On Your Bikes Ladies!

Why don’t more women cycle? Why is cycling still so male dominated? What can we do to get more women on bikes?

These are questions that many people ask. They are questions I have asked myself on a number of levels.

When I used to race time trials, I never failed to be in the top ten women. This is not testament to how good I was, it is testament to how few women were time trialling. I was always in the top ten women because there were rarely ten women in the race.

My main focus at the moment is the other end of the scale. Why are so many women reluctant to get on a bike at all?

As a stay at home mum, my main focus is on other mums, whether working or at home. To me, there are two reasons why mums should consider cycling:

  1. Cycling is a fantastic way to get around.

As parents, we often make multiple short journeys. The school run, nip to the shops, to the library, to a coffee shop. These are perfect journeys to do on a bike.

Often these journeys are quicker on a bike than they are in a car. They are also predictable – my journey to school on the cargo bike takes 15 minutes. It always takes 15 minutes. On the rare occasions I take the car, I allow at least half an hour. In the car I don’t know what the traffic will be like, I don’t know what the parking will be like. I don’t know how long it might take and I really don’t like to be late.

2. Cycling for transport is a brilliant way to exercise.

There are simply not enough hours in the day when you have children. Finding the time to go to get some exercise is a challenge. If your family is anything like mine, finding the time to go to the toilet unaccompanied is enough of a challenge. If your childrens’ bedtime is anything like mine, you never know whether your child-free evening is going to start at 6:30pm or 9:30pm.

The beauty of using a bike for transport is that you really do not need to find time to exercise. I use the cargo bike to get most places with my children. On an average week that amounts to around of 70 miles cycling (what can I say, I’m a numbers addict, I use a Garmin all the time!).

On a school day when we have no extra clubs, classes or errands to run, I ride to the school to drop off eldest child and ride home. Then I take youngest child to nursery and ride home again. Then I ride back to the school to pick both up and take them both home again. Each home to school ride is only 15 minutes. Not long enough (or fast enough) to get sweaty or to need special clothing. But that adds up to an hour and a half on the bike. Five days a week. I would be surprised to hear of many mums (working or otherwise) who manage to find an hour and a half a day to spend at the gym.

This leaves me free to spent my evenings relaxing (or repeatedly putting a three year old back to bed and assuring a five year old that he has not yet had enough sleep since he has not yet been to sleep).

SO WHY NOT?

So why are the streets and cycle paths not teeming with women on bikes? According to Cycling UK in March 2017, in Scotland more than three times as many men as women cycle to work. There are a number of reasons why I think this is. This is based on my own experiences, from chatting to others and from a bit of reading. It is not an evidence based study. Bear in mind that I am talking about novice women getting on to a bike in the first place. There is also plenty to discuss about getting more women to race, but that it a discussion for another post.

  • Intimidation and fear 

Cycling is perceived as dangerous. Peter Walker’s Bike Nation does a fantastic job of presenting the actual evidence on this. I would challenge anyone to read it and not be convinced that the risks from inactivity far outweigh the risks from cycling.

However, this is not what you think of when yet another audi (what is it with audi drivers?) is squeezing past you at speed whilst sharing their opinion of your chosen mode of transport with a variety hand signals and colourful language. One of my personal favourites was the driver who leaned out of his window and yelled “STUPID!” at me. He was going the opposite way and I was in no way impeding or even affecting his journey.

Regardless of the reality of whether or not cycling is dangerous, riding on the roads is intimidating for newcomers and for those lacking in confidence.

I recently trained as a British Cycling Breeze Champion and started leading free Breeze rides for women. These are going really well. I advertised through my childrens’ school and the women who come along are very keen and also just a little bit terrified. I am trying to establish the principle of cycling assertively, especially ‘taking the lane’ when it is too narrow for cars to pass safely. However, the instant reaction of these riders is to get off the road the minute a car beeps at them. I am sad to say that we have been beeped at every time we have been out despite never breaking any rules of the road. We ride on cycle paths as much as possible to avoid this, but we have to get to the paths in the first place.

There is also a degree of fear of the bike. What if I get a puncture or the chain comes off? If you are an experienced cyclist, these things are an inconvenience. If you are new to cycling, they are a disaster.

  • Practicality

There is often a belief that to ride a bike, you have to be ‘a cyclist’. You have to wear lycra and know how bikes work and be able to ‘talk bike’. Personally, I own a lot of lycra (I’ve been cycling for many years!), I know a bit about how bikes work and I can talk bikes. But when I am riding a bike for transport I wear jeans. I have been known to ride in a dress, but I’m not really a dress sort of person to be honest.

I also have a system. I have a cargo bike for transport involving children or shopping and a bike known as ‘donkey bike’ for transport without children. Both bikes have panniers. Both bikes have a bike lock and basic repair kit. I have a set of waterproofs which I switch between the bikes. Because I know that I will have everything I need and the ability to carry my handbag or a bottle of milk, it is as convenient for me to cycle as it is for me to drive when I need to get somewhere.

Appearance is also a big issue for many women. They don’t want to arrive everywhere is sweaty mess with hair awry and Alice Cooper style makeup. Workplaces do not always have showers. Personally, this doesn’t worry me all that much – I don’t go fast enough or far enough to get sweaty, and to be honest, I’m a bit of a scruff anyway.

Carrying children is another difficult issue for many women. If you are not a confident cyclist yourself, you are unlikely to feel confident putting your children on a bike with you. If you are scared of the traffic you are not likely to allow your children to cycle independently in the roads (especially at school run time). If you do not know much about bikes you are unlikely to have heard of cargo bikes, tandems and tagalongs. There are a huge number of options for carrying children by bike, but they are all really aimed at parents who are already confident cyclists.

  • It just hasn’t occurred to many people

To me, this is the biggest issue of all. If you are not already a cyclist, why would it cross your mind to travel by bike?

There is a huge amount of writing out there about why cycling is good for people, good for societies and good for the environment. Bike Nation and Bikenomics  are great examples. I am by no means the only blogger enthusing about the joys of cycling.

But here’s the thing….we are all preaching to the converted.

I am willing to bet that everyone who reads my blog is already a cyclist.

Let’s try it:

Do you consider yourself a cyclist?
SO WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

How can those of us that love cycling encourage more women to give it a go?

These discussions tend to focus on improving infrastructure. We need more traffic free, protected cycle paths. Not just a white line painted on the road – this protects nobody. The kind of paths anyone would be happy to allow their children to ride on independently.

We absolutely do need better infrastructure. Urgently. I believe that this will happen and I believe that this will be largely down to some extremely dedicated cycle campaigners. These people tirelessly promote consideration of all road users. Local to me, Hank Chief and Harts Cyclery do an amazing job.

But infrastructure like that seen in Holland is still years off . We all want to see more people riding bikes right now.

So what can we do right now.

Breeze is a great initiative. I would encourage any women who are confident cyclists and who can spare a bit of time to train as Breeze Champions and run a few rides. Belles On Bikes is another fantastic Scottish initiative getting more women on bikes.

I think we need to find ways to transfer to adults the joy and exhilaration which children experience on bikes. To children, bikes are freedom. They can travel at speed under their own power. They can control the bike and make it do what they want. They can race their pals. To me, as an established cyclist, the bike represents the same thing.

Children can discover new places with their parents…if their parents will cycle too.

This is why I am working with my childrens’ primary school to try and reach other mums. I want to encourage more children to cycle too, but I think that will happen best when parents also cycle.

A couple of the mums who come to my Breeze rides have children in P6. This is their reason for coming along. Their children are going to be doing bikeability this year and the mums are terrified that their children will then want to cycle on the roads. They are terrified of their children cycling on the roads because they themselves are terrified of cycling on the roads.

I think this is a real opportunity. A reason why more women might get on their bikes so they can support their children.

So my plan is to keep running the Breeze rides. Keep working with the school to promote cycling to parents as well as children. Keep promoting it to the P6 parents. I am planning coaching sessions for women too. Nothing technical, just practising gear changes and signalling somewhere with no cars. I would like to run parent and child sessions too – bring your parent along and ride together.

Beyond this, I think that those of us who cycle need to set an example. We need to show others that ‘normal’ people ride bikes. We ride in jeans. we ride in skirts. We ride with our children. We ride in the sunshine. We ride in the rain. And ‘we’ are good people. We do not go through red lights. We say thanks when others make way for us. We share the paths and the roads. And the hardest one of all to me – we do not react aggressively to those who act aggressively to us.

This has been all focused on getting more mums riding. Don’t get me wrong, I would like to see more dads cycling too. I would like to see everyone cycling. But encouraging women is a greater interest of mine so it is what I am putting my effort into for now.

 

22 Replies to “On Your Bikes Ladies!”

  1. I used to cycle every day, to work, into the hills. Me and my bike were at one.

    Then I moved to Edinburgh and I was progressively discouraged by the awful awful traffic, the cobbles, accidents on tram lines, the cycle paths clogged up with tourists and dogs, the traffic, did I mention the traffic…?

    My bike’s getting rusty in the garage and I feel terrible about that. I wish I knew how to get past the way I feel about riding in this city. I really can relate to people who have never ridden bikes in the city for the reasons I listed above. Especially in the winter.

    1. That is such a shame, I’m really sorry to hear you have been put off cycling. Have you tried looking for rides with others near you? Try breeze, belles on bikes and hervelo. Perhaps riding with others might help get your confidence back up.

      1. I love what you are doing to try and get women out on bikes. But there’s a much bigger problem and it just seems to get worse.
        In between my home and work there are 3 schools and a lot of the problem stems from school run drivers – so many of them, behaving very badly. I don’t see any steps being taken by anyone to stop parents from driving their kids to school!
        Because I’m not riding in the week it feels like a bigger jump on a weekend to go riding.
        I’d like to try group riding if it was on roads and fairly long distances, (30-40 miles) but not competitive. I like the look of hervelo but I’m scared I’m not fit enough. I guess I have lost some confidence.

        1. I completely agree. More needs to be done to encourage parents to minimise car use on the school run. With another hat on I am also working on creating teaching resources for primary schools to encourage physical activity, including creating a school travel plan. There is a huge amount which can be done but I think it needs parents to act as ‘champions’ for active travel. If you are interested, take a look at http://www.activelinkslearning.com
          Another work in progress!

  2. I have a 25k country road commute which I used to do by bike twice a week from spring to autumn. I’ve had so many near misses with drivers I’ve become too nervous to do it and pretty much didn’t do it at all this year. On the plus side I have a few cycling school mum friends locally and this year we’ve made a more concerted effort to organise to go out together via WhatsApp even if it’s just for an hour in the evening. It makes a huge difference to your confidence when there’s more than one of you.
    I do a bit of cycling locally with the kids, and have inflicted an outright ban on my poor family on using the car for short distances so at least if they’re not cycling they’re walking. I suspect everyone thinks I’m mad but they’re too polite to tell me.

  3. Great Post Diana. I think there are two different issues here.
    Getting more women into cycling as a sport means making cycling clubs more accessible and attractive to women. The club I belong to (Kendal CC) is a new club, and has gone out of its way to be welcoming to women, with weekly Breeze rides, womens only graded rides and training sessions, and we even did a women’s Coast to Coast ride over the summer.
    Getting more women (particularly mothers) to cycle on a day to day basis is a different matter, and involves making the roads safer – via investment in infrastructure. When the cost of driving that it’s not longer economically viable to drive the kids to school people will move to bikes, and also getting so many girls / young women cycling now will help, as they may naturally continue to cycle when they become parents. I was a confident cyclist before I had kids, and I had quiet roads in the city where I lived at the time, so was able to continue many (but not all) of my journeys by bike, when the kids came along. If I’d lived in a different part of the city, I wouldn’t have dared to drive.

    1. I totally agree. For day to day cycling I think we need to show people the self interest in active travel. I was a confident cyclist before having children which made cycling the school run the obvious choice. However, on the days when I am feeling lazy or it is as cold as today what keeps me on the bike is the thought of trying to park and not getting my exercise for the day.

  4. I live in a village near a science park which is only 1.5 miles by bike. I cycle in skirts and dresses a lot – dropping my kids off at nursery on the way. I regularly get into conversations with friends who do the same journey by car about how brave I am to do the route. Its about the safest cycle route without going offroad. Its a big wide road, excellent sight lines, very few close passes. I generally respond that it takes more time to reverse out of my driveway than it does to cycle.

    I still don’t seem to have encouraged anyone else to do the journey by bike. What can I do? Offer to chum someone along the route by bike?

    1. That might work. I have read about ‘cycle buses’ similar to walking buses. Would you have time to get involved with breeze rides? I think we need to get mums confident on their own bikes before they will feel able to take their children on bikes.

  5. Good for you!
    Unfortunately, the Powers That Be aren’t as on-side as they might be with making cycling a Normal Thing For Normal People.

    The Great Britain Cycling report specifically recommends:
    “Cycling should be promoted as a safe, normal, enjoyable and aspirational activity for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. Cycling imagery should show diverse people, wearing smart or ‘normal’ clothing”
    but as a Bikeability Scotland instructor, local authority requirements require me to wear a crash helmet to even show someone how to get on a bike in a playground, and to wear hi-viz and a helmet on the road (the kind of road, at Bikeability L2, that has a lower doom/distance rate than the Dutch national average). That isn’t saying cycling is safe, normal and aspirational, it’s saying it’s weird and dangerous and rather than “smart or ‘normal’ clothing” people should dress up like geeks or be in Great Peril.

    There is no clear evidence that any of this makes any of the children (or indeed adults) safer, and neither Cycling Scotland nor the National Standards for Cycle Training have helmet or hi-viz requirements in the syllabus, but the LAs stick to it because they’re scared of litigation and/or badly informed, and so the notionally laudable aim of cycle training is immediately subverted in to pushing cycling as something that should only be done with kit that lots of people don’t want to use. We’re actually creating reasons to put people off as one of the prime take-aways from our in-school cycle “promotion”.

    1. You are right, there is a long way to go. But there is also a lot of passion and commitment from all of us hoping for change.
      I have only just started looking into bikeability and would like to do the training in it so I can help my school. I do wonder if there are aspects of bikeability which need reviewed. Or is it just how local authorities choose to implement it that needs to be looked at?

  6. The National Standards for Cycle Training are reviewed periodically, and there’s actually an open consultation on them right now. But they’re pretty good for what they’re meant for (basic control of a bike leading in to vehicular cycling). What’s more of an issue is how LAs implement their training, as since the 70s LAs are where the buck has stopped with how any cycle training is delivered. And the problem is, that means the people responsible for looking at how LAs deliver is… LAs. And my experience of several years is they’re not interested in hearing from people like me who insist on showing a “normalised” approach to everyday cycling. I can no longer give my time away for free to teach kids anywhere on Tayside because I’ll only do it on the terms that Get Britain Cycling suggests I should.

    But that’s a lot about me being a curmudgeon, I suspect, and if you want to teach Bikeability please get involved.
    I’m assuming you’re in Scotland as you post in POP, and if that’s right then get in touch with bikeability@cycling.scot to get details on local setup. The basic course (Cycle Training Assistant) is 1 day and allows you to deliver Level 1 (basic bike handling taught in a traffic free location) and Level 2 (basics of roadcraft in relatively quiet streets). These are generally free.
    Next step up is Cycle Trainer, a 4 day course which you can generally get for free if you promise to use it to deliver Bikeability. An extra 1 day top-up makes you a CT+ and you can then train up CTAs.

    Outside of Scotland it tends to be delivered by professional delivery companies for a LA rather than staff or parent volunteers, so you’d need to register with a local delivery organisation (I’d guess).

    1. Interesting. It is very frustrating when you want to help with something but only if it is done right! I don’t blame you for not continuing.
      I am in Edinburgh. I get occasional updates about when and where courses are. The problem for me is fitting it in around child care.

  7. Very interesting post. I’m a 61 year old and have cycled on and off since I was 6, but it’s only in the last few years that I have started cycling more often and longer distances. I absolutely love it! Like you I wish more women would cycle, and by this I am thinking in particular of them using the bike for transport. It takes me less than 30 minutes to cycle the 4 and a bit miles to my nearest town and back, on mainly quiet roads, though not all of them are.

    Other women are amazed when I say I’ve cycled into town, and I reply that it’s nothing. But once I too thought it was a long way! I always hope that local people seeing me, instead of thinking that they couldn’t do it, might just think – I wonder if I could do that? I really hope that I will be an inspiration to people in this way.

    We have a car but it’s mainly for my husband’s use for getting to work (and paragliding!). I have chosen not to get a “proper” job (my “unproper” job is doing sewing jobs for people) in our town because that would have meant getting a car to drive to it, and working more hours to pay for it! I wouldn’t have been able to rely totally on getting there by bike (and there’s NO bus) – which the current snow has proved ! And if I had that car I know I wouldn’t have cycled as much.

    All my children cycled when they were young. One son has always cycled regularly both in this country and abroad where he now lives. The other one does occasionally. My two daughters don’t cycle at all. One did once say, when I suggested that she could cycle to work (she even got a bike under the cycle to work scheme!) that she didn’t want to arrive all sweaty. Both go to the gym (by car, even though I have always moaned about people driving to gyms!)and sometimes go running, and one walks the dog, so they’re not lazy, it’s just that cycling, either for fun or transport, just doesn’t seem to figure as something that women like them do. I sincerely hope that their two daughters, aged 10 months and two years, will follow Grandma’s example and cycle!

    1. It is fantastic to hear that you are cycling so much and loving it. I think there is much to be said for being a quiet inspiration. I bet you have inspired lots of people.

      It is a shame that your daughters have lost the connection with cycling. There are so many women who cycle for transport in the Netherlands. I wonder why they don’t have the same concerns as women elsewhere seem to have.

  8. I really relate to your post. I’m a PT working mum in Glasgow. I cycled a lot in childhood but not so much in adulthood. In the last few years I’ve got back on the bike and rediscovered the joy of cycling, my kids (10 and 11yrs) cycle and love it too. This year I trained as ride leader with Cycling Scotland and as a Breeze Champion which I’m really enjoying. I also did the bikeability training so I can deliver the training at school. Even though I think of myself as a confident cyclist and cycle on the roads all the time I still feel uncomfortable with letting my kids cycle on the roads at rush hour. We live 1.2 miles from primary school and they currently walk by themselves. I’m very into giving them freedom and independence and wish more kids were allowed to walk/cycle to school but the traffic they would face if they cycled on the road at 8.30am or so is scary. There is a good route they could use on pavements which we used to cycle together but at their ages should they really still be using pavements? Bikeability L2 doesn’t really prepare a child for cycling in actual traffic in my opinion unfortunately.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on kids cycling on roads during the scary school run (or any other time come to think of it).

    1. All children love cycling and it is a travesty that it is not safe for them to do so on their journey to school. I absolutely agree that children should be given responsibility and autonomy where possible but the roads can be scary places.

      I actually wrote a post about this a while ago when my son mastered pedalling his own bike. Take a look at http://www.mummysgoneacycle.com/risky-business/

    2. Should they be using pavements… “no, but…”
      It’s illegal, but at the level of parliamentary answers by ministers it’s been acknowledged that it’s reasonable for at least some people, some of the time. And I’d be very surprised if the local police considered primary school children riding to school as worthy of their attention as long as they show a bit of consideration.

      What isn’t generally appreciated is that once you know what you’re at (i.e., Bikeability Level 2 for a typical primary school location) it’s actually safer using the roads. Accidents happen at junctions as they’re right-of-way conflicts, and every side road you cross while using pavements is effectively a junction where you don’t have right of way, so using the pavements typically multiplies the number of give-way points and each one needs a full look behind, in front and down the side road, all with less space than the roads afford.

      Escorted riding on the road is probably best once they can ride by themselves. Mine travelled by kiddyback triplet for the first years, then I escorted them on their own bikes for a bit and then they rode themselves. It’s a bit fretful, but the only accident was a slide over on some ice on one occasion with a bop on the head and a sore knee, but exactly like when they fall in the playground and hit their heads and knees it’s off to the school nurse for some TLC and a sticker and it’s soon fine again. The real danger is motor vehicle collision, and it’s assertive riding holding a good road position that’s most likely to see you right there. Fortunately children tend to get treated better than adults there, especially if they can name and shame school-run drivers.

  9. Diana, I agree with everything you say.

    I would add my twopence worth to the reasons why women don’t cycle. I can give a few examples from the women in my life; my partner and our 9 year old daughter.

    My partner cycled to work for many years. Several years ago she sold her mountain bike and bought a “granny” bike with high handlebars and a basket. After a while she more or less stopped cycling to work. When queried why she admitted the granny bike is too slow for the cut and thrust of London commuting.

    I have cycled our daughter to school every day since Reception. Sometimes on the back of my bike, more often on her own bike. She has been able to cycle over 30 kms since she was aged six. She is also confident in any traffic. This year she changed school and the new school has a strict school uniform policy. The uniform is totally unsuited for cycling (straw boater hat for example – too delicate to carry and too easily damaged in rain) that it’s become an insurmountable obstacle because not only is it a pain to carry but it is too embarrassing for a nine year old to change in front of the school gates.

    Furthermore there are some days where for our daughter to cycle, my partner would have to be the one shepherding her. My partner does not feel confident enough to do so in aggressive London motor traffic.

    In summary, lack of infrastructure is the main obstacle but further stupid unnecessary hurdles such as school uniforms are also put in the way.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree, the limited infrastructure urgently needs to change. I believe that this will happen but that it will take time. In the mean time, everything possible needs to be done to ensure that children can lead a healthy and active lifestyle. Insisting that children wear anything which impedes physical activity is absolutely preposterous! It sounds like your daughter’s school needs to catch up to the era we are living in!

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