Nearly three quarters of British women never ride a bike. So how can we get women cycling?

A woman on a bike: a rarity, except in Cambridge. Image: Getty.

Women in UK cities have a positive perception of cycling – yet almost three quarters (73 per cent) never ride a bike. This is the finding from Sustrans’ new publication ‘Women: reducing the gender gap’ which surveyed 7,700 people across seven major cities on their travel habits and attitudes to cycling.

Will Norman, the mayor of London’s walking & cycling Commissioner, has recently vowed to tackle the cycling diversity problem in the capital, stating that London cyclists were too “white, male and middle class”. The fact there are more men cycling than women in the UK is well-documented.

But this is concerning, and highlights wider gender inequality: fewer women than men meet the recommended physical activity levels of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week in the UK, making them more vulnerable to poor health and premature death.

 

The good news is that there is so much untapped potential here. It’s not that women don’t want to cycle. Our new report, ‘Women: reducing the gender gap’, shows that 30 per cent of women living in major UK cities that don’t currently ride a bike would like to, and many that already do would like to cycle more. The majority of women also view cycling positively, with 74 per cent stating they would like to see greater investment in cycling generally.

By enabling more women to cycle we could unlock this untapped potential. We could make sustainable mobility a real choice for women. We could make our towns and cities more liveable places, with cleaner air, quieter streets and safer roads – all the while increasing cycling trips from the 2 per cent of journeys it is today.

So how do we get more women cycling? Although there are commonalities between groups less likely to cycle, one thing is consistently over-looked by transport planners: the different needs and experiences of women, which are poorly reflected in infrastructure planning and design.


Plan for “tripchaining”

First, time constraints and complex schedules can prevent many women from cycling today. A handful of routes built to get people into the centre of cities is less likely to cater for the women who need cycling infrastructure elsewhere; routes in place that allows for “tripchaining” – for example, from a school, to the shops, to recreation and back to the school.

Most of these journeys will take place in the inner city neighbourhoods or around suburban town centres. So whilst it’s crucial to have infrastructure in place that gets people safely to and from their places of work, women are still over represented in roles that require other journeys in other parts of our towns and cities. And these journeys need to be reflected in planning.

Spend money wisely to make streets safer

Secondly, women report heightened fears of traffic and for their personal safety. This translates into our finding that women have a stronger preference for physical separation from motor traffic than men: 76 per cent of women surveyed who cycle or would like to cycle said they would find cycle routes along the road but physically separated from traffic very useful to begin cycling or to cycle more. Four in five women (79 per cent) said they supported building protected cycle lanes even if it meant less space for other road traffic.

However, in the cities featured in the report, there are only 19 miles of protected bike lanes in total, where data is available. Building more direct protected cycle lanes – safe, quick and convenient – benefits everyone, not just women. Overcoming safety concerns while being useful for every day needs, infrastructure that is inclusive, safe and welcoming is a must to increase cycling across all minority groups.

Gender representation in transport

Thirdly, more needs to be done to support and encourage women into transport planning and infrastructure design roles. If they are better represented in these industries, more of the decisions made should reflect women.

It is a maxim in management that diversity makes for better decisions. Perhaps most importantly, women and other under-represented groups should be better represented from the beginning of proposals for new infrastructure so that their needs are better integrated into stages of consultation, design, delivery and monitoring of all new schemes.

Engagement programmes as part of the planning package

Lastly, we need greater levels of training and outreach to enable more women to travel by bike. Peer to peer influence is said to have the greatest impact on changing behaviour. If we want to increase access to cycling and the numbers of people cycling, regardless of gender, ethnicity or background, we cannot continue with the mentality of “build it and they will come” when it comes to cycling infrastructure.

We need to make cycling infrastructure more inclusive from the start by bringing in local communities from inception to completion of projects – and we need to better understand the needs of everyone.

Rachel White is senior policy & political advisor at Sustrans.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.