Cycling London through a gender lens

By Guest Blogger,
two female cyclist on the Thames Path London

A commitment to the cycling revolution must mean a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion

Tiffany F. Lam headshot

Tiffany F. Lam, urbanist and cycling advocate at LSE Cities

The fact there are more men cycling than women is well-documented. In London alone, 74% of cyclists are men. We chat with Tiffany F. Lam, urbanist and cycling advocate at LSE Cities about what can we do to encourage more women to cycle. 

At Sustrans we aim to increase access to opportunities for anyone who wants to walk and cycle, and we realise different people have different motivations to do so. Tell us a bit about your experience of cycling as a woman.

Cycling became my main mode of transportation in Washington, D.C. in 2013. It made me feel independent and empowered. Whenever I was cycling not only was it pleasant to feel the wind in my hair and convenient to be able to get from A to B under my own steam but more importantly, I felt like I was finally reclaiming my freedom. 

What was it like to cycle in a big city as New York?

Growing up in New York instilled in me a deep love for cities, but the freedom and joy of city living were tempered by warnings from loved ones to avoid walking down certain streets, traveling alone at certain times and dressing a certain way when going out. Women’s experiences in the UK are similar with 64% of women and 85% of those aged 18-24 having experienced sexual harassment in public places.

Cycling helped me get to know the city better. It was faster than walking and unlike being in a car, train or bus, I could more easily stop and go. I discovered cute new streets, scenic routes, and new cafes, restaurants, bars and shops to explore. Neighbourhoods that previously seemed too far or difficult to get to (especially ones with poor public transport connections) suddenly became a lot more accessible. Moreover, cycling to work every morning makes me more energised and ready to tackle the day.

At the same time becoming a cycle commuter raised new safety considerations such as how to navigate traffic in a safe and confident way. Through practice, encouragement, and education, I learned how to do this, but I felt strongly that everyone should have the right to move around cities freely and safely.

You refer in your work to a ‘gender gap’ in cycling, what does that mean?

I first became aware of the gender gap in city cycling as a “Roll Model” (mentor) for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association’s Women & Bicycles group, in which I recruited, mentored, and inspired more women to cycle. The gender gap refers to the inequality between who cycles and who doesn’t. For every female cyclist in North America, the UK and Australia, there are three or four male cyclists.

If the cycling revolution is to reach everyone and allow all kinds of people to reap the environmental, public health and economic benefits of cycling, this gender gap must be addressed.

Why is it important to consider the gender gap when working on cycling?

The gender gap in cycling reflects larger social inequalities. Studies increasingly reveal a confidence - not competence - gap between women and men. Sustrans has found women are more likely than men to describe themselves as “inexperienced cyclists”. This confidence gap exists in many other parts of life and it is linked to gendered division of jobs, the pay gap and the underrepresentation of women in leadership. Personal experience has taught me the confidence we gain from learning to cycle and navigating our cities can boost women’s confidence both on and off the saddle.

Some women are taught from a young age to take up less physical and symbolic (political, economic) space but cycling encourages exactly the opposite - to cycle safely you need to take up space on the road. As a young professional woman, no one had ever taught me how to stand up for myself when male colleagues crossed professional boundaries and disrespected me, or how to negotiate for a higher salary to be paid the same as my male counterparts. I still struggle with that but cycling on a daily basis has helped me grow accustomed to unapologetically taking up road space, which has equipped me with more comfort, courage, and confidence to advocate for myself in other areas of life.

What types of activities can support women to overcome these barriers and experience the wide-reaching benefits of cycling?

One of the many joys of being a “Roll Model” was having a supportive community of women with whom I could share experiences and conversations. As a cyclist you are often pushed to the side-lines of the road. Women and other disenfranchised groups may feel used to being pushed to the side-lines in society, and so for me, being a "Roll Model" was about so much more than cycling. It was about naming and highlighting experiences we often don’t have the words, space, permission or support to express.

We need more spaces to develop these communities and grow this mutual support. That’s why community outreach and social infrastructure, which are too often overlooked, play a pivotal role in encouraging and sustaining cycling among under-represented groups, including women.

A commitment to the cycling revolution must mean a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. After all, a true cycling revolution is not just about cycling. It is about making safe, sustainable transport choices accessible to everyone. 

Top tips for cyclists, cycling enthusiasts and those involved in policy and infrastructure

  • Do not discount the role of encouragement, education, and community outreach. Social infrastructure matters to get more people cycling. People who are afraid of or who don’t feel comfortable cycling will be more likely to try it and keep it up if they feel supported by others who are sympathetic, empathetic, and encouraging.   
  • Diversify representations of cycling. People need to see themselves reflected in representations of cycling in order to find it relevant and feasible. This is why mentors, role models, peer support groups and diversity of representation are important.
  • Consider the nuances of gendered perceptions of safety. Road traffic is not the only danger to mitigate. For many women and girls, fear of sexual harassment and violence also impacts their modal choice and mobility patterns. Those working in cycling infrastructure must zoom out and consider how other elements of street design can help increase perceptions of safety and therefore reduce barriers to cycling.

Tiffany F. Lam recently completed a masters in City Design & Social Science at the London School of Economics and is passionate about cities, cycling, and social justice issues. Follow her @tiffany_frances.