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Today, 62% of CO2 emitted by the road transport sector comes from passenger cars. If as many Britons cycled as people in the Netherlands, two million fewer car-using commuters would be on the road, resulting in an annual reduction of 1500 tonnes of CO2 output annually. However, women make 2.5 times less cycling trips than men, with 20% of men being “regular cyclists” compared to 8% of women. Why is this? Women cite various reasons for not cycling: safety concerns, fear of sexual harassment, and lack of cycling infrastructure in their city. Indeed the 2020 National Travel Attitudes Survey found that 71% of women felt that it was too dangerous for them to cycle. So how can this fear be reduced, to persuade more women to switch from engine power to pedal power?

Women’s participation in cycling has had barriers since its inception. When bikes became widespread in Victorian Britain, the Daily Press newspaper described one female cyclists’ death in 1896 as due to her “flapping skirts” obstructing her view.  In 1946, the Women’s Track Racing Association formed to encourage women to participate in track cycling; yet they were banned from the road until 1956 when the Harrogate Festival held the first women’s road race. 

Today, Britain has two UCI Elite and eight domestic cycling teams, highlighting the rise in popularity women’s cycling has undergone. And yet, women make less than half the number of cycling trips men do, impacting upon carbon emissions as well as their health. By 2030, up to 43% of women are predicted to be obese, with a cost of £1.2 billion to the healthcare sector and £1.5 billion to the wider economy annually. 

So how can women’s cycling uptake be improved to increase the use of green transportation and improve health and well-being? In 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a £2 billion investment for a “cycling revolution” aimed at improving cycle infrastructure, providing cycling lessons and updating the Highway Code to provide clearer guidance to cyclists. However, the £2 billion fund must be targeted, with significant investment aimed at women’s participation. 

Previous initiatives such as British Cycling’s 2013 attempt to get one million more women cycling by 2020 have had positive impacts, with its Breeze programme seeing 150,000 women take part in group rides. Yet this programme, like others, isn’t able to widely overcome women’s fear of cycling. Instead, there need to be core changes to cycling in Britain nationwide. 

Cycling infrastructure is a key barrier to female cycling, with 74% of women desiring to see improvement, and could particularly be improved with better street lighting. Improving visibility, particularly in winter, would reduce women’s concerns of not being seen and being able to see, ensuring year-round cycling and a consistent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, where cycle lanes are built matters. Lanes must not only cater for commuters who are typically male, but should include open, direct routes to nurseries, schools, shops and other amenities which women, often the primary household carer, are more likely to need and use. 

Thirdly, funding should be aimed at the professional women’s cycling sector to give women role models who prove that cycling isn’t just for men, but for women too. While the public know Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome and their achievements, women’s cycling is underfunded and underserved. It is only in 2022 that a women’s equivalent of the Tour de France will take place, and at just one week in length compared to three weeks for the men’s. Prize money is also still unequal, with a 2020 petition demanding equal prize money for the National Hill Climb Championships. 

If professional cycling is underfunded for women, it builds into the centuries old narrative that cycling isn’t designed for women. Providing cycling role models for the next generation of young women will address this. Better infrastructure is needed, but those brand new well-lit cycle lanes will remain empty if women can’t imagine themselves in the saddle. As such this £2 billion pledge must work hard from grass-roots to elite level women’s cycling, encouraging more women to go green, get on their bicycle and cut carbon emissions. 

Eleanor is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.