I still remember a conversation I had a few years ago. I was getting ready for work and a male relative who was visiting asked how I was getting to work that day. “Oh, I’m going to cycle in” I replied, thinking nothing of it.
“Is that safe?!” he asked.
In discussions about women cycling, when we talk about addressing the fact that, in the UK, THREE TIMES as many men cycle as women, whether for leisure, sport or travel, the conversation always comes down to women being or feeling safe.
A recent survey of women in Bradford, we carried out here at Capital of Cycling, showed that overwhelmingly, a lack of confidence around cycling alone, and about what to do if a mechanical problem like a flat tyre occurred far from home was preventing women from cycling. Some even shared anecdotal stories of abuse from male drivers.
In the light of the recent social media posts around women’s safety following the shocking murder of Sarah Everard, I wanted to look at the fear surrounding women and cycling, to highlight the positives and to talk about what we can do to mitigate against feeling unsafe. In the local Bradford Cycling Campaign Facebook group, one woman articulated that she often felt she had to choose between isolated cycle-paths or busy roads, and didn’t really feel safe on either.
The first thing we need to clear up, is that, statistically speaking, cycling is very safe, for both men and women! According to cycling charity Cycling UK, there is one cycling fatality per 10.5 million miles travelled. And although this equates to a large sounding number killed or seriously injured in a year, it’s worth noting, to keep it in perspective, that nearly 6,000 people are injured in incidents relating to putting their trousers on each year!
The other thing that is really important to shout out is that the benefits of cycling, particularly more people (including women) cycling, outweigh any risks. Studies vary, but it is thought the benefits outweigh the risks by at least 20 to 1. These benefits are personal – better fitness, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, better mental health, and societal – lower air pollution (around 40,000 people are killed by air pollution in the UK every year) and lower carbon emissions compared to all other forms of transport.
There are things we can do to feel safer on a personal level – careful route planning, balancing the advantages of off road cycle routes with the speed and directness of being in traffic, getting cycle lessons or looking up cycle tutorial YouTube posts around being safe on the road (British Cycling have a great series of videos on this) or joining a cycling group to get your confidence up.
But beyond individual choice, and beyond placing the responsibility on individual women, as a society we need to step up and do more. Driver education needs to focus on vulnerable road users and appropriate conduct around them, with stricter penalties for dangerous driving. In most of Europe, road traffic legislation assumes that the bigger object in a collision is at fault until proven otherwise – so a driver hitting a cyclist or pedestrian has to prove it wasn’t their fault. This small change in the law reduces road accidents by forcing drivers to be more vigilant around vulnerable road users. We need to build better infrastructure for cyclists that doesn’t make women choose between busy roads and dark, isolated paths. If you want to help with this – write to your MP and local councillors or join in with Cycling UK’s campaigns. You could also join Bradford Cycling Campaign and get involved with their activities.
But most of all – get out on your bike – research shows that the more of something is seen on the road, the safer it is and trust me, you’ll get over the fear and discover the joy, and change the world a little bit in the process!
Aggie Maxwell is one of Capital of Cycling’s Outreach Officers, a member of Queensbury Queens of the Mountain cycling club and a British Cycling trained ride leader. She learned to cycle in her 30s and is passionate about getting more women cycling.