Want to make the streets safer for women? Start with cycling

Want to make the streets safer for women? Start with cycling

It was enraging and exhausting to read comments on social media in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder from men suggesting she had made a “poor decision” to walk home alone in the dark. Every day, women and gender non-conforming people reflexively make calculations about their safety in a way that most men do not have to – and yet sometimes, tragically, it still is not enough.

We have normalised a society in which men can move around as they please while the rest of us fear for our lives for the simple act of travelling home.

Entrenched gender norms and expectations are a large part of the picture, but they are compounded by the physical design of our public spaces, which is often based around the needs of men – white, cisgender, heterosexual men, in particular. The UK’s cycling infrastructure is especially hostile to women – and it is time we looked at it again.

Cycling does not eliminate the risk of harassment or violence for women, but it at least gives more personal control over route, speed and time of travel, and removes some of the vulnerability that comes with walking or being trapped in a dangerous situation on public transport or in a taxi. As cycling and urban design expert Tiffany Lam says, “When I ‘became a cyclist’ in 2013, I felt liberated from street harassment. I was never still long enough for someone to try to harass me and even if I were, I could get away so much more quickly on two wheels.”

Evidence from other countries shows that women are more likely to cycle than men when there is supportive cycling infrastructure in place, such as bike lanes that are well-lit and fully separated from traffic, and safe routes that facilitate diverse journeys (not simply commuting from the outer to inner city). In the Netherlands and Copenhagen for example, 55% of journeys by bike are made by women. In Paris and Lisbon, the number of female cyclists has increased with recent investment in protected bike lanes and other measures.

Yet too many women in the UK feel that cycling is “not for them”. The 2019 Sustrans Bike Life survey found that 76% of women in the UK never cycle and only 9% of women cycle regularly, compared to 21% of men, with women from ethnic minorities the least likely to cycle. The survey also found that 36% of women who do not cycle would like to start. While concern about danger from traffic was the main reason for non-participation given by all respondents who don’t cycle, it was disproportionately a concern for women. This is hardly surprising: research has found that female cyclists in the UK are twice as likely as men to have faced “near misses” or harassment by drivers, while a US study found that drivers are 3.8 times more likely to pass female cyclists too closely than male cyclists.

Interventions to get women cycling often focus on building confidence, rather than designing infrastructure differently. While well-intentioned, these initiatives reinforce the narrative that it is women’s behaviour that needs to change – not men’s actions or the way we plan cities, towns and transit routes.

Instead, we need to build cycling infrastructure that is explicitly feminist, informed by diverse and representative viewpoints. The government’s new cycling and walking strategy, released last year, demonstrates a seemingly genuine commitment to improving cycling infrastructure across the country and outlines some promising steps – including many that would probably benefit female cyclists. But it includes no significant analysis of the gender (or other) inequalities that inform our existing cycling infrastructure, or how to take the needs of different groups into account.

Better analysis of differences in the kinds of journeys made by women and men is vital. Much “signature” cycling architecture, such as cycle superhighways, is designed to take people from outer city to inner, at peak hours – journeys more aligned with men’s travelling patterns than women’s. Less priority is given to facilitating safe cycling on outer-to-outer city routes, shorter trips, and off-road routes, all of which are more likely to be taken by women. Given that women are more likely to use several modes of transport and “trip-chain” (multi-stop journeys), more attention also needs to be paid to linking up safe bike routes with other forms of transport, with greater provision of secure and well-lit bicycle parking at transport hubs.

The recent expansion of cycle-friendly initiatives such as low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) has been criticised for reducing “natural surveillance” from traffic – making women feel less safe walking in the dark. But this sets up a false opposition between female cyclists and pedestrians, who in reality have the same simple demand – to be able to get home safely. This shouldn’t be too much to ask.

It goes without saying that public space will not be truly safe for women without a much broader reckoning with the gendered power structures and inequalities that constrain our lives. But investing in infrastructure that affords women greater control over their own safety and mobility – in a society that simultaneously denies them these and blames them for not protecting themselves – would be a good start.

  • Kate Jelly is a researcher, specialising in gender, and is based in London.

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