Why I hate cycling around London as a woman

A female cyclist taking her life in her hands on the streets of London. Image: Getty.

“I said sorry,” the businessman shouted at me as I swore at him. Not because it’s fun to swear at businessmen (it is), but because he had just opened the car door of his Uber onto me as I cycled past, apparently oblivious to my bright red bike in broad daylight.

I have been cycling around London since I was 9, but only recently have I started noticing the behaviour of men on the road. Be it as a cyclist, driver or pedestrian, an underlying entitlement permeates every move.

My daily commute is the only long passage of time where I’m not distracted by something, so in order to pass the dull minutes inside my own head I tend to observe the behaviour around me. The more I cycle around London, the more it becomes clear: men feel entitled to the road, men heckle you as you ride past, and men are almost always the ones knocking you off your bike as they ride through a red light, presumably guided by some super-male power of premonition.

This might seem anecdotal, but it does fit with a statistically observable trend: drivers treat women worse on roads. A 2015 survey noted that, even though women make up a smaller portion of cyclists in London, and cycle slower, they’re still twice as likely to have a “near miss”.

In the same year, women were most likely to be killed by a lorry: a striking statistic, considering the lower number of female cyclists. Women are on average slower and more cautious, yet are constantly penalised for being on the road. No wonder women make up only 27 per cent of London’s cycling community.

If you’re a female cyclist this gender disparity is noticeable, especially in the way you’re treated differently to the lyrca-clad cyclebros. It is almost always men who will walk in front of me as I’m cycling, their glowing shield of virility and manliness forcing me to slow down for their passing, clocking my gaze as if to say “I, man, am walking now.”


I am surrounded by a sea of men weaving past in the mornings, but even the obvious amateurs (Santander bike/ sweaty shirt/ dangerous levels of enthusiasm at 8am) overtake and cut me off, running red lights because who has time to wait when you’ve got important things to do like be a man? Men, in their unchecked arrogance on the road, make my cycling life crap.

The way women are treated on bikes is similar to the way women are treated running – or doing any form of physical activity that isn’t directly related to the pleasure of men. The audacity that we might use our bodies for something other than being passive sexual objects: taking up space, exercising, being strong – all a big no no for women in public. Not only would that discourage women from cycling to work, but it can be a sweaty business, which is not ideal for a gender that is expected to appear perfectly made-up and devoid of bodily function.

Cycling is just another subculture that men dominate, even when it comes to just getting to and from work. The ownership that men feel on road, on bikes, even as helpless pedestrians, is just another opportunity for them to assert power. A cycle home for me is a constant barrage of fragile masculinity manifesting in jeers and near collisions.

I’m grateful that I was bought up feeling confident cycling around London, and for the advice I’ve been given by my other female friends who cycle (“take up space – you’re allowed to be on the road too”). But the condescending and sexist behaviour by men is more than just irritating – it’s potentially dangerous. Sexism isn’t usually fatal – but in this case, it could be.

Ruby Lott-Lavigna tweets as @RubyJLL.

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Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.