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Health

Why don’t UK women cycle?

We find out how more women – and in particular women of colour – could take advantage of the physical and mental benefits of cycling.

Until coronavirus hit last year, Tala had never considered taking up cycling as a form of transport. In fact, she’d never ridden a bike at all.

“I didn’t think in a million years I would ever cycle in London,” says the 47-year-old north Londoner. “But when the pandemic started, I didn’t feel comfortable on public transport. I felt I needed to get on the road by other means.”

Last summer, Tala swallowed her safety fears and asked a friend if she could help her get started on two wheels.

“When we first went out on the bike I was terrified, absolutely terrified. She took me on the road, and I was a nervous wreck,” Tala recalls.

“I almost packed it in on the first ride. But my friend managed to convince me to keep going. I feel really happy that I did, because now I’m able to safely ride a bike on the road and get from A to B. It feels amazing.”

It took an extraordinary set of circumstances to change Tala’s attitude to cycling. She is certainly not alone in her initial trepidation. In the UK, far fewer women cycle than men.

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What percentage of cyclists are women?

Across the country, women cyclists are shockingly outnumbered by their male counterparts. Government statistics show that in 2019, 75 per cent of all cycling trips in England were made by men. As well as cycling three times as frequently as women, men cycled almost four times further than women.

Walking and cycling charity Sustrans works to increase sustainable travel in cities across the UK and Ireland. Their Bike Life study is the biggest assessment of cycling in urban areas in the British Isles. It found a similarly large gap in the participation levels between men and women. According to the latest edition, just nine per cent of women cycle at least once a week. For men, the figure is 21 per cent.

Susie Dunham, executive impact director at Sustrans, said: “Far fewer women than men cycle regularly and, sadly, we continue to hear from women and other members of minority groups who feel afraid to cycle for fear of harassment and safety concerns.”

Tala’s parents are Punjabi, and as an Indian woman, she is part of a group that is doubly underrepresented in the cycling community. In the Bike Life study, 16 per cent of white people said they cycled once a week or more, compared to only 12 per cent of people from ethnic minority groups.

As a second-generation immigrant to the UK, Tala says there’s a big difference between how she and her parents see cycling.

“I don’t think my parents would ever have expected that I would get on a bicycle,” she adds. “My father especially tells me to be careful. I think he worries.

“I don’t see a lot of cyclists from minority groups. I’ve not noticed many Asian, female cyclists out there. Or Black cyclists.”

Why do women not ride bikes?

It isn’t just women that share Tala’s fears about cycling. In the government’s 2020 National Travel Attitudes Study, which surveys people in England, almost two thirds of respondents agreed that “it is too dangerous for me to cycle on the roads”. However, the gender split was pronounced – 71 per cent of women said the roads were too dangerous, compared with 61 per cent of men.

“Our 2019 Bike Life report highlighted the gender gap in cycling, with 76 per cent of women reporting to never cycle,” says Dunham. “However, 36 per cent of those who did not, said that they would like to if they felt safe. Perceptions around safety remains the number one barrier preventing people from cycling.”

As well as being more cautious about the risks of cycling around traffic, women face additional cultural barriers.

Mariam Draaijer is a director at JoyRiders, a community group that aims to empower women from all sorts of backgrounds by introducing them to the joys of cycling. Having grown up in the Netherlands and Germany, she says that the UK lags behind in terms of our attitudes to cycling.

“One thing that really stood out for me when I moved here, is the way cycling is seen,” she adds. “It has a completely different image. People look at it as a sport, rather than as a mode of transport, or a leisure activity.”

One of the problems this causes for women, says Draaijer, is it makes people think they have to get dressed up in special – frequently figure-hugging – gear in order to get on a bike. “Women often say, I don’t want to wear lycra, because they wouldn’t feel comfortable, or because it wouldn’t fit with their religion,” she says.

For Muslim women who want to wear traditional clothing, this can seem like a particular problem. It is true that there are practical considerations for cycling in loose or flowing clothing since they can get caught in the bike chain or brakes.

However, Draaijer has helped many women to find ways that they can cycle in the clothes they are comfortable wearing. This can be as simple as showing them a way to tie a knot in a flowing skirt or can mean some advice on choosing the right bicycle for their needs.

“A lot of the bikes in the UK are very sporty, with exposed chains. They’re not practical,” says Draaijer. “When you look at the Dutch bikes, whatever you wear it’s totally fine, you don’t have to worry. There are loads of bikes that allow you to wear whatever you want.”

Is cycling good for females?

According to charity Cycling UK, riding a bike may actually be even more beneficial for women than it is for men. They point to a 2017 British Heart Foundation survey which found that women are 36 per cent more likely to be classified physically inactive than men.

“Cycling regularly would be a great way for those women to build some physical activity into their lives, thus improving their overall health and fitness,” says Julie Rand, group coordinator at Cycling UK. “In the Netherlands, more women than men cycle, showing that cycling per se is an activity women can do when the conditions are right.”

As a non-weight bearing exercise, cycling can also alleviate the unpleasant symptoms of specifically female health issues – such as menstrual periods and going through pregnancy, childbirth and the menopause – Rand adds.

For Tala, the biggest benefit was to her mental health. Having been off work due to mental ill health, she says that cycling was “the best thing I could have done for myself”.

“It’s been amazing for me; it’s enabled me to stop worrying about how I feel. It’s been a lifesaver,” she says.

“It’s given me freedom. It’s really helped my mental health.”

This Bike Week, what could be done to break down the barriers to cycling for women?

“The number of women cycling and walking increased during the first Covid-19 lockdown,” says Dunham. “But there’s still so much more we need to do to make it easier for women to cycle for their everyday journeys.”

Since safety concerns remain the biggest barrier, Sustrans continues to make the argument for better cycling infrastructure. “By introducing more cycle lanes that are separated from road traffic, we can avoid the need for people cycling to compete with fast moving motor vehicles,” Dunham explains.

Truly inclusive design would also consider green spaces and concerns around violence against women, she adds, “Many public green spaces and paths have reduced sight lines and overshadowed places, making them more dangerous for women, particularly at night.

“Making sure people are seen and can be seen is a really important part of making safe spaces for everyone. While inclusive design alone cannot remove the structural issues behind violence against women, it can help to provide environments that are less tolerant of violent crime; and spaces that are safer and more comfortable for women to use whether cycling or not.”

Draaijer agrees that the structural issues should be addressed, but JoyRiders is leaving those big changes to groups who have a more campaigning focus. By offering a supportive network, they’re concentrating on giving women the practical tools they need to cycle in cities as they are now.

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JoyRiders has been restricted since early 2020, due to Covid lockdowns, but they are now returning to their group cycles. Catering for cyclists at all levels, starting from the newest beginners, they build cyclists’ confidence, show them how to safely negotiate traffic and introduce them to good routes that will help them navigate their areas.

But almost as important as the practicalities is visibility. We’re often told you can’t be what you can’t see, and Draaijer says she sees the power of the groundbreakers in bringing more women from diverse communities into cycling.

“If you see someone you can identify with, you think, ‘Oh, she’s like me. I can do that.’ And that effect is really important,” she says. “But you’ve got to find the first brave ones who go out and face it.”

As the “first brave one” in her family, Tala has already started a trend for her female relatives. To her delight, in the last year she’s inspired both her sister and her sister-in-law to take up cycling.

“It’s been brilliant to see that,” she says. “I think it would be amazing to see more women from all backgrounds getting on their bikes.”

Bike Week runs from May 30 to June 5 2021. Read more at Cycling UK

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