike after dark compared with 23% of women. Simply put, city-cycling plans and infrastructure do not take women’s safety into account.

In January, British Cycling Breeze Champion Leigh Campbell told the BBC about the challenges facing women cyclists, particularly the sexist attitudes of male drivers and other cyclists. “I've been told to 'read the Highway Code' and 'get off the road'. I've also been sworn at,” she said. “I've even had 'keep pedalling, nearly there' – from a male cyclist. They wouldn't have said it to another man, it's so patronising and uncalled for.”

The Pool columnist Marisa Bate had a similar experience biking around central London for a summer – “The men who look like they are climbing the Alps aren’t just dangerous in terms of the way they cycle, but the aggression, the sense of ownership over the road and anger, is harmful to women getting on bikes at all,” she wrote. “My cycles were battles. And the fight wasn’t with buses or cab drivers, as I had expected. It was with male cyclists.”

59% of women believe their city is unsafe and dangerous to cycle in, while men are more likely to think cycling safety in their city is good and, unsurprisingly, feel safer riding their bikes at night

It’s not that women aren’t interested in cycling, as the Sustrans research shows that 30% of women surveyed want to take up the activity – that’s 5% more than men. Frances Redmond from Belfast told researchers, “You feel more free on a bike than you do walking,” while Zoe Banks Gross from Bristol said cycling empowers women in her community who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to learn.

To women who aren’t interesting in taking up cycling or those who have never experienced this sort of sexism, this might seem a rather niche problem. But it matters that women do not feel safe enough to cycle. Firstly, there’s the obvious environmental impact – according to British Cycling, if 10% of drivers switched to riding a bike, then air pollution would decrease and save “400 productive life years”. Secondly, cycling can have a profoundly positive impact on health and an increase in the activity could save the NHS billions. A recent physical inactivity report from the British Heart Foundation found that while there are 8,300,000 inactive men in the UK, over 11 million women are inactive and do not reach the recommended amount of exercise in every part of the UK – women need to feel safe enough to change this.

Another reason why women should be encouraged to cycle is that riding a bike can be a tool of empowerment. Bikes are being used to empower asylum seekers in the UK, saving them precious money otherwise spent on travel fares and offering female refugees independence. In Iran, where women are banned from cycling because religious leaders see it as a threat to morality, female cyclists have defied a fatwa on cycling in the face of increased congestion and attempts to control women’s freedoms. The bike itself has had a prominent role throughout women’s history, becoming a way for women to overcome the imposed need for chaperones and to travel everywhere sidesaddle to “protect their modesty”.

The Sustrans recommendations' focus on efforts to make cycling in cities safer for women. The charity wants city leaders and planners to encourage women to take up cycling through training programmes and safety courses, as well as the creation of further cycling routes separate from main roads. The report also says that leaders should incorporate gender into every single stage of “consultation, design, delivery and monitoring” of new schemes by actually reaching out and speaking to the women they serve. This – to ask women what they actually want – shouldn’t be a radical move, but in the world of city cycling, it’s clearly a step yet to be taken.

If all these recommendations are taken by the relevant players in each of these Bike Life cities, Sustrans believes that more women will take to the road on their bikes. It might just be a small change, but as transport expert Dr Rachel Aldred says, it might just push society along towards equality.


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