How cycling and walking can move us to a more equal society

By Guest Blogger,

Zoe cycling in Bristol

Mother and daughter pose by bikes

Zoe Banks Gross with the son cycling to school in Bristol

Bristol-based environmentalist and founder of Kidical Mass, Zoe Banks Gross speaks to us after chairing our panel of experts at the launch of the Bike Life report Inclusive City Cycling – Women: reducing the gender gap. 

Sustrans recently launched the Bike Life report Inclusive City Cycling – Women: reducing the gender gap, and I had the honour of chairing the panel, all of who also happened to be women.

Laura Laker, cycling journalist, Megan Streb, Sustrans Partnrship Manager, Dr Rachel Aldred, academic researcher who specialises in transport and Councillor Mhairi Threlfall, Bristol City Council’s Member for Transport and Connectivity, shared stories from the heart about barriers to women participating in cycling and engaged in lively debate.

What the data revealed

The data from the report – which was independently collected across seven cities in the UK – highlighted that the rates of regular (once a week at least) cycling are almost three times higher for men than women in Birmingham, whereas in Bristol it is closer to twice as high. But why? For a start, in Bristol only 23% of women think cycling safety is good, and only 15% of women think children’s cycling safety is good.

Unpicking the data is complicated, but what is obvious is that something needs to change if we are going to address growing health issues across the UK, such as childhood obesity, as well as parity of health between poorer and more affluent communities.

An issue of inequality and inclusion

The inequality in the figures for cycling between men and women is a national issue of inclusion and discrimination that can negatively impact communities. Addressing issues of equality is essential, not only to increase levels of people cycling and walking, but also to facilitate access to high quality goods and services. For example, the prevalence of food deserts in areas of deprivation, means that if people can cycle, their options for healthier, higher quality, inexpensive food are dramatically increased.

Why aren't more women cycling?

The numbers help build a picture of why more women aren’t cycling but the reasons are often rooted in simple practicalities. Germaine Greer famously said you will never see a woman in the street empty-handed. When we talk about infrastructure and creating infrastructure that will work for women, we need to consider designing cities that will help women move easily from work to the school run, picking up groceries on the way, getting kids to extra-curricular activities, helping elders and home again. If it is difficult or time-consuming to access good cycling infrastructure or a traffic-free route, people simply won’t cycle or walk.

Challenging harassment and social exclusion

Women are also frequently harassed when cycling, and this behaviour needs to be challenged because it stops women from spending time on their bicycles in the public realm. As one audience member pointed out, addressing this issue is not only something that women can do, men are also responsible for challenging the behaviour that women face when cycling. Even if you are not part of the “sisterhood” you can still support your sisters, mothers, daughters and friends.

Looking at Bristol specific data, we can see that more women are cycling here than other Bike Life cities, but looking at the council’s data on a ward level, we can see that it varies dramatically from postcode to postcode.

The areas of Bristol which have lower premature mortality rates and lower obesity also happen to have higher rates of cycling e.g. 40% of people cycle to work in Bishopston and Ashley Down (BCC Ward Profile data) in comparison with where I live in Lawrence Hill, only 15% of people get to work by bicycle.

My ward also has higher levels of overweight and obese children and premature mortality. These statistics are not broken down by gender, but I use them to illustrate that the barriers to cycling are multifaceted and complex.

Physical infrastructure is a key challenge to many, but economic, social and cultural issues also affect cycling levels. It is not seen as a normal activity for many communities and it should be. The national media needs to be more representative when they feature a “cyclist.”

How can we reduce the gender gap?

So what can we do to reduce the gender gap?

People need to see images of all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities of people on bikes. You can’t be what you can’t see. Social influence when people change their behaviour related to what their friends, family or peers do, can also increase levels of cycling (Sherwin et al. 2014).

We also need to build cycling and walking infrastructure into the heart of our cities. Far too much space is given to motor vehicles, which women also do not have as much access to - only 67% of women hold drivers licenses compared to 80% of men. Reducing our dependency on cars is key.

We need safe, secure storage, as well as adequate space to park adapted bicycles, cargo bikes and trailers. If walking or cycling becomes the easy, obvious choice then people from all communities and socio-economic backgrounds will do it. If it isn’t, then the inequalities prevalent in our society will continue to grow.

Quality design for walking and cycling throughout our cities is necessary to increase social justice and to do so, moves us towards a fairer, more equitable society, which ultimately benefits everyone.

Find out more about gender and cycling