Women and cycling: how do we build a strong female bike culture?

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 145.

Women on wheels: female cyclists enjoying our 2019 Cargo Carnival
Image as described adjacent

In Cambridge, equal numbers of men and women cycle.1 That says a lot about our inclusive cycling culture, because in Belfast, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Bristol, women are half as likely to travel regularly by bicycle as men. In these cities, 73% of women never cycle at all. It is not that women do not want to cycle; Sustrans report that 30% of women living in these seven cities would like to start.2 What is it that holds them back and why are women in Cambridge bucking this trend?

To find out more about this issue, I surveyed over 300 women across the UK about their relationship with cycling. One woman responded ‘cycling is freedom’ and another called cycling ‘the best feeling of freedom ever’, but many expressed their deep reservations about getting on a bicycle. One hundred and forty years ago, when the bicycle as we now know it was invented, women suddenly had a cheap and effective way of getting around, but the idea of a woman on a bike was shamed and ridiculed. Nowadays, some women still cannot access the sense of freedom that comes with cycling, because most UK cities are still waiting for the key changes in cycling culture and infrastructure that will align cycling better with the reality of daily life and the broad range of preferences, lifestyles and routines that people have. A 2013 report3 found that, compared to men, women’s needs are more often left out of transport planning, which makes some women ‘feel unwelcome in public spaces’.

Gender differences in cycle travel and confidence

Men and women tend to make quite different types of journey. Studies have found that women are likely to have a broader range of childcare, work and household responsibilities, which require more and shorter trips, with multiple stops on a journey.2 If it is a nightmare to stop and start along the way, to manoeuvre a cargo bike, or to keep children safe, people with many childcare and household responsibilities will not feel able to cycle, and this disproportionately affects women. People whose journeys are most often directly to and from work are in a better position to be tolerant of poor infrastructure, and more of those people are men.

Cycling infrastructure is nowhere near as good as it should be in Cambridge, but the river and many green spaces, the lack of cars in the centre, the provision of cycle parking at many destinations and the rich cycling culture make it much more feasible to integrate cycling into complex routines and lifestyles than in other cities. This means that many people of all ages and genders feel more able to cycle, especially women. If infrastructure improved in Cambridge, we would most likely see more women cycling than men, like cities in the Netherlands and Denmark.

A third of the women who responded to my survey mentioned an aversion to the risks of cycling, such as traffic collisions, confrontational situations with fellow road-users, or mechanical faults. One woman commented that compared to her male colleagues who do not seem to mind being amidst traffic on busy roads and happily assert their place there, she and her female colleagues do not cycle ‘apart from in parks’. Many responses suggested the same thing, that men are more likely to cope better with cycling on dangerous roads, because they tend to be more confident and assertive. It is completely unsurprising that this woman and her friends are put off; I am more surprised that more men aren’t put off. Helen Pidd, a journalist and author, argues that the fears of many women are ‘perfectly rational’: in most UK cities ‘roads aren’t safe’ and you will often find yourself navigating unsafe junctions, being overshadowed by lorries, and receiving abuse from motorists. Rather than not being confident enough, perhaps women are ‘generally more sensible’ than men, as one of my survey participants commented. No one, man or woman, should have to be ‘assertive’ to stay safe on the roads; they should have safe cycle routes separated from car traffic and pedestrians on which they do not need to be assertive.

Breaking down the barriers

To make UK cities into an environment where more women can and want to cycle, as in Cambridge, big changes are needed. These changes will benefit everyone who might want to cycle, but especially women. Firstly, streets must be transformed to create dense networks of safe cycle routes in UK cities. This would help with many of the safety, practicality and logistics issues which disproportionately affect women, especially the transporting of children. Of the women I surveyed, 84% suggested that more, wider or safer cycle paths and cycle lanes in their area would make them more likely to cycle. More specifically, Sustrans found that on-street protected cycle lanes would be the most effective way to get women cycling more.2 Secondly, there must be plenty of cycle parking all over our cities, and shops, supermarkets and services need to be easily accessible by cycle. This would make the everyday errands which women are often responsible for simple and easy to complete by cycle. Although Cambridge has already achieved gender parity, infrastructure improvements are still extremely important, to make cycling as safe and accessible as possible for all people.

As well as ease and safety, a third obstacle for women is social influence. One in ten of the women who participated in my survey mentioned that not seeing many other women cycling was off-putting. Unlike more common modes of transport, cycling is particularly ‘publicly gendered’, because it is rare but very visible4. As a woman, if the only cyclists you see are men, you may subconsciously assume cycling is not for you. The challenge in UK cities is to detach cycling from its current narrow identity and make space for all kinds of cyclists. Cambridge has done extremely well to build an inclusive identity for cycling, and this is a huge part of the reason that so many women want and feel able to cycle here, despite the need for infrastructure improvements.

No one, man or woman, should have to be ‘assertive’ to stay safe on the roads; they should have safe cycle routes separated from car traffic and pedestrians

The social influence of fashion and beauty also plays a key role in women’s resistance to cycling. A fifth of responses to my survey mentioned either the disproportionate pressure on women to look good (especially when turning up to work) or the inconvenience of the tradeoff between cycle-friendly clothing and fashion. ‘Cycling isn’t very friendly towards stereotypical standard female fashion’, one woman remarked, because of the impracticality of combining nice handbags, fashionable long coats, skirts and dresses, styled hair under a helmet, and heels with a bicycle (‘skirt’ and ‘dress’ were mentioned 28 times in reference to their incompatibility with cycling). This woman just does not cycle when she needs to go somewhere nice, ‘but I’ve seen blokes cycling in black tie,’ she mentioned.

A stronger cycling culture among women would help in this regard too. Talking to and seeing other women who cycle, you come to realise that your handbag can fit neatly in a bike basket, you can tuck your coat under you on your step-through bicycle, you can find neat tricks to pin and tie up loose material on skirts and dresses, and you can slip your heels in your bag to change into when you get to your destination.

It is not easy to cultivate a cycling culture among women. Seeing more women cycling will encourage others to start, but changes to infrastructure which overcome barriers to cycling are required to encourage women to cycle. However these changes will come about only with a greater number of women cycling in the first place. It is a conundrum . To get more women cycling in other UK cities, politicians and developers need to take the initiative, for the sake of society and the environment, and build the infrastructure before demand.

Despite the fact that the infrastructure in and around Cambridge is nowhere near perfect, the city has managed to develop a cycling culture in which women feel empowered to cycle, and I think we should be very proud of that, even if there is a lot still left to do to make cycling in Cambridge as inclusive as possible.

Ellie Gooch

1 – Does More Cycling Mean More Diversity in Cycling?, Aldred, Woodcock, Goodman, 2015
2– Women: Reducing the Gender Gap, Sustrans, 2018
3 – Journal of International Affairs, 67:1, 2013
4 – Cycling and the city, Steinbach, Green, Datta, Edwards, 2011