Like walking, cycling is regularly hailed as a ‘miracle pill’ equivalent. Most of us don’t get enough physical activity, which is linked to conditions from diabetes to depression.
We don’t, in general, have time, money and/or motivation to ‘exercise’ daily, and our jobs are often sedentary, so cycling to work is perfect. We can get exercise without even trying. And society benefits: cycling doesn’t produce air or noise pollution or CO2. Compared to driving it’s very space-efficient – a boon for congested towns and cities.
There’s huge potential for cycling. The Propensity to Cycle Tool (www.pct.bike) has shown that if English commuters were as likely as the Dutch to cycle trips of a particular length and hilliness, cycling would be mainstream (nearly one in five commutes), rather than marginal (one in thirty). This would be transformational for our health, and for our cities, towns and countryside.
But we don’t cycle. Cycling is too easily dismissed. Still - despite twenty-five years of government saying ‘we will increase cycling’, generally to little effect - it’s seen as the preserve of ‘enthusiasts’ at best, ‘Lycra Louts’ at worst.
While very few of us cycle generally, among those who do cycling is hugely unequal. And people who could benefit most from cycling are least likely to cycle. Men cycle a lot more than women, for instance, yet it’s women who have lower car access, lower incomes, and more chained and escort trips – and so greater need for cheap door-to-door transport. Older people are the least likely to cycle but would reap the largest health gains.
In the UK we’ve tended to assume these inequalities are natural – of course ‘the cyclist’ is a fit young-ish man, happy to mix it with HGVs (as shown on the cover of Cycle Infrastructure Design, incidentally). But it’s not. In the Netherlands, women cycle a higher proportion of trips than do men, while after young adulthood the proportion of trips cycled tends to increase with age.
In the Netherlands, adapted bikes carrying disabled riders are common, while here even in relatively cycle-enlightened cities, planning still struggles to cope with anything that isn’t a bicycle. For instance, most London bus stops are now accessible to disabled passengers, yet there exists no comparable programme to remove barriers from cycle routes. Many still block non-standard bikes and often wheelchairs, too, despite the Equality Act.
If planning in the UK has generally failed cycling, it’s particularly acute for under-represented groups. One key issue is protected infrastructure. A systematic review that I led found a clear tendency for women to have stronger preferences than men for protection from motor traffic, although both genders prefer protected space for cycling. Similarly, a survey I conducted into children and cycling showed even confident adult cyclists tend to feel that most current cycling environments are unsuitable for children. This also matters for women’s cycling, because women are more likely than men to be making trips with children.
I don’t think it’s too great a stretch to see current cycling environments as discriminatory. The existence of cycling environments that disproportionately exclude women, children, older and disabled people – this should be seen as requiring urgent remedy, just as we should urgently seek to ensure public transport and walking environments are safe and accessible for all.
One often touted alternative to bike tracks on main roads are routes along back streets. While these can have advantages – e.g. less air and noise pollution – we should be careful. Firstly, residential streets are often not quiet, and can even be as intimidating as those main roads. Secondly, if the back street route involves a substantial detour, this in itself disproportionately puts off women and older people. While everyone becomes less likely to cycle as distance grows, the decline is particularly steep for them.
Finally, there are issues of social safety. This is an under-researched issue, but anecdotally is something women in particular are concerned about. The lovely quiet route through a park, along a canal, or through a housing estate might become too scary after dark – which in the UK will rule it out for commuting for a large part of the year.
To plan for cycling for everyone, we need to consider the views of all potential cyclists – particularly those from under-represented groups currently excluded from cycling. This way, we stand the best chance of identifying and doing something about all the barriers: the scary rat runs, the deserted parks, the unnecessary detours, the busy roads, the inaccessible bike parking, the barriers and the steps, the inability to afford adapted cycles...
Not forgetting the ‘Cyclists Dismount’ signs – an annoyance for many cyclists, a sign that cyclists don’t count in the planning process; but an absolute barrier for those who can’t walk but can cycle. And still found everywhere in the UK.
Dr. Rachel Aldred is Reader in Transport at the University of Westminster, London, UK. Cycling is her specialist area of research and she has published widely in the field. A sociologist by background, she is particularly interested in issues of equity and social justice. In 2016 she won the Economic and Social Research Council Prize for Outstanding Impact in Public Policy for her influence on cycling policy in London. She also was awarded the Westminster University Research Prize 2016, and in 2015 the Total Women's Cycling Initiative of the Year for her Near Miss Project. Rachel's website is www.rachelaldred.org and she tweets at @RachelAldred