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:
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.
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:
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.