Our Research Director Claire Harding considers the changes that London could make to its infrastructure to help make cycling safer for women in the capital.
We all know the benefits of cycling: better health for ourselves from the exercise, better health for our neighbours from reduced air pollution, lower carbon emissions, the sheer fun of cycling through parks and swooping down hills. Cycling often feels like a safer way to get around for me as a woman: I get far fewer creepy comments about my body or my clothes when I’m riding than when I’m running, and I can avoid the catcalling and unwanted touching that occasionally happen on the train or the bus. Of course, we need serious and ongoing social action to stop the men who think it’s OK to harass women for travelling, exercising or just existing in public space. But while it still happens, cycling offers some women a way to feel safer.
The trouble is what to do when we get off our bikes. Locking up a bike is a vulnerable moment: you have to bend down, often facing away from the people around you. Ironically, bikes with step-through crossbars – often used by women as they make it easier to cycle in a dress or skirt, and sometimes by people with mobility limitations as they are easier to get on and off – are harder to lock up to standard bike hoops as the lock is usually closer to the ground. This is usually OK during the day, or in a place with lots of people going past: perhaps outside a popular restaurant or a local supermarket, or in a well-lit station forecourt. But it can be scary at night.
The trouble is that, despite the Highway Code instructing people parking a bike to “find a conspicuous location where it can be seen by passers-by”, far too many high streets and transport hubs either don’t have bike parking, or the bike parking they have is tucked around a corner, away from other people, and poorly lit. There might be a promise of CCTV watching, which could deter theft but doesn’t do much for fear of harassment, since it’s not usually treated as a crime to start with. Parking at London’s bigger stations can be a particular problem: it’s often away from the main entrances, can be very tricky to find, and the ‘double decker’ racks used to increase parking capacity can be awkward and slow to operate, and on wet days sometimes cover clothes and hair with mud as you park your bike.
I am lucky that I can store my bike in my home – it is annoying and clumsy, but it is safe. For many Londoners this is simply impossible as their flats don’t have enough space or their landlord doesn’t allow bikes in the building. Too many Londoners don’t cycle because they don’t have anywhere to put their bike at night, and live too far from the nearest shared cycle dock to use this as an alternative. Some blocks of flats have dedicated cycle parking, but this is also inconsistent and there isn’t much incentive for landowners to add it to existing blocks. Some councils provide bike hangars where residents can reserve a specific space close to their home, but the waiting lists for these can be months or years, and some people report that they apply for multiple places and simply never hear back.
Women in London are less likely to cycle than men. Some of this is because of deep societal inequalities that can’t be fixed through infrastructure alone: sweat, creased clothes and helmet hair are difficult when there’s so much pressure on women to look well-groomed, and girls are still socialised to think that physical activity is not for them. But some of it is because of policy choices: a focus on commuter cycling in and out of the city centre over connections between and within local areas, not enough attention paid to routes which are easy to cycle with children, and not enough safe parking, especially for winter nights. If we’re serious about increasing cycling – and given the urgency of decarbonisation and reducing pollution, we must be – then we need it to be for everyone.