On Monday, the BBC reported that women are half as likely to cycle as men. A familiar round of concerned speculation started, fuelled by the reporter asking cyclists about their experiences, and hearing tales of street harassment and Womanning Up. Sustrans’ survey (which the BBC report is based on) isn’t huge – 7,700 people across seven cities, not including London – but academic research also shows that proportions of men and women cycling don’t really change even when overall numbers go up.
In the good old days, advice on getting more women to ride bikes focused on fairly superficial barriers: coping with helmet hair (ponytails were recommended), makeup drift (waterproof mascara), how to de-sweat yourself when you arrive at work (wet wipes in the loo), where to change into your power suit and high heels (the loo, again) and what to do with your damp kit (pro tip: draping it over the office radiator tends to alienate coworkers). Women talked about street harassment and safety, too, although these never seemed to get much attention. Dangerous roads and threatening men are just part of life, the message seemed to be; nothing we can do about them, love. Women needed to get over themselves, and stop being so silly.
The modern version of this advice features cycling role models telling readers they just need to get their confidence up, take the lane, and they’ll be fine. But you won’t necessarily get the right solutions from people who already cycle, lovely and helpful though we all are. (In the survey reported here, sixty percent of female cyclists thought there were no barriers to women taking up cycling. I know it’s crazy, but maybe Strava users weren’t the most appropriate demographic to ask.) People who already cycle have, by definition, overcome the barriers, either because we haven’t faced any (even the most empathetic chap can’t properly understand how intimidating it is to have a bunch of guys yell “Lucky saddle!” at you from a passing van), or because our desire to cycle has outweighed them: maybe the commute is much easier by bike, or bike riding makes us inexplicably happy, or it’s the only means of transport that guarantees we won’t have to talk to anyone. It’s easy to look on ourselves as role models, trailblazers – we can do it, so why can’t everyone? – when statistically, we are outliers.
Advice often conflates leisure and utility cycling, which doesn’t help. (OK, some of us conflate them on purpose, chasing Strava segments on the commute and taking the scenic route home from the Co-op.) Initiatives such as Breeze seem to work; women’s participation in leisure cycling has increased (although it also seems there’s a drop-off in numbers after the initial burst of enthusiasm). But getting people to come out cycling for fun is different from persuading them to do the school run by bike.
Probably because the BBC article relied on opinions rather than published research, the reaction to it was a predictable mix of ‘pull yourselves together’ and ‘men have these problems too’. However, research shows that women’s experience of cycling and use of transport is demonstrably different to men’s. This can actually help us identify and address whatever it is that’s keeping women off bikes.
Surveys show that for women, safety on the roads is their main concern, and this isn’t just because they’re wusses: women report more ‘near misses’ than men do, suggesting their experience on the roads is actually different from men’s – something that improving confidence won’t fix.
Women’s days look different from men’s, in terms of their travel: they spend more time taking children to and from school, and do more ‘trip-chaining’, crowbarring several errands into the same outing (though apparently men are catching up, due to increasing numbers stopping for a coffee on the way to work. The researchers, possibly a bit envious, call this ‘the Starbucks effect’). These daily rounds of obligations can be difficult to fulfil on a bike. Add into the mix that women have less leisure time than men, and the finding that people choose to travel alone in their cars starts to make sense: they see it as a rare opportunity for some ‘me-time’. And concerns about safety play into this: the school run won’t happen on bikes if the roads don’t feel safe enough. Even confident cyclists stop cycling in circumstances where they don’t feel it’s safe for their children. Back to that ‘trip-chaining’: if you can’t ride the school run, doing the rest of your trip by bike is going to be tricky.
In line with going on about safety in surveys, women also consistently report that they want bike lanes that are separated from traffic, and (surprise, surprise) proper infrastructure turns out to be a solution to a lot of their other concerns. Segregated bike provision means you aren’t living in fear of close passes and road rage, so there’s no need to keep up with the traffic; you can cycle at chatting pace (or faster than traffic jam pace, but without the weaving). You can get where you’re going, safely, on any kind of bike: a sit-up-and-beg, a cargo bike, a tricycle, or with your kids on their own bikes. You can ride in your work gear, so there’s no need to worry about where you’ll hang your sweaty kit. You don’t need a helmet, so your hair will be just fine. It means more people cycle, because people gravitate towards the easiest, cheapest method for getting around; even small bits of well-designed infrastructure have an effect on who cycles and how often. And there’s strength and safety in numbers, even late at night. Who knows? You might wake up and find yourself in a culture where everybody cycles everywhere, and the people who drive are the outliers. And if you don’t have to cover the brakes constantly in case someone left-hooks you, your bike commute might even be the best bit of me-time in your day.
The BBC story rehashes opinions and personal experiences but can’t move us forward; in articles like that we’ll just find evidence to support our own existing point of view, whether it’s that women just need to HTFU, or that anyone can ride a bike to work if they try hard enough. A look at the research gives us clear explanations, and a bit of hope.
Instead of badgering individual women to overcome significant barriers through sheer force of will, articles need to highlight this evidence and put the onus on transport planners and policy-makers, to get concrete (or ideally smooth, segregated tarmac) action to make change possible for everyone.
(For the interested reader, Alix Stredwick provides a comprehensive list of reasons for the gender difference. It’s worth reading, because there are a lot.)