Female cyclists in London

Female cyclists pedalling past

Guest post by Jude from Cycling with Heels.

Walking down Kingsland Road in Hackney the other day, I watched a steady stream of cyclists go past me. They were a motley assortment: some in full Lycra on expensive road bikes, some in jeans on single speeds, and some on traditional bikes, baskets held proudly aloft. As I looked on, one thing struck me: there were about as many women going past me as men.

There are, or so we’re told, many more men who cycle regularly than women: around three men for every woman, in fact. But, as illustrated by my wander down Kingsland Road, this doesn’t match what I see when I’m out in London. OK, my observations are hardly a scientific study, but they do suggest that, at least when it comes to commuting by bike, the gender gap isn’t as wide as it’s made out to be.

It wasn’t always like that. When I first started cycling in London over 11 years ago, there were considerably fewer cyclists on the roads. According to TfL statistics, from 2000 to 2012 the number of journeys made by bike each day doubled to over 540,000. I don’t think anyone knows how many of those are made by women, but I suspect it’s a higher proportion than it was back when I first started cycling.

From Boris bikes to cycle lanes – what’s bringing on the change?

So what’s changed? Lots of things. For starters, investment in cycling across London has gone up massively, from a paltry £5.5m in 2000 to a massive £913m over the next three years (well, that’s if it actually happens). This means there’s now a network – admittedly a rather patchy one – of cycle lanes, routes and super highways that didn’t exist 11 years ago. And of course there are the Boris bikes: now you don’t even need to own a bike to cycle in London.

Then there’s the cost. The economic climate has changed dramatically since I first got on my bike. With just about every other aspect of life in London getting increasingly expensive, and with many people’s income seeing a drop in real terms, part of cycling’s appeal must be that it remains a reassuringly cheap way to get about.

I could go on and on. I could talk about how we’re all generally more aware of our environmental impact than we were 11 years ago. I could talk about declining car use. I could talk about how more and more employers are installing shower facilities and secure cycle storage for their staff, and signing up to the Cycle to Work scheme. I could talk about Hackney, and about how cycling has become cool…

The interesting thing about all of this is that none of it is specific to women. Because, when it comes to cycling, our concerns are pretty much universal. We cycle for the same reasons as men do – it’s cheap, convenient, good exercise and it beats getting stuck in traffic or on a crowded Tube train.

So why are there so many more women cycling in London now than there used to be? I don’t think it’s because there’s more women-specific gear available, or that bike shops are becoming more welcoming to people who wouldn’t know a bottom bracket if it fell off their bike. These are consequences, albeit very welcome ones, of the rising numbers of cyclists, rather than causes.

No. I think the simple answer as to why there are more women cycling is that there are more people cycling than there used to be. And the more people cycle, the more it becomes a normal thing to do, which encourages even more people to get on their bikes. So it follows that the more women see other women cycling – ordinary women who look and dress the same as they do – the more they’re likely to think, I can do that too.

Of course, we’re not quite there yet; if we were, there would be women of all ages cycling, not just younger women, and there would be many more of them. I believe the way to increase that number is not through initiatives that focus on women specifically, but by improving conditions for all cyclists – starting with safety.

About Jude and Cycling with Heels: I invited Jude to share a female perspective on cycling in London. She suggested writing about the increased number of female cyclists, and what was behind that. I love the chance to feature fellow bloggers on London Cyclist and I thoroughly recommend subscribing to the Cycling with Heels blog.

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15 Responses to Female cyclists in London

  1. Micheal White 28/05/2013 at 6:33 pm #

    Whatever the cause, they are a welcome sight. Strength in numbers as the saying goes. And some of them aren’t bad to ride behind either. Sexist I know, but the ladies do it too.

  2. Verity Flecknell 28/05/2013 at 7:33 pm #

    I have only just started cycling in London (past 2 months) and the roads are far less scary then I thought they would be. This is coming from quite a “brave” female – I like to take risks, and not worried about cycling off road or along the canal paths. The main thing that stopped me was being scared of the London traffic – but once I got a few free cycling road awareness courses courtesy of Hackney Council and Cylcetraining UK – as well as a bit of encouragement from cycling friends – the London roads are nowhere near as bad as I imagined. I think its a combination of confidence on the roads (which training can help with) and the behaviour of other road users – generally had quite a good experience so far *fingers crossed* – and yes cycling seems alot more accessible and more people are getting on their bikes so it feels safer. Safety is the biggest factor for sure.

  3. Kirstie Wielandt 28/05/2013 at 8:39 pm #

    Thanks for this interesting blog Jude, as a female cyclist I concur that we’re seeing far more women on their bikes in London, but still nothing near the amount in my home city Copenhagen where cycling to work is essentially standard, they even take their bikes on the metro. You and other readers might be interested in this talk I’m curating next Tuesday 4th June at The HUB in Islington, quizzing Andrew Gilligan about the GLA’s new cycling plans, more info here: http://londoncyclingrevolution.eventbrite.co.uk/#

  4. Giles Pargiter 28/05/2013 at 9:16 pm #

    Apparently the Vat alone, on bicycle sales last year was over £250 million – so we are being short changed on our “road tax” yet again….

    • dumbledad 08/06/2013 at 10:27 am #

      Great statistic – where’s it from?

  5. Chris 31/05/2013 at 12:06 pm #

    Hackney is an unrepresentative example of a London Borough – it has no tube, so more people tend to cycle, than would otherwise be the case. Inevitably this includes more women.
    I suspect if you carried out the same observation in Kensington & Chelsea for example, the impression woudl be somewhat different……….

    • Stephan 06/06/2013 at 1:15 pm #

      Actually there are a lot of women cycling between putney(approx) and westminster (including kensington and chelsea) despite there being trains, tubes and many buses available.
      Probably because like many other part of london it is quite level and flat, and you can cycle a long distance without sweating.

  6. Gerry Matthews 31/05/2013 at 12:30 pm #

    Pity the Hub event clashes with the talk Movement for Liveable London as how to make our streets attractive and safe for use by all cyclists and pedestrians is key. Yes more platforms of only male speakers but I suggest time is well spent hearing a Hackney cllr and the Hackney Cyclists Coordinator Trevor Parsons on their experiences of creating a more liveable borough than most.

    http://movementforliveablelondon.com/2013/05/03/street-talks-with-cllr-vincent-stops-and-trevor-parsons-4th-june/

    The strip of blue paint on a segregated track that is shown in the publicity for the Hub is a case in point. CS3 was a hasty TfL pilot without consultation; a blue paint job over a LCN route and a raised segregated track (Cable Street) that had already been criticised by the LCC borough group (Tower Hamlets Wheelers). It can’t hold the numbers using it and is unpleasant to cycle along in the ‘rush hour’, which some cyclists find intimidating. Short cuts in construction (and some bad user attitudes) cause conflict with pedestrians trying to get children to and from school as well as the users of Shadwell station and St James Park.

    THW have suggested improvements to Cable Street to TfL that would incorporate ideas used in Hackney. We would like to see cyclists back in the carriageway and the removal of the rat running traffic.

    Gerry (female – London cycling commuter since 1975)

    • kie7077 01/06/2013 at 12:03 am #

      Compared with the hell that is CS2, the segregated parts of CS3 are heaven, I love not having to worry about idiot car/van/bus etc drivers doing close passes.

      / don’t particularly use it at rush hour though.

  7. Ciclista Urbano 31/05/2013 at 5:42 pm #

    Well just on the Today programme this morning there was a woman on talking about women’s “cycling gear” and how you could get a “cycling skirt” that you could get off your bike and go straight into a café with… I think that must be it.

    • Verity Flecknell 03/06/2013 at 11:22 am #

      That’s such a sexist comment – even though I think you might have been trying to be funny? I find it really annoying that all the women’s cycling gear is either pink or purple – so boring and old fashioned! If we didn’t expect or restrict women to ride certain kinds of bikes and wear certain kinds of clothes on bikes – maybe more women would cycle? Although genderisation of sports equipment is a different issue…more choice for women when it comes to cycling equipment might encourage yet more women cyclists? Most of my gear is “male cycling” gear!

      • barton 11/06/2013 at 4:11 pm #

        I assume that Ciclista was being sarcastic, thus the “quotes.” I agree, it is a sexist idea, but that is what is being supported by the media and many bike-centric organizations to get more women cycling: give them better clothing! Make something so they can look cute and feminine as they travel!

        As a female cyclist who commutes in lycra (I couldn’t afford the dry cleaning bills if I commuted in my business clothes), most of the adverts I see aimed at me are all about clothing, getting the “style” right and not about anything else.

        Until the message from the companies and the media changes, this is what they think will bring more women to cycling. (& the message won’t change until there are more women cyclists complaining).

  8. Lyn 31/05/2013 at 7:24 pm #

    Enjoyed the blog as always. Love the fact that there are more ladies on cycles, but really love the fact that you are noticing!! I have a funny feeling that its us girlies that could tip the scales in favour of cycling in the governments eyes.

  9. Fabi 03/06/2013 at 11:12 am #

    I’ve been a commuter cyclist for nearly 5 years and I have seen a big increase in the number of female cyclists, particularly in the last two years. It’s nice to see that generally more and more people are using their bikes to get places in London.

  10. Dave 12/09/2013 at 10:15 am #

    What I find interesting is the growing number of larger ladies (and guys like me) out there on their bikes. Cycling is a brilliant form of exercise and with an appropriate “sport diet” I am turning my fat into muscle and feeling better about myself in the process.

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