So why don’t more women cycle?

A guest blog from Jenny, aka Mrs Banging-On-About-Bikes.

Disclaimer: I am using the words ‘woman’ and ‘women’ here for convenience; I consider anyone who identifies as a woman to be relevant to this exploration of women in cycling. Intersectionality or death! (But preferably cake.)

I am a woman. I also ride a bike. My brother was gifted a BMX sometime in the 1980s and I guess it was only fair for me to be gifted the same. Mine was a handsome Raleigh Bluebell, though, and I remember learning to ride it on the grassier bits of Dunham Massey car park when I was a ween.

Of course, eventually I outgrew the Bluebell and mostly stuck to walking and taking the bus until my early twenties, at which point I decided that I was a bit of a chump for not sailing past stationary traffic on a commuter bike during the warmer months. I picked up a basic, cheapo hybrid in Halfords and so began 15+ years of cycle commuting.

I’m a few bikes on by now (I currently ride a delightful Raleigh e-bike thanks to my employer’s cycle to work scheme) but I’ve experienced the roads and drivers of north, south, and east Manchester. I also lived in the Netherlands for about 9 months in my twenties and of course I was furnished with a bicycle upon arrival. So, I guess you could say I’ve experienced at least a couple of more-or-less polar-opposite cycling environments, not only in terms of infrastructure and driver behaviour, but in terms of the cycling (and driving) demographic too. Yes, in the Netherlands (and indeed in Copenhagen in the few days we spent there recently) you’ll see far more women getting around on two wheels.

This is well established, and we don’t need to rely on my anecdotes to prove it:

“In Denmark, more women than men use bicycles for transport (17% of all trips undertaken by women compared with 15% for men). In The Netherlands the figures are 31% for women and 26% for men. In Germany, among individuals aged 18 years and over, women make an average of 2.54 cycle trips per week, while men make 2.31 cycle trips per week, and since 1976 cycling rates have increased more rapidly among women than men.” (Garrard, 2003)

Hopefully, readers here will be sensible enough not to assume that (cis) women are inherently ‘less good’ at propelling themselves forward on two wheels for any biological reason, but in case any do, we’ll let these statistics put that theory to bed.

But why is cycling important? And why does it matter whether women cycle more or not?

I admit that my motivations for cycling are primarily selfish: I am lazy, classed by any of the standard measures as overweight, prefer to spend as much time in bed of a morning as possible, haven’t a clue how to repair a puncture (or change an inner tube), and have never bothered to indulge in many of the standard cycling accoutrements. Riding my bike to work or to the shops gets me door to door in a reliably shorter time and when the weather’s nice I can sail along going “weeeeeeee” which is always a bonus. I never wear lycra, never ride long/hard enough to get so sweaty it ruins my make-up (setting spray, y’all) and I’ve never been particularly involved with cycle campaigning or with social rides.

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That all changed (obviously) when Nick and I struck up our romance. So he tells me, he was initially attracted to my wry smile and impeccable music taste. When he discovered my penchant for pedalling one can only assume that his heart fluttered wildly and without precedent (who knows?)

Being ragingly left-wing as I am, very little convincing was needed for me to get behind the core values of cycle campaigning. Cities that cycle are healthier, more sustainably ‘powered’, more environmentally responsible, and generally filled with a little less road rage. The majority of experts agree (please explore this article’s reference list for specific studies and other citations) that Cycling Is Good.

Personally I consider it a bonus that commuting by bike lessens the dreaded carbon footprint, and I enjoy the physical and mental health benefits that are appended to the basic task of getting from A to B. It’s also cheaper than a bus or tram season ticket, even with occasional puncture repairs thrown in. Win win win.

So, okay, Cycling Is Good and maybe you agree with that. More cycling all round would be great. But why should we care about getting more women cycling? Surely we should just be persuading EVERYONE to do more cycling? #AllCyclistsMatter amirite?

Well.

It actually all starts to get more nuanced when we try to explain the stark gender imbalance in countries where utilitarian (functional) cycling is prevalent. And it actually starts to give us clues about where campaigning efforts should be focused more broadly.

As sustainable transport consultant Alix Stredwick was quoted in the Guardian,

“I’ve come to the conclusion that we get the cyclists we deserve. If we have a street environment that’s hostile, that has no facilities, that has fast traffic with heavy lorries thundering past, we will get low numbers of courageous people, mainly men, on racing bikes and pretty well no one else. But if you provide a street environment where it’s much more egalitarian, where your granny can cycle to the shops safely and have somewhere to park her Dutch-style bike – that’s when we’ll get those kind of cyclists. But you have to be able to provide for them.”

It does seem to be a pretty well accepted fact across the board that women (and children and old folks) tend, on the whole, to be more risk-averse. Explaining this tendency in women would require reading through a whole ‘nother bunch of academic studies which I don’t think I need to do in order to take a pretty well-educated guess or two.

Let’s be clear, if “women” as a homogenous group are considered more delicate or feeble, this is due to a culture that constructs their identity as such. We know that delicacy and feebleness can both come in all shapes and sizes. The world can be a tremendously hostile place for women, and it may serve us well to be more risk-averse. We also know that the majority of the time (traditionally, at least) women do a hell of a lot more primary childcare and may often have children in tow when travelling from place to place. These factors (or maybe others; in the words of Rustin Cohle “heck, someone should do a study”) intersect and add up to a widely acknowledged higher level of risk-aversion in women.

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And here’s the thing: that matters a lot in a country or city where provision and infrastructure is inadequate to the point of negligence. Though most cycling is still a fairly safe way to travel, statistically speaking, it can require a bullishness and an aggressiveness that many are not prepared to embody twice every weekday in order to simply stay alive. One study that focused on commuters in London noted that, “cycling represents the archetypal efficient mode for autonomous individuals to travel in ways that maximise their future-health gain, and minimise wasted time and dependence on others. However, it relies on the cultivation of a particular ‘assertive’ style to defend against the risks of road danger and aggression” (Steinbach et al, 2011).

And this style, or image, matters. It matters both to other potential bike-riders and to other road users too. Perception can act as either a barrier or a facilitator of cycling (Daley & Rissel, 2011). But perhaps in the same way that we should avoid regarding women as a homogenous group, people who ride bikes are usually seen as a multi-faceted bunch. One study has shown that,

“…[people] tend to perceive four types of bicyclists on English roads: responsible bicyclists (who use a bicycle safely and responsibly); lifestyle bicyclists (keen bicyclists who spend time and money on bicycling); commuters (professionals who use the bike to commute to work, whatever the weather); and hippy-go-lucky bicyclists (kind people who use their bike for day-to-day, non-work activities)…” (Gatersleben & Haddad, 2010)

(I assume that this refers to adult riders only – I’m not sure how they would classify those other two well-known feeble users of bikes: children and grannies.)

It’s curious, isn’t it, that “responsible” is considered a category all of its own, as if cyclists within each of the other ‘types’ could not be responsible or irresponsible? Hmmm….

But why does this matter anyway?

Well, as mentioned above, perception of cycling can act as either a barrier or a facilitator to potential new riders, and perception can be influenced by whether one is a rider of bikes or not (possibly obvious)…

“Respondents who bicycled recently were more likely to perceive the typical bicyclist as responsible, a commuter and a hippy-go-lucky bicyclist. They were less likely to perceive the typical bicyclist as a lifestyle bicyclist compared to respondents who had not used a bicycle recently…. This also gives support to previous research which has shown drivers to have a negative view regarding bicyclists” (Basford et al., 2002)

Translation: regular cyclists are more likely to see the stereotypical cyclist as responsible; a commuter or otherwise everyday user. Non-cyclists are more likely to see the stereotypical cyclist as very keen, in if for the lifestyle, spending lots of time and/or money on All Things Bike (and not necessarily responsible!).

Not only is this a potentially dangerous perception, it can be downright false and can throw up (perceived) barriers to potential new everyday bike-users.

This insight is not new: in 2015 Transport for Greater Manchester ran a campaign with the tagline “I’m not a cyclist” in order to encourage those who fear the lycra to give cycling the old college try. Have a look at this smart chap in his work cardy who just likes to save time:

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Don’t we all, moustachioed Mancunian commuter?

Sadly the campaign didn’t achieve the desired effect, what with many of Manchester’s roads entirely lacking bike lanes, and many of the bike lanes that do exist being pocked with potholes of varying sizes that often reveal cobbles of yesteryear and occasionally fill out to full on sinkholes (not to mention the terrifyingly maverick attitude of many Greater Manchester drivers that was dire enough to warrant a specialist traffic policing unit).

It serves to back up the assertion that “cultural interventions are not an alternative to improving cycling environments, but should be seen as complementary, with the potential to multiply or reduce the impacts of other interventions” (Aldred & Jungnickel, 2013)

So what might these other interventions look like?

Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.

We know that infrastructure counts for a lot. A huge amount actually. Great infrastructure means that even the more vulnerable or risk-averse of bicycle-users can ride safely and confidently: women, children, old folks, disabled riders.

Let me give you an example: I work in higher education and have done for more than ten years. In that time I’ve seen the provision for disabled students improve dramatically (though it still has a long way to go). Most Universities now embrace the idea of inclusive teaching, an approach that –as default- addresses the needs of students with a variety of backgrounds, learning styles, and abilities. It removes the need for many “special” arrangements being made. It’s an inclusive approach for the benefit of all.

Cycling infrastructure in many of our UK cities is not inclusive. It does not exist for the benefit of all (if it exists at all).

So we know we need the infrastructure. If you build it they will come. But what else?

Representation matters.

It’s important to understand that representation matters a lot. People do what they see. Representation tells people “you are welcome!”. It tells people “you can do this too!”. It tells people, “this is possible for you!”. Representation gives children role models. It gives us inspiration. So when the popular representation of cycling is of white men in lycra, what does that tell every other potential cyclist out there who doesn’t fit the mould?

What does the culture of cycling athletes tell women? (That you aren’t worth as much as men.) What does the culture of popular cycling magazines tell women? (That your presence is a token one.)

In Australia, where the cycling demographic seems to be similar to the UK, one study surmised that in order to do more to encourage women to cycle, “campaigns [should] enable women to experience cycling in an environment that both is, and is perceived to be, safe and supportive” (Garrard, 2003).

But what does this look like in reality?

It looks like outreach! It looks like a proactive effort amongst formal and informal cycling clubs, groups, and initiatives of all kinds reaching out to underrepresented groups (women, old folks, BAME riders, etc.).

Signal to your members and followers that you are actively encouraging more women to join in. Ask what the group could do to make rides and meet-ups more welcoming! Be prepared to receive some (hopefully constructive) criticism, and be prepared to act on it! Be prepared to lose some members to the PC Gone Mad brigade. Declare zero-tolerance on sexism and other isms. Offer to support events or rides organised by and for women. Diversify! (Diversity is good!)

But let’s say that we have waved our magic wand and conjured up some wonderful UK-wide infrastructure overnight. Let’s say that all manner of cycling clubs and groups, from local pootlers’ potterings to national athletic adventures, have engaged in meaningful and sincere outreach to encourage more underrepresented riders to join in. What good is all this if driver attitudes remain the same?

Education, education, education.

I fear that another magic wand would be necessary to bring about an overnight change in many drivers’ attitudes to sharing the road with vulnerable users like cyclists. But if it’s true that the vicious circle of necessarily defensive/bullish cycling style and more dangerous driver behaviour is connected, then safer infrastructure should eventually impact the latter positively. If drivers encounter greater numbers of cyclists of all kinds (women, children, all the grannies) then a cultural tipping point should eventually be in sight.

However, it’s true that education has a part to play. Another Australian study found that negative attitudes of drivers (particularly that many regard cyclists as a nuisance) often have their roots in a lack of knowledge of the rules of the road, and how they apply to other road users (Daley & Rissel, 2011). The study also found that “proactive cycling policies and infrastructure” –i.e. policies that centre vulnerable road users as equally important as drivers- were a helpful way to combat negative attitudes, alongside effective driver education.

The fact is that many cyclists ‘break’ rules because it feels safer(e.g. edging beyond the ‘bike box’ at lights, or slipping through lights before cars). This is something I can attest to, as someone who only very rarely breaks rules of any kind (for what my anecdotal addition is worth!). Again, safe and effective infrastructure could all but eliminate the need for cyclists to break rules.

Stigma is difficult to tackle, and it is prevalent in the UK, but a shift in culture can begin with local policy and strategy, as one study found:

“Our research highlights the embedding of transport in local as well as national cultures, and the associated need for policy-makers to take culture seriously in considering how to shift transport practices.” (Aldred & Jungnickel, 2014).

Better policy, better infrastructure, improved attitudes, safer cycling; all of these elements combine to create an environment in which everyone can feel more comfortable getting on a bike.

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Lastly, the day-to-day cyclist.

A key feature of such leading cycling cultures as the Netherlands and Copenhagen is a much higher percentage of day-to-day cyclists of all shapes, sizes, ages, abilities, and genders. Running errands, taking kids to school or nursery, getting to work: all these activities are much more frequently completed by bike. These are close geographic neighbours and so theoretically there is little reason why we Brits can’t follow suit. However. It’s true that all of the above is important. Campaigns like TfGM’s “I’m not a cyclist” can’t exist in a vacuum, even though, once again, representation matters:

“These findings have implications for encouraging bicycling, which may benefit from promoting bicycling as a common day-to-day activity rather than something that is only relevant for a few.” (Gatersleben & Haddad, 2010).

Here we can just as easily loop back around to the discussion of representation. Concerns such as “I don’t want to get sweaty and ruin my make-up” and “the helmet will mess up my hair” might seem frivolous but should not be dismissed out of hand (also, SETTING SPRAY Y’ALL!). If you ask me, everyone has the right to be able to cycle 6 or so miles to the office and arrive with top-notch hair and make-up. I’m all for lots of discussion of “women only” cycling issues, niggles, and top tips. I’m all for cycling gear for fatties. I’m all for stylish urban accessories. I’m 100% all for women-only groups/rides/clubs/whatever if that provides a safe and welcoming space for folks who otherwise wouldn’t get in the saddle! (Especially if that means sharing advice about setting spray. It’s gotta be e.l.f. matte magic for me.)

You’re welcome.

Finally, to all the cycling champions and policy-makers out there, I’d like to say on behalf of reticent lady-cyclists all across the UK, you’re welcome for our innate ability to be your sure-fire litmus test for how good your infrastructure truly is…

Gil Penalosa, who runs Toronto-based consultancy 8-80 Cities, describes women cyclists as the “indicator species” for how bike-friendly a city is. “If there aren’t at least as many women as men, then usually it’s because cycling is not safe enough. It’s an indicator that you do not have good enough cycling infrastructure.” [source]

So, Chris Boardman, I guess I’ll just be over here sharing setting spray tips while I wait for your call?

References

Aldred, R. and Jungnickel, K. (2014). Why culture matters for transport policy: the case of cycling in the UK. Journal of Transport Geography, 34, pp.78-87.

Bonham, J. and Wilson, A. (2012). Bicycling and the Life Course: The Start-Stop-Start Experiences of Women Cycling. International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, 6(4), pp.195-213.

Daley, M. and Rissel, C. (2011). Perspectives and images of cycling as a barrier or facilitator of cycling. Transport Policy, 18(1), pp.211-216.

Garrard, J. (2003). Healthy revolutions: promoting cycling among women. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 14(3), pp.213-215.

Garrard, J., Rose, G. and Lo, S. (2008). Promoting transportation cycling for women: The role of bicycle infrastructure. Preventive Medicine, 46(1), pp.55-59.

Gatersleben, B. and Haddad, H. (2010). Who is the typical bicyclist?. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 13(1), pp.41-48.

McGowan, M. (2018). Women to get equal prize money in Tour Down Under cycling event.[online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/jan/22/women-to-get-equal-prize-money-in-tour-down-under-cycling-event [Accessed 22 Jan. 2018].

Slavin, T. (2018). ‘If there aren’t as many women cycling as men … you need better infrastructure’. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jul/09/women-cycling-infrastructure-cyclists-killed-female[Accessed 22 Jan. 2018].

Steinbach, R., Green, J., Datta, J. and Edwards, P. (2011). Cycling and the city: A case study of how gendered, ethnic and class identities can shape healthy transport choices. Social Science & Medicine, 72(7), pp.1123-1130.

Womenwhocycle.com. (2017). International Women’s Day: the role of the bicycle in improving women’s lives. [online] Available at: http://womenwhocycle.com/the-role-of-the-bicycle-in-improving-womens-lives/ [Accessed 22 Jan. 2018].

Womenwhocycle.com. (2017). Secret Women’s Business for female cyclists. [online] Available at: http://womenwhocycle.com/secret-womens-business-for-female-cyclists/ [Accessed 22 Jan. 2018].

Stock images are from Pixabay. Thanks Pixabay! It’d be nice to see more ‘sporty’ bike pictures that feature women and/or non-white folks though!


You can find Jenny blogging over at jenny-marie.co.uk about veganism, junk food, mental health, chronic illness, and other fripperies.

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12 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    Excellent well researched article. I hope Chris calls soon 😉
    Ironically, most of the tours booked with Liverpool Cycle Tours are booked by women. In fact around 75%!

  2. theadultlab says:

    Great post. I wish more women cycled in my city. I do from spring to late fall as it’s safer than walking on the street due to harassment. : (

  3. Claire S says:

    Fantastic article! I think most women need a bit of the hippy-go-lucky about them to get on the saddle and think ‘to hell with it’… which is a great shame. But it’s a wonderful tool and gets lots of very different folk around for lots of different reasons. I also cycle in and around Manchester and a bike was my primary mode of transport while living in rural China a few years ago – which came with a whole array of differing expectations, values etc. but offered ease and independence to peasant farmers and TSOL teachers alike!

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks Claire! I find mine a wonderful tool too. So handy and gives me extra time in bed 🙂 I expect cycling around rural China was quite an experience!

  4. Viv says:

    Excellent article. I am a utility and a leisure cyclist living in a rural area where cycle provision is never going to happen. Of necessity we cycle on narrow country lanes, mixing with tractors, lorries and cars. What keeps me safe is hi-viz or very bright clothing (they see me quicker) and a very assertive attitude i.e I only move over when I feel it’s safe. Local drivers are getting used to seeing cyclists but a national campaign to educate motorists about utility cyclists would be really helpful. Our local town, Taunton, is beginning to include cycle friendly paths in new developments but they have a long way to go.

  5. Dave C says:

    very well constructed article, and a good read. As a regular (male) cyclist, i learnt a bit from it, but more importantly I found it rather thought provoking.

  1. March 26, 2018

    […] In the account of the Bury meeting I noted that all attendees were middle-aged white men: representative perhaps of the dominant demographic that currently cycles, but not of the underrepresented groups the new cycling/walking network is aimed at. Two women (out of a total of ~13) were in attendance at the Rochdale session, though with one from City of Trees and the other the Highways apprentice, neither was drawn from the cycling fraternity. As was noted by a friend after the last meeting: although this is where we are now, if equivalent meetings look the same in five years, then we’ve done something wrong. So it’s important to keep noting who comes when we talk about bikes – as we’ve seen, representation matters. […]

  2. August 31, 2018

    […] a guest article for this blog on the subject. And that’s how we came by the rather splendid So why don’t more women cycle? piece, which has been very well received and widely […]

  3. November 16, 2018

    […] progressive campaigning should be truly inclusive. It should take seriously the questions around why more women don’t cycle, whether there are barriers preventing people of colour engaging in cycling (yes, there are), and […]

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