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Designing the Future: Safe Cycling Infrastructure for Women

bike tires scaled

The pandemic gave people a much-needed health boost. Regular jogs around the park, digital home workouts, and cycling proved to be the most popular exercises and saw a significant upturn. In fact, cycling increased from 8% to 13%.

Another intriguing pattern emerged in biking. The number of cycling trips made by women in the UK increased by 56% in 2020. But what is it that pushed women to hit the roads on two wheels?

Today, with some insights from Ben Mercer of Leisure Lakes Bikes, an electric bikes retailer we explore how cycling infrastructure, traffic, and safety dictate women’s cycling behaviour in the UK, and what the key takeaways are from the pandemic.

Less traffic means more women on the roads

With the majority of people working from home during the pandemic, and since fewer people were commuting, the roads became quieter.

The study performed by the Department for Transport (DfT) showed that the number of bike rides for transport use fell by 20%. However, the number of leisure rides rose by 75% compared to 2019.

Locally, Hackney and Lambeth saw the largest increase in London, while Maldon and Copeland make up the other areas with the biggest rise in weekly cycling trips. Hackney, for example, experienced an increase of 23% compared to the previous year.

Simon Munk, a campaigns manager for the London Cycling Campaign, commented: “Across England, these numbers make it clearer than ever that there is a huge untapped potential for many more people to ditch cars and cycle instead, and that women particularly will cycle much more if they’re able to do so without having to ride amongst lots of fast-moving motor vehicles.”

In 2020, the cities that had the lowest consistent congestion levels were Edinburgh, London, and Hull, shown by TomTom’s Traffic Index ranking.

Respectively, that’s 22%, 18%, and 18% less traffic than in 2019. The results go hand in hand with the COVID-19 boom. 21 UK cities saw increased congestion levels in January and 16 saw an increase in February.

By contrast, congestion levels significantly decreased in 25 cities each month between March and December.

But, as traffic is reaching pre-pandemic levels, the government needs to rethink how to make the roads safer for women cyclists.

Thankfully, plans are in place, and they start with improving the cycling infrastructure.

Separated cycle lanes from road traffic are a must

While it may be impossible to limit traffic on the roads, proper infrastructure can aid in separating cycle lanes from motor traffic, says Rachel Aldred, a professor of transport at the University of Westminster. 

These lane separation implementations don’t have to be too expensive. Nevertheless, a line of paint won’t cut it this time, and proper infrastructure is needed.

This will encourage women to pick up cycling as they express stronger preferences for “protected facilities”. 

According to Sustrans’ Bike Life cycling assessment from 2018, 76% of surveyed women say that they would find cycle routes that are physically separated from traffic along roads very useful.

Women have a stronger preference for separated cycle lanes because it gives them a sense of security. 

But when the government fails to address those factors, women may feel excluded. Moreover, this hinders women from engaging in sufficient levels of physical activity as they don’t feel safe enough on the roads.

The British Heart Foundation Physical Inactivity Report 2017 shows that there were 11,800,000 physically inactive women compared to a mere 8,300,000 physically inactive men in the UK.

To combat this issue, the UK government and local authorities need to focus on designing urban environments that cater to both men and women.

According to the Sustrans’ Bike Life cycling assessment, 74% of women living in the assessed cities would appreciate more investment spent on cycling.

The UK government is addressing the safety of women cyclists. In May 2020, a £2 billion investment for cycling and walking infrastructure was made.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson went as far as envisioning that after COVID-19 there will be a “golden age of cycling”.

The road to improving the cycling infrastructure will include pop-up bike lanes featuring safe spaces for cycling, wider pavements, and cycle and bus-only corridors.

Introducing direct routes

Another trend amongst women cyclists is that they tend to make shorter bike trips than men.

This calls for developing direct routes. The majority of cycling infrastructure that connects outer to inner-city caters for men. The so-called cycling superhighways don’t take women’s cycling patterns into account.

Instead, safer outer-to-outer cycling routes and off-road routes are needed.

A study has found that female cyclists are almost twice as likely as male cyclists to be subjected to harassment incidents and “near misses”.

Rachel Aldred, who led the study, attributed the road harassment towards women to women’s generally lower average speed than men.

The study shows that drivers tend to be more careless or arrogant towards cyclists who are holding them up or blocking their way.

With more direct routes that are properly separated from the roads, cycling amongst women will increase as they’ll feel safer on the road.

Although progress has been made in terms of facilitating a safer environment for female cyclists, we still have a long way to go. But by raising awareness about the issue, we’re set for success.