Sunday 29 January 2012

What women want (when it comes to cycling facilities)

About 70% of cycle trips in Britain are made by men. But in countries where lots more people cycle, like Germany or the Netherlands, the gender split is roughly equal.  You can see the same relationship when comparing areas within countries, so it seems like a fairly robust link. Where cycling is a marginal activity it is mostly dominated by men, but where it is a normal part of everyday life women cycle just as much.

As this article in Scientific American from 2009 says, women are therefore a sort of "indicator species" for bike-friendly cities. But why? Well,
First, studies across disciplines as disparate as criminology and child ­rearing have shown that women are more averse to risk than men. In the cycling arena, that risk aversion translates into increased demand for safe bike infrastructure as a prerequisite for riding. Women also do most of the child care and household shopping, which means these bike routes need to be organized around practical urban destinations to make a difference.
So on average women seem to put a premium on safer cycle routes (that go somewhere useful). And the available evidence says this translates into a clear preference for facilities with a higher degree of separation from general traffic. When Jan Garrard and others carried out a survey of cycle use across a range of locations and infrastructure types in Melbourne, they found that "Consistent with gender differences in risk aversion, female commuter cyclists preferred to use routes with maximum separation from motorized traffic".

Similarly, when John Pucher and others looked at who uses which facilities in New York, they concluded:
Women in all five boroughs clearly prefer off-street paths ... the average percentage of women cyclists on paths is about three times greater than the percentage of women using on-street facilities such as bike lanes or simply bike routes on shared traffic lanes ... In short, the greater the physical separation from motor vehicle traffic, the higher the women’s share of cyclists.  
So the evidence seems fairly clear, and on that basis I think it would be good to see people arguing for more high-quality, separate cycling routes as a contribution towards greater gender equality.

But at the same time one probably shouldn't overstate the gender divide here. After all, it's not as if the proportion of men who cycle regularly in the UK is particularly high: it's probably fairer to say that current cycling facilities suit a tiny minority of men and an even smaller minority of women. Basically, it is risk-averse people (i.e. most people) who are discriminated against by our current cycling infrastructure, and if we had much safer cycling conditions we would see far more men cycling too. So while cycling infrastructure is a feminist issue in that the current setup particularly discriminates against women, it's also one of the many issues where feminist solutions would also benefit men in general.


  1. Oxford has a lot of women cycling with painted cycle lanes, and slower-than-normal traffic. Complete segregation is only required if you want traffic to be able to go fast.

    1. Richard, you're quite right that you don't need complete segregation absolutely everywhere. A policy of reducing and slowing traffic on minor streets is an important part of the system, but the other important part is good quality and separate provision on busier roads.

      Also, I would argue that cycling levels tend to be high in college towns for demand-side reasons that aren't easily replicable anywhere.

  2. Richard, on the other hand I know one woman in Oxford who owns a bike but will not ride it there because riding in motor traffic, even slow motor traffic, is too intimidating.

    Even in Oxford more people would cycle if high quality segregated cycling surfaces were available.

    1. Yes I'm sure more would cycle if there were high quality segregated tracks (and if we had the space and money, I might well be advocating it).

      But you can get an awful long way with cycle lanes and traffic-taming (and improved walking conditions, and bus priority), well past the point where gender is a major issue.

    2. Richard, we do have the space and money. Why aren't you advocating it?

  3. Segregation is very important for certain routes & locations (traffic density, etc) and not important at all on others.

    What we have more often then not is rubbish 'infrastructure' passing as quality when in fact it is worse than having no infrastructure!


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