Walking down Kingsland Road in Hackney the other day, I watched a steady stream of cyclists go past me. They were a motley assortment: some in full Lycra on expensive road bikes, some in jeans on single speeds, and some on traditional bikes, baskets held proudly aloft. As I looked on, one thing struck me: there were about as many women going past me as men.
There are, or so we’re told, many more men who cycle regularly than women: around three men for every woman, in fact. But, as illustrated by my wander down Kingsland Road, this doesn’t match what I see when I’m out in London. OK, my observations are hardly a scientific study, but they do suggest that, at least when it comes to commuting by bike, the gender gap isn’t as wide as it’s made out to be.
It wasn’t always like that. When I first started cycling in London over 11 years ago, there were considerably fewer cyclists on the roads. According to TfL statistics, from 2000 to 2012 the number of journeys made by bike each day doubled to over 540,000. I don’t think anyone knows how many of those are made by women, but I suspect it’s a higher proportion than it was back when I first started cycling.
From Boris bikes to cycle lanes – what’s bringing on the change?
So what’s changed? Lots of things. For starters, investment in cycling across London has gone up massively, from a paltry £5.5m in 2000 to a massive £913m over the next three years (well, that’s if it actually happens). This means there’s now a network – admittedly a rather patchy one – of cycle lanes, routes and super highways that didn’t exist 11 years ago. And of course there are the Boris bikes: now you don’t even need to own a bike to cycle in London.
Then there’s the cost. The economic climate has changed dramatically since I first got on my bike. With just about every other aspect of life in London getting increasingly expensive, and with many people’s income seeing a drop in real terms, part of cycling’s appeal must be that it remains a reassuringly cheap way to get about.
I could go on and on. I could talk about how we’re all generally more aware of our environmental impact than we were 11 years ago. I could talk about declining car use. I could talk about how more and more employers are installing shower facilities and secure cycle storage for their staff, and signing up to the Cycle to Work scheme. I could talk about Hackney, and about how cycling has become cool…
The interesting thing about all of this is that none of it is specific to women. Because, when it comes to cycling, our concerns are pretty much universal. We cycle for the same reasons as men do – it’s cheap, convenient, good exercise and it beats getting stuck in traffic or on a crowded Tube train.
So why are there so many more women cycling in London now than there used to be? I don’t think it’s because there’s more women-specific gear available, or that bike shops are becoming more welcoming to people who wouldn’t know a bottom bracket if it fell off their bike. These are consequences, albeit very welcome ones, of the rising numbers of cyclists, rather than causes.
No. I think the simple answer as to why there are more women cycling is that there are more people cycling than there used to be. And the more people cycle, the more it becomes a normal thing to do, which encourages even more people to get on their bikes. So it follows that the more women see other women cycling – ordinary women who look and dress the same as they do – the more they’re likely to think, I can do that too.
Of course, we’re not quite there yet; if we were, there would be women of all ages cycling, not just younger women, and there would be many more of them. I believe the way to increase that number is not through initiatives that focus on women specifically, but by improving conditions for all cyclists – starting with safety.
First published on London Cyclist