How to get more women cycling in cities

So much of the world around us is designed for men; from the mundane (public toilets and smartphones) to the potentially deadly (stab vests and crash test dummies). My own research, recently launched at the C40 Women4Climate conference, revealed similar trends in how we design cities and formulate transport policy, with devastating consequences.

Transportation accounts for up to one-third of greenhouse gas emissions from the world’s biggest cities and traffic is the largest source of toxic air pollution. To create sustainable, healthy and liveable cities, we need to increase the number of cyclists on our streets, and that means getting more women on their bikes. In San Francisco, only 29% of cyclists are women; in Barcelona, there are three male cyclists for every female cyclist; in London, 37% of cyclists are female.

So what can cities do to get more women cycling?

Better infrastructure and secure cycle parking

Surveys reveal that potential cyclists of all genders are deterred by similar concerns, including aggressive and speeding drivers, the threat posed by large vehicles such as lorries and buses, and bike theft. However, women disproportionately view protected cycle lanes as a more urgent priority.

According to research about women and cycling in San Francisco, cities should invest in protected cycle lanes with consistent and clear signage that function as a joined-up network to encourage female riders. Together with more secure cycle parking, these infrastructure investments would make cycling safer, supporting those who already cycle and encouraging those who do not yet ride.

Look at the data differently

People do not travel around the city in a uniform way. The transport choices citizens make will be influenced by a wide range of factors including their age, occupation, income levels and gender. Designing a public transport system that incentivises low-carbon options such as cycling requires an understanding of its users – but when data is unavailable, the default is likely to benefit one particular demographic, usually the “average” man.

For example, when surveys of cycle route users in San Francisco were conducted during peak commuting hours, they recorded a massive majority of male users. But when the city looked at the gender-disaggregated data, they discovered that far more women were using the routes for their commute than previously thought, but were choosing to travel outside peak hours when the roads and cycle lanes were quieter.

Similarly, Barcelona is now collecting data to better understand women’s commute patterns and ensure that the city’s public transport system and walking and cycling networks meet their needs.

Better representation

People do what they perceive to be possible. Research in San Francisco found that women, especially women of colour, felt that “people like me” do not cycle.

Similarly, 49% of people in London say they do not feel cycling is for “people like them”. More diverse and inclusive imagery of cyclists (in policy documents, in the media and on city streets) could help challenge these perceptions and make more people feel that cycling is for everyone.

Social events that enable women to try cycling in a relaxed environment, perhaps as part of a buddy or mentor system that pairs experienced cyclists with those newer to cycling, can help make cycling more accessible and inclusive, along with approaches such as female-led maintenance classes.

For example, We Bike NYC provides a safe space for women, trans and gender non-conforming people in New York City to cycle by offering events such as social rides, training rides and mechanics workshops. In London, the Bike Project offers female-led cycling education for refugee women, while Bikeygees fills a similar role in Berlin.

Prioritise women’s safety in public space

The different decisions men and women make about cycling are not only based on issues of convenience or comfort. People’s perceptions of safety influence how, when, where and why they travel. Women and girls learn early on to worry about their personal safety when out and about, and to change their behaviour, dress, speech and travel patterns to avoid sexual harassment or violence. Cities must take women’s and girls’ safety considerations seriously through initiatives such as safety audits.

Don’t assume the status quo can’t change

There is nothing inevitable about how people choose to travel around cities. In Copenhagen there is a small gender gap in the number of cyclists on the road – more than 50% of journeys are taken by women. Infrastructure, facilities and policies can all help to make cycling a more attractive choice for all citizens. Yet just as important are the decisions which shape our cities. If mayors, urban planners and road users consider the average cyclist to also be the average man, it is unsurprising that many women choose to stay off their bikes. A few simple changes can help challenge that gender bias, which will benefit public health, help tackle climate change and make our cities more liveable.

To cut greenhouse gas emissions we need to increase cyclist numbers and that means getting more women on their bikes

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