From protected bike lanes to social justice. As part of Bike Life, Bristol-based environmentalist and founder of Kidical Mass Zoe Banks Gross highlights the importance of the right cycling infrastructure in creating a more inclusive society.
I’ve been riding a bicycle since I was a little girl. I’ve never done any competitive cycling or anything similar – it has just been a way to get around town, go to work, and have fun. When I became pregnant with my son seven years ago, I continued riding my bicycle until I couldn’t get it and my massive belly through the door of the Victorian terrace I live in.
Once he was born, it would be almost two years before I felt confident enough to put him on the back of my bike. When I did, it was so much easier than I thought. Both of us enjoyed it and I immediately regretted not having done it sooner.
How I got new mums on their bikes too
Speaking to my friends who were new mums, stopping cycling seemed to be a typical part of new parenthood, so I thought it would be good to nudge those friends along and get them on bikes with the little ones, too. I founded a Kidical Mass group in 2014 with Wellspring Healthy Living Centre and started leading free family bike rides around Bristol.
Since then, it has grown and we’ve led about 75 rides with over 250 participants. In addition to the free family bike rides, we run refresher sessions so that women could get confident cycling with their infant or toddler on the bike.
We had a fair bit of interest from the very beginning, which was great, but I noticed that there weren’t very many women from Black Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups signing up for our rides. I realised that many women from these groups didn’t know how to cycle before they had kids, so I trained to be a cycle instructor and became a local health champion.
Better cycling provision, a fairer society
Learning that people in some wards of Bristol have a much shorter life expectancy than others, and that children in my ward, for example, were more likely to be obese were stark and upsetting inequalities. Helping women and children find a way to be physically active seemed like a small way I could make a change. Cycling is an easy way to reach different parts of Bristol, including some lovely bits of green space. We know that spending time in nature is also really important for mental health, but in Bristol working out how to get there can be a challenge.
A few months of the year I work part-time as a cycling instructor for inner-city women at Easton Community Centre. We’ve had dozens of BAME women of all ages and abilities learn to cycle. There, I had the eye-opening experience of teaching disabled women to ride a bike. It became obvious we need infrastructure that suits adapted bikes, as currently it too often fails when we can’t get through a gate or down a path due to the slightly wider and longer dimensions of inclusive cycles.
Cycling is for everyone - let’s make it so
Women that I have taught often say that learning to ride a bicycle has given them a sense of freedom and independence. It feels like there are more women on bicycles in Bristol generally, and I’m definitely seeing more BAME women on bicycles, which makes me happy.
The data from Bristol Bike Life suggests women cycling in Bristol may be on the rise. The percentage of women who had cycled in the last four weeks rose from 31% in 2015 to 40% in 2017, although it should be noted this is not a significant change. This is the highest proportion of any Bike Life city, however, we know that despite this success, many people in Bristol do not cycle and there is so much potential to get people out of their cars into delightful, often quicker, journeys on bicycles. Most (72%) Bristolians surveyed said that more money should be spent on cycling, and 65% said that protected roadside lanes would make them cycle more.
Some women I taught have progressed from the cycle training sessions to feeling confident enough to come along on Kidical Mass rides with their kids. Cycling with children on normal roads without a protected lane can be scary for parents and kids. We often use traffic (car)-free routes for our family bike rides. Making improvements to cycling infrastructure in Bristol would make cycling safer and more appealing for most people. The Bike Life survey shows that out of the 1,100 Bristolians surveyed, 77% would support building more roadside protected lanes, even when this meant less space for other road traffic.
Cycling is for everyone, and even though we are seeing more women cycling in Bristol, and more than in the other Bike Life cities, we still have a long way to go for cycling to be an easy choice for everyone. Bristol urgently needs better infrastructure to make it simpler and safer for all types of people on cycles, whether they are passengers in a cargo bike, parents with panniers full of groceries, or those on specially adapted tricycles.