Friday 12 July 2013

Cycling and Gender - How do we fail men AND women?

I've been lambasted by all sides. I'm public enemy number 1 and even good friends have really upset me over this.

The reason? 

It all came about when I ran in to two ladies representing Breeze Sky Rides at the Cambridgeshire Cycling Summit. Someone had the sense to realise that if you organise a social bike ride and try to get loads of folk to come, what you often get is a load of blokes in lycra who want to discuss wheel builds, chain sets, alloys and heart rates and then want to race each other (although they'd never admit it). The atmosphere of these rides can easily be daunting, and, bluntly, you sometimes don't get many women along. You get even fewer at the next event. And this is true right the way through from University clubs all the way to rides for real grown ups - male dominated, competitive, and far too much spandex. Too many 'cyclists', not enough folk who just want to ride a bike.

British Cycling with their sponsors Sky came up with Breeze rides. Female only rides, without any pressure to talk bike technology, and to appeal among those into being more sporty they've had endorsements and participation from UK cycling legends like Vicky Pendleton, Lizzie Armistead and Jess Varnish. Social, non-competitive, fun, but also showing some of the cream of UK cycling talent. 

Excellent marketing - I mean its got everything. Pardon the phrase, but if you want to be a 'girly girl' and ride in a frock on a pretty bike, you'll find role models for that in amongst the stars of UK cycling, top profile cyclists will show you how to do it with panache. If you want to be a sporty rider we n the UK have got many of the best in the world of both genders to look up to and some of the female ones are turning up to encourage you to ride. And if you want to be anything in between or just turn up for the social event, here we've got one which manages to be that without being a race. And talking to some of the ladies who were involved, its clear that its organised by people with a passion for safer roads with more people riding on them - and it looks like, at least from the numbers turning up, they're doing very well. Its a start.

I should add that I've upset folk of both genders in saying I think this is a great idea. Men have pointed out its sexist, women have called me patronising for saying I think its great. Well, sorry, but I DO think its great.

So what do we have for men? Well, there is an obvious argument argue that's 'everything else'. All the rest of bike promotion in the UK has been aimed at men, in a mannish sort of way for males to be all masculine on the roads, like chaps are meant to be. And if they don't want to ride because its not safe? Well they should tough it out then, and learn that being assertive will solve your problems. Seriously. Thats the bulk UK cycling campaigning since, oh, I dunno, at least the 1970s - and while thats not especially appealing to most men it seems from the figures we have for cycling uptake that it has been even less appealing to women. 

You probably think the above paragraph is moose kidneys. I won't bore you by droning on about usenet and cycle forum discussions about cycling, but effectively the driving force in cycling has been people who already cycle - folk who grew up on Cyclecraft, whose attitude was (and is) that a good cyclist is a fast, assertive cyclist boldly taking lane wherever, and that the right way to get more people riding is to enforce on the motorists around you your right to the lane. Dominant position. Primary position. Eschew cycle facilities because they make us all less assertive, less dominant....

Dominant. Primary. Assertive. Bold. Fast... Oooh baby...

And if you don't like it? LEARN to like it. Me MORE dominant. More primary. MORE assertive. MORE bold. Use MORE speed. Yes. Yes. Oh yes. 

This is reflected quite neatly in the statistics - covered elsewhere very well already (but I'll come back to this in more depth in another post, time permitting).
 "Only one in four people who cycle once a week are women. Two per cent of the female population cycle once a week compared with 6% of men." And perhaps most worrying of all, "The number of women cycling once per week has decreased by over 35,000 in the last three years."
This year, British Cycling did a further survey to find out what was discouraging women from riding, and the results cited "safety concerns, lack of knowledge of routes and having no one to cycle with."
So female participation rates for cycling are woeful - not only are there fewer women cycling, they ride shorter average distances and they ride less frequently. Whats even more worrying is some reports show it is more dangerous for women to cycle our roads. The most shocking statistic is the number of women killed by lorries - despite there being fewer women than men riding, a way higher proportion of women die in accidents with goods vehicles.
In 2007, a leaked report by Transport for London's road safety unit noted that 86% of the women cyclists killed in London between 1999 and 2004 collided with a lorry. By contrast, lorries were involved in 47% of deaths of male cyclists.
The study was blunt in its conclusions: "Women may be over-represented in (collisions with goods vehicles) because they are less likely than men to disobey red lights."
By jumping red lights, it said, men are less likely to be caught in a lorry driver's blind spot, whereas less assertive cyclists who wait at the lights just in front of a lorry are at greater risk as they cannot be seen by the driver.
Or in other words, all this 'assert yourself' stuff, the entire basis for most UK cyclist safety for decades, is failing women more than its failing men - facts on the ground are very simple, we've failed to get women cycling even more spectacularly than we've failed to get men cycling. And the message for how to ride safely on hostile roads is even less likely to get to women than to men. As a result people die.

But for women I think maybe Breeze rides we're finally seeing the start of turning that around - its the start of a movement that could change that. The acceptance in the UK that cyclists want safe routes, direct, car-free routes is finally filtering through at least to some transport authorities. The message is being heard, if not much acted upon. And schemes like Breeze (and the wider Sky Rides) are at least beginning to get people out on bikes to give it a go in a safe, competition and assertiveness-free environment.

What about the men? Yes, we've got a specific deficit in women cycling, but the rate of cycling among men in the UK is also woeful. If there is a marketing approach that works for women, is there one that would work with men?

Bluntly, 'man up', the driving dogma of 30 years of cycling campaigning in the UK, doesn't work as an agenda or a phrase. You may be offended by it - associating 'assertiveness' etc. as traditional values associated with masculinity gets peoples backs up, but the 'achievement' of this approach is that 3 times more men ride than women. You may just not like this dogmatic approach - but whatever else, you'll not very likely be persuaded by it. I guess there are some blokes it will work on - but basically this has been the entire strategy in the UK for years. As a result, we've got a dreadful rate of cycling take up in the UK,  mores so among women than men. But we've got schemes looking to address that for women. So what about the men?

What would get more men riding?

I've got more thoughts to go in to the next blog post on the subject - specifically about how cycling products are marketed to each gender, and how THAT is failing men more than its failing women. But for now I really just want to pose the question - what, if anything, should be the approach to get more men cycling? Breeze rides (Cycletta) is a worthwhile start for women, and of course more and better cycling facilities work regardless. But if there is a specific approach thats working for women, is there one that could work for men? Men only rides (or 'races' as they might tend to become)? Social riding for chaps? Or something else


  1. Another problem is that "man up" is pretty much the only realistic choice for someone wanting to cycle in most parts of the UK right now.

    Doing otherwise invites harassment and the sort of casual indifference to the safety of others that typifes the cyclist and pedestrian experience in the UK. For someone wanting to commute to the local secondary school (for example) or my old commute into Manchester, I couldn't pick a route without the need to take the lane, or hustle somewhat while pursued by traffic at some point.

    1. And of course vehicular riding does reduce the number of close passes but increases the number of nasty incidents with angry drivers - its a no win scenario. Yes, this is the familiar story of cycling in the UK!

  2. I think that we should organize "POABs" rides, persons on bikes. No lycra, no clips, only normal clothed people, with normal shoes (ok. a raincoat and rain overtrousers allowed). One thing that makes riding for women (but some man too) annoying is the almost impossibility to aquire a decent bike with chaiguard and mudguards. This makes raiding with a skirt or a long coat impossible, and makes oil/mud stains on your clothes a certainty. If you hop across the pond to the Netherlands you will see hordes of perfectly office clothed people cycling in all weather with no need of peeling off layers of mud encrusted stuff on arrival.
    Even in Italy, where I come from, you have some very very flat cities with lots of people cycling, you get your lycra weird middle aged speed addicts, usually around in groups on Sunday, but most people, especially youngsters and old ladies, cycle everywhere and stay stilish and dry, thanks to those marvel of technology.
    Ever seen a LOL on a bike, wearing a mink fur coat, and carrying multiple shopping bags? I have, often, and it is a sight difficult to forget ;-)