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March 08, 2022 4 min read

Our Head of Projects, Beccy Marston, shares her thoughts on International Women's Day: 

This year as part of International Women’s Day we wanted to explore some of the factors that may explain why more women in the UK don’t cycle. The theme this year is #BreakTheBias, something which research and data is starting to uncover new insights into the causes for the gender gap in cycling. 

In 1945, over 15% of trips were made by bike, yet by 1970 this had fallen to 2%, which has remained consistently this low for the last 5 decades (Buehler & Purder, 2021). Even with the cycling spike of 2020 this climbed to 3% of trips, but still men made twice as many trips by bike and for longer distances than women (NTS, DfT 2020). 

We know for women, patterns of cycling can change through different stages in their life. There is a drop off in cycling for teenage girls with some returning to cycling for leisure or commuting between the ages of 20-30 and then a pause again when starting to have children (Bonham & Wilson, 2012). Women have less time to fit exercise into their lives, having more caring and household responsibilities and have the need to do chains of trips in local areas (Cycling for All, Arup & Sustrans, 2020). 

There are also cultural barriers with some ethnic minority women not learning how to ride a bike as a child, preluding them from being able to cycle as an adult. Some see cycling as a sign of low status or stigmatised as a poverty related means of transport  (Aldred Blog, 2015)

For women, the biggest barrier to cycling is safety (Sustrans, Bike Life, 2019). Even though cycling is statistically low risk (Cycling UK, 2019), the perception of safety is very different for women than it is for men. When designing cycle routes, some unconscious bias could be occurring by assuming segregation from motor vehicles will combat safety as a barrier. However perceptions of safety for women go much deeper including; 

  • Conflict with motor vehicles - eg, close passing, ‘hand on horn’ moments, manoeuvring junctions and right turns and not being confident to assert a safer road position
  • Conflict with other cyclists - it can be intimidating when another rider speeds past you or there isn't space to ride 2 abreast so you may feel pressured to speed up or pull over to let them pass
  • Vulnerability considerations - is the path isolated, poorly lit, or the means to exit a route are few or far between, for example on some green/blue routes
  • Fear of harassment - sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic or anti cyclist comments
  • Lack of confidence, skills and access to a roadworthy bike
  • The worry of ‘being seen’ and judged by peers, and communities, especially going against ‘cultural norms’
  • Not all bike paths are segregated, so a fear of having to ride on a busy road to complete a door to door journey - women are naturally more risk averse

Analysis of See.Sense crowd sourced data in London and Dublin using our ACE bikes lights, has provided insights into the different journeys and road positioning between men and women. In London women are using more of the dedicated cycle routes and avoiding shorter, more direct routes to avoid large junctions/roundabouts. As a result they would rather cycle further, but benefit from smoother road surfacing and experience less braking and swerving. In Dublin, where our sample included 45% female participants, we found much rougher road surfaces, serving and breaking for women than men. One possible explanation for this, is women who are less confident riders, tend to ‘hug’ the kerb, where the surface is rougher and filled with debris. For less confident or untrained cyclists it can be daunting to ride in a more assertive position in the road and stick to the edges to avoid potential conflict or harassment from other road users. 

For those women that don’t currently cycle, we have a lot to learn from countries with an even gender split and much larger levels of cycling. There is a correlation in the numbers of women cycling and the number of kilometres of segregated cycle infrastructure. In countries like Holland, women tend to ride at lower speeds, in everyday clothing, on upright bikes that are equipped to carry goods and children. Even though women in these countries don’t undertake the number of minutes of recommended exercise as structured sessions, they are incidentally achieving this by cycling for utility (Bonham & Wilson, 2021). 

But it is not all doom and gloom for the UK, with significant investment commitments in both England and the devolved nations. The creation of Active Travel England, where it was incredibly positive to hear commissioner Chris Boardman talk about ‘growing their own’ planners and engineers to increase the diversity of the workforce. As too are the Women in Transport network, supporting more women into the sector and researching female representation at board and decision making level to help #BreakTheBias. 

In order to get more women cycling, here are a few things for cities and towns to consider when implementing cycle networks.  

As the book ‘Cycling for Sustainable Cities’ concludes, we should be using women as the indicator species for a good cycling environment to help everyone to feel safe to cycle.

If you liked this blog, please share - in return we will message a discount code. This can be used in our IWD promotion to purchase any of our award winning safety lights and help by sharing your anonymised cycling data into local authorities to make cycling safer for more women like you.