Thursday, 18 March 2010

Why British Girls Don't Cycle - Another view

I got this email just over a week ago and because I was caught up in a family bereavement I lost track of my emails and didn't post this sooner.  Check out the fashion cycle ride this weekend!

Fortunately for me, I live near Cambridge and for more than 15 years I have cycled at least 10 miles a day but do not consider cycling to be my sport - it's just my way of getting around in a way that I find convenient, enjoyable and environmentally-friendly (and very, very economical).  I refuse to wear any of the silly and dehumanizing 'cycling' clothes or a helmet.  I just wear my normal clothes, according to the weather (so bright clothes on dull days).  And yes, I do take great care with my appearance.  However, people who do the same in other cities in UK frequently  describe the contempt shown to anyone who just wants to do the same.  Cambridge is commonly cited as 'the cycling capital of the UK'  and our cycling facilities are the envy of other cities.  More people commute on their daily journeys here than anywhere else in the UK - Bravo!  Yet that's still only 25% of the population.  Room for improvement - wouldn't you say?

Actually, the reason why British Girls don’t cycle is that the mainly male-planned infrastructure of  towns and cities deters them as the 'Bike & the Beauty' documentary illustrates perferctly.  Sustrans discovered this with a survey they carried out last autumn.  79% of women in the UK never cycle.  67% of that number said they would cycle  if safer and separate cycle paths existed.  Sustrans then motioned a petition calling for safer cycling paths which was signed by 9000 women and was presented to the Minister for Transport in January of this year (also the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly).  The startling statistics that Sustrans uncovered beg the question - 'given the role that the bicycle played in the emancipation of women, how did Sustrans' petition even come to be necessary in the first decade of the 21st century?' 

The film made by Darlington Cycling Campaign 'Beauty & the Bike - Why British Girls Don’t Cycle’ shows how cycling actually gives girls self-reliance, self-confidence, independence and liberty so it really doesn't matter if  'looking good' is the entrance to that happy state.  We wouldn’t say  ‘Eating greens is good for you therefore they don’t need to taste nice’.  In case further persuasion is needed, consider this:- health experts have found that it is essential for people to choose forms of exercise they enjoy in order to maintain their exercise.  So let’s be realistic about the psychology that lies behind changing human behaviour. It is trite and uninsightful to dismiss the role that looking stylish plays in encouraging non-sporty girls (and women) to cycle.  It is encouraging them to cycle in their daily lives where nothing else is so don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Looking good gets them cycling.  Mission accomplished. 

Another important aspect is that many of today's girls are likely to become the drivers and mothers of tomorrow.  They will be better, more cycle-aware drivers if they are cyclists themselves.  If they become cyclists first, they will be likely to choose their bikes over their cars where possible and they will be more likely to teach their children to choose cycling over driving.  Look at Denmark and Holland.  I myself am a car owner and a driver but I have cut my car use to less than 20% of my journeys.  Imagine the wonderful consequences of large numbers of women doing that in the UK.  Imagine the benefits to the NHS, to the environment and to employment creation (bike servicing, bike-related designs & accessories etc) as well as ensuring our girls are self-reliant , independent, confident, healthy and mobile. 

No, looking good is not ALL girls care about but for many young girls it is an important and sensitive phase in their quest for self-discovery and self-knowledge.  This is common to the daughters of top academics and professionals as much as it is to lower socio-economic groups and it would be foolish to dismiss it so lightly, especially in a world where so much marketing and branding targets them mercilessly at their most vulnerable age.  The smartest and most responsible thing to do is to offer them the guidance and opportunities which allow them to turn it to their advantage instead of being the victims of  the multi-billion pound industry.  A limited number of women and girls will take up cycling as a sport but, potentially,  the number who hopefully take up cycling as a normal method of transport in their daily lives will be infinitely greater.  In creating such a number, we will be creating an even bigger demand for better, cycling-friendly infrastructures in our towns and cities.

You might like to check out  (copy & paste this link into your browser).  Join the Fashion Cycle Ride on Sat 20th March 2010  - a discreet call to arms for those who currently do cycle in a non-sporty way in their daily lives.  The ride is intended to illustrate that it's perfectly possible to cycle in your normal clothes as you get from A to B aka Copenhagen Cycling Chic and in doing so encourage more women and girls to do the same. 

Looking forward to seeing you there. (You can hire decent bikes at Cambridge Station -

Sally Guyer
Cambridge Cycling Campaign


wee folding bike said...

If male planning is to blame for girls not cycling what excuse do the guys have?

I'm not convinced there is a gender issue in town planning. Once they have separate paths they will decide there are too many hills and it rains and they just don't want to have to get out of their big daft looking jeep things which they have borrowed a lot of cash to pay for.

Anywho, research shows that cycle paths do not increase safety they merely give an illusion of it... much like helmets. Cycling is already a very low risk activity.

I don't try to persuade people that cycling is better than other modes. If they notice that I get places faster, cheaper and more cheery than they do then they are free to ask me about bikes. Sometimes people do.

Cycling in Heels said...

Joseph, I am very sorry but I accidentally rejected your comments rather than publish. I hit the back button and while I can see what you have written the comments have been removed from Blogger and I cannot reverse the action.

What I have done is take a screen copy of the comments and at the weekend I will type them up and then post them. Unless of course you have a copy of them and can send them again. If possible send the longer one by email as I would prefer to put it as a post in response to Sally's post and WFB's comment.

Really really sorry. Not a good week for me this week but I do appreciate that people continue to read and comment.

Joseph said...

Not a problem, I appreciate the post, and am sorry to hear of your loss. Regarding that previous post, it was perhaps for the best since I ended up contradicting myself by ranting.

What has the current state of town-planning got to do with gender? Bad design is bad design, negligence when connected to safety is inexcusable. To twist this into ones own ill-founded prejudice undermines the issue, by detracting from it. That, is unwarranted.

I, like many, am disgusted at the apathy and half-hearted approaches taken to improve the quality of life, and livability of our country. A key case in question concerns the notable lack of action taken about HGVs in cities. Despite the furore raised about the ‘bendy buses’ in London, they would still see it fit to have multi-tonned tipper trucks charging across the cities narrow and cramped streets with the minimal of regulation, and the intent to reach their destination within a ridiculously tight deadline during peak hours. Moreover, in spite of the needless (predominantly female) deaths of 2009 and the 3 over the past fortnight (2 of which were male, one of them on the day of the London Mayors ‘safety’ campaign) the best we got failed by a wide mark to meet the challenge. One tabloid (Evening Standard) even thought it necessary to mention that one of the victims was not wearing a helmet - as if polystyrene and plastic is a match for 10+ tonnes of steel and a negligent driver.

This also raises the fact that cars (and HGV’s for that matter) are by nature inflexible and space-consuming rendering them ill-suited to the city. During rush hour, the average number of people that normally pass a select point by car will fall very short when compared to those that do so using public transportation (bus, tram, underground), and probably even more so when compared to pedestrians or cyclists - the amount of space taken by the same numbers would be much less too, not to mention the wear and tear upon the road for the numbers transported.

It is abominable that the safest and most direct routes in most cities (and neighbourhoods) to resources and amenities are designed for motor vehicles; especially when the point of a car is that it can get you further without any exertion, and that these used to belong to pedestrians and slow-moving vehicles. Not to mention the fact that a car-dominated topography separates the residential from those resources necessary to sustain a community; this plays a very real part in isolating individuals from each other, hindering any sense of a community spirit. Yet we wonder why most local grocers, butchers, and other small businesses have lost out to the Mega-stores and supermarkets with copious space reserved for car parks.

That short ‘Bike & the Beauty’ was a powerful documentary, and I intend to buy the DVD at some point. The fact that they had this enthusiasm, and those new bikes, which were very aesthetically pleasing (and arguably much more suited to the city than mountain bikes) was inspiring. Regardless, they still have to cycle in dangerous territory, such as the many crowded roads with no speed controls (bumps), and there is little sense of accountability abount it.

A city should be for the citizens, not just for the privileged (and it is a privilege) who use a car. If anything car routes should feature lowest on a planners list of concerns since, with regards to transportation, people should be able to get from A to B in the most efficient and cost-effective egalitarian manner: walking, cycling/public transport, then private.

Joseph said...

I also recommend these resources: [brilliant website, make sure to watch the videos detailing each of the 20 criteria, this sums up and expands upon my previous post] [read the book if you can] [Not related]

I also feel obliged to mention that I am a car driver, and in fact do love them. However, they, and driving, have their place.

Lorenza said...

Great great post! As much as this debate is sparking the 'us' and 'them', which is never positive, cycling as a statistic is done less by women than men. Why? Because to be honest it isn't fun having to dodge aggressive traffic, double decker buses drivers who get a kick out of overtaking you to then slam on the brakes to stop at a bus stop. Because there may be many women who would like to go shopping, take their kids to school, go and meet a friend for coffee by bike but if they don't feel safe they won't.

It is also a fact that men are more fearless, with a greater sense of being and of immortality that us women don't have, we know we are human lol!

If you go to any cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Rotterdam etc where fantastic infrastructure is there, then people use it, and it changes people's habits and their culture. What would be so wrong in providing great cycling infrastructure here too? I have no doubt that if they'd take away the cycling infrastructure in those cycling cities (a part from the population taking to the streets in protest I am sure) people would probably still ride, because it is now engrained in their way of being. But when the cycling culture does not exist, where it's easier to drive down a mile to pick up a pint of milk than the thought of a 'scary' ride then things won't change much.

Providing good cycling infrastructure will encourage people to leave their car behind, and we can all benefit (health and environment) by having less cars on the road.

Here in Manchester they will be screening Beauty and the Bike next Wednesday. Kindly organised by I Bike MCR

Really enjoy reading your blog :) L x
PS - apologies for long comment!!

Cycling in Heels said...

Lorenza, I love long comments. Thank you for taking the time.

Joseph, thank you as always for your sharp views and helpful information. I was also upset by the same news report about the need to comment that the cyclist was not wearing a helmet when it was apparent that this was not the cause of his death.

I have mixed feelings on cycling infrastructure. Yes it has to get better, as in more cycling routes & paths, but I also think that cyclists should be able to safely use all roads and this requires increased tolerance and awareness from drivers. (When I say all roads, I don't mean the motorways. This is despite seeing a woman cycling on the hard shoulder of the A2 motorway this week. Oh yes, she was wearing a helmet.)

I am on the look out for a screening of Beauty and the Bike in London. I will also contact my library to see if they can get a copy.

'Slow cyclists' lead by example. The more of us who are out there just pedaling along on our folding or upright bikes the more non-cyclists (woman and men)are likely to consider getting a bike.

wee folding bike said...

Two of my Bromptons move quite fast.

There is some cycle path research here:

I have used the A8 which is motorway in all but name and the old A74, now M6, between Gretna and Carlisle which surprised a traffic cop but not enough for him to put down his coffee.

Joseph said...

In all fairness, whilst I am up for some shared space (should be the default position for every road within the boundaries of towns and cities along with 20mph (max 30) limits), Cyclecraft has done as much against the Cycle Campaigning movement as it has contributed towards it.

The authors stubborn insistence on shared space and critical mass, despite the current situation, only reveals the consequences of such blinkered views. He may brag that many Dutch cyclists are too scared to cycle from the ferry, but the fact is that they cycle to work, the shops, and are in general much healthier, and fitter than the British, who would drive to the post office.

Wasn't the Beauty and the Bike video rather depressing in parts? ust look at where those girls cycle! How about what the people were saying about intimidating driving, bad layouts, and all the lack of safe routes. Why would a young family take their children cycling through there?

Now one can advertise that we ought to just suck it in, puff out our chests and put those drivers in their place through assertiveness; however the fact remains that our shoddy car-dominated infrastructure is the reason why many see the bike as the poor man's option.

Ask your average non-cyclist why they don't cycle and they will tell you it is because it is dangerous and highly inconvenient.

Most kids (well boys) aspire to their first car, and when they finally get one, they are often of the opinion that the road is now theirs. This possessive attitude is very much the same opinion held by women - so much so that many would even apply make up whilst operating a tonne of machinery at speed.

Additionally, with women, it is more important they have a car as it is safer than the alternatives:

must use pavements (where possible) sometimes placed at the sides of roads, otherwise discontinued or put through dodgy unlit parts.

1. one has to contend with intimidating drivers
2. cyclist is the crumple zone
3. poor facilities for cycling, sometimes no safe route - where there are numerous crescents joining a fast central road (a makeshift motorway e.g. A8)
4. poor safety considerations e.g. metal railings seperating the pavement from the road at junctions, if a cyclist is trapped they are crushed such was the case with the majority of the fatalities involving HGVs in London.
5. legal 'popular' option: the city belongs to the motor vehicle: if one is hit by a car then they are not immediately given the upper-hand in court (unlike in the Netherlands).
5b. If one is seriously injured or killed by careless driving then the driver will do community service (2 recent examples of this) or the HGV driver may get cyclist-awareness training whereas the cyclist gets a single sentence obituary alongside an equally long footnote stating that they were not wearing a helmet.

Public Transport:
In many parts these are not safe. The majority of the country does not have public transport rather private monopolies masquerading as such on some hastily drawn legality. In many instances they are unreliable, and unlike proper public transport, e.g. London, will not stop in certain neighbourhoods. They offer unrepresentative and inconvenient timetables (e.g. no late buses in areas where many work night-shifts). Finally, in several instances, the buses are not regular, and are hideously expensive e.g. charging £2.40 for a 0.5 mile journey. Such is the case across Hampshire, and many of the Home Counties.

Expensive, ironically in the most deprived areas, those too poor to afford a car are on a first name basis with many taxi cabs because of the above (please refer to the section on buses.)

Therefore given these opinions, where is that nationwide 'critical mass' going to come from?

Lorenza said...

Can I just say that I found myself nodding to every word Joseph wrote :)

I do think that, albeit slowly, there is a definite change in the cycling culture here... so I guess we can only improve from what we have... onwards and upwards!

At the screening of "Beauty and the Bike" in Manchester next week there will also be two of the girls who took part in the project and the film makers, should be interesting! I am sure I'll blog about it ;)

L x

Joseph said...

Thanks Lorenza, I didn't realise I had such a strong opinion on the matter; its something I definitely shall be reading a bit more about, esp. with the oncoming election :D

Thought I would post again, since the Beauty and the Bike project has released a follow up to show what happened next, interesting results: