For a 'golden age of cycling,' Britain needs to make women feel safer on bikes

Before the pandemic, women made up just one quarter of Britain's bike commuters. (Glyn Kirk / AFP via Getty Images)

When London shut down, 31-year-old nurse practitioner Zoe McKee tried something new: She started cycling to work.

A local bike rental company offered a free two-month trial for National Health Service keyworkers, and with fewer cars, London’s roads suddenly didn’t seem so frightening.

“It’s great,” she says, “it’s so quick, and it’s quite energising. It feels so freeing.” Still, she admits to feeling anxious: “It’s not a relaxing cycle”. The route she takes is not segregated from vehicles, and cars have been speeding on emptier streets. “It can be scary how close drivers come to you,” McKee says.

As cities in the UK and around the world grapple with coming changes to commuter behaviour in response to the pandemic, many are making welcome upgrades to cycling infrastructure. The UK government last week pledged £2 billion for cycling and walking infrastructure, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has envisioned life after Covid as a “golden age of cycling”.

With much work to reach that golden age, there’s even more to be done to make bike commuting as accessible to women as it is to men. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, just 2% of UK commuters travelled by bike. Of that small group, only a quarter were women.

Research has consistently shown that safety concerns are the key barrier that stop women from cycling, and the surest way to address that is no mystery.

“Number one is to ensure the cycling infrastructure offers proper separation from motor traffic,” says Rachel Aldred, a professor of transport at the University of Westminster. “This doesn’t have to mean expensive – but it does mean not just a line of paint, and conversely not just plonking cyclists on a footway. Research shows that while women and men both want protected facilities, women express stronger preferences. So good infrastructure will help us level the gender gap.”

Indeed, in places with the highest levels of cycling, like the Netherlands and Copenhagen, cycle paths are segregated from heavy traffic and women cycle more than men. Aldred’s research shows how hectic road conditions perpetuate expectations of who can cycle in the city. When riding alongside traffic, slower cyclists have around three times the “near miss” rates – or frightening non-injury incidents – as the fastest cyclists.

“We have ended up in a vicious circle, where only the risk tolerant can cope with UK roads,” she says. “Thus we mostly see cyclists with a certain look and demographic (rather than being spread across the population), and then we all – planners, the public, the media – imagine ‘the cyclist’ as a sporty young man.”

To address this, she says authorities need to consider equity in all aspects of their cycle planning, design facilities, and publicity. This includes factoring in other inequalities in cycling such as age and disability, and ensuring new routes don’t just serve more affluent communities.

Women also tend to make shorter trips by bike than men do, Aldred’s research shows. That means developing direct routes is key to getting more women on bikes. “If we build wiggly indirect routes, we unnecessarily lengthen journeys and build in inequality where it’s not needed,” she wrote in 2015. “Even though women’s propensity to cycle declines faster with distance, women generally make shorter trips, so this doesn’t have to mean less cycling (it doesn’t in the Netherlands).”

Traffic levels fell to 1950s levels at the start of lockdown, meaning the opportunity for change could come quickly. Speed and sportiness are, if only for the moment, no longer a pre-requisite for cycling safely. And there’s an unprecedented number of cities reclaiming space from cars to provide for safer pedestrian and cycling routes.

The government has also pledged £250 million for immediate “pop-up” cycle lanes and instructed local authorities to put provisions in place. As traffic levels start to pick up, Birmingham, Liverpool and London are the latest cities to bring forward ambitious plans, following the lead of global cities like Paris and Milan.

These conditions combined have already encouraged some women around the UK to try out cycling to work, particularly key health workers.

Sophie Stanley, a junior doctor in Leicester, has started cycling to her hospital during lockdown. Leicester’s city council has been particularly proactive, being one of the first UK cities to introduce temporary new cycle lanes along main roads. Last month it launched Leicester Bike Aid in partnership with local bike shops, providing free bike loans and fixes for keyworkers. Within a month, the scheme had loaned out 80 bikes and performed around 180 bike fixes, Ride Leicester Project Manager Andy Salkeld says.

If not for her bike, Stanley would have had to drive, which she says is her least preferred option. Her commute is nearly all off road and well lit, two factors that help her feel safe in transit. She also appreciates the chance to get some exercise before and after her 12-hour shifts.

“I like being outside and it’s nice to get fresh air before and after a shift,” Stanley says. “Even if you stand on your feet all day, you still aren’t doing any cardiovascular exercise.”

Similarly, Romina De.Paolis and Prudence Muswede are careworkers at Fairdene Lodge Carehome in Brighton, where they support older people with dementia. With lockdown imminent, the owner of Fairdene moved swiftly to rent bikes from PedalPeople for careworkers so they wouldn’t have to take public transport and risk infection. Neither De.Paolis nor Muswede had previously considered cycling, but they’ve both been pleasantly surprised by the positive impact on their lives.

De.Paolis, who is 47 and moved from Italy last year, now cycles 10 minutes to work along the waterfront instead of her usual 25-35 minute bus ride. “It’s very quick as well as beautiful,” she says. “I prefer the bike because I get exercise in the morning. My life is better now.”

Muswede, originally from Zimbabwe, started cycling because there was no space to park. “I had no choice,” she explains. The alternative was a 45-minute walk before and after a 12-hour shift. She says she was initially nervous about cycling, and stayed on the pavement.

“Now I gained the confidence and I can cycle on the road, which is another step for me,” she says, though she isn’t sure yet if she’ll feel comfortable cycling when there are more cars on the road.

Ruth Louise Poole, an NHS researcher in Cardiff, Wales, has been riding her e-bike to the city centre during lockdown. Anticipating the return of traffic, she says, “I’ll try to avoid main roads, but there’s speed bumps and an awkward roundabout. There’s a cycle path, but it’s really short and cuts off, so it’s not that helpful.”

Not only will her route be indirect and longer, it also lacks comprehensive infrastructure, creating further barriers to Poole’s cycle commute. She hopes Cardiff will fast-track its planned five cycle superhighways, although she’s unsure whether they will cater to her route.

In London, cycle superhighways have made a big difference. Teresa Loy has been cycling in the capital for 30 years, since she was a university student. “It’s infinitely better now,” she says referring to London’s cycle superhighways rolled out during Boris Johnson’s term as mayor. “Those segregated cycle routes are an absolute dream compared to what I was used to.”

Loy describes trying the then-new segregated routes into the city centre during rush hour.

“It was so fantastic. I was in this big gang of 15 cyclists, it was so exciting and fun, and I thought ‘Wow it’s like Copenhagen!’” she says. “Then we stopped at traffic lights and I looked around and only two of us were women and only two of us weren’t wearing a helmet. So basically everyone was male, wearing a helmet and high vis. There was nobody who was just like someone in the Netherlands in ordinary attire going to work. And there was this aggressive sporty vibe. I realised ‘No, this isn’t like Copenhagen.’”

Loy says the lack of comprehensive, safe infrastructure has bred a “tribal” and “contentious” road culture in the capital that pits cyclists against drivers. Moreover, despite the improved cycle infrastructure – which puts many other UK cities to shame – cycling is still perceived to be dangerous in London.

“If you meet someone new and you tell them you cycle in London they think you have a death wish,” says Charlotte Fontbin, a London anaesthetic practitioner who learned to cycle five years ago at age 27. “The past few weeks have been so nice seeing so many more people on bikes and I hope that confidence continues, but there’s a lot of unsafe driving.”

Loy also believes cars, bikes, and pedestrians need their own segregated space on main roads. She has her own idea of what it will take for Britain’s cycling revolution to truly take off. “When we have cycling space appropriate for mums and kids, we’re going to see a huge shift.”

In the upcoming weeks and months we’ll see whether Britain pulls it off.

Andrea Sandor is a writer based in Manchester, England.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.