Back pedalling on the road to equality

Ellen Jones reflects on the role the bicycle has and can continue to have in the fight for gender equality

On the weekend we saw thousands of women take to the streets of our cities to celebrate 100 years since the first women in Britain got the vote. As we saw the streets of Cardiff paraded in colours of purple, green and white there seemed to be something missing…


What is long forgotten is that bicycles have played a large role in the Women’s Liberation Movement. When bicycles came into mass production in the UK in the late 19th Century, women who had long had to rely on men to travel were finally given the independence to travel alone.


Bicycles not only gave women freedom to travel, they gave women the freedom to move. Women’s fashion was heavily influenced by the bicycle, as you can imagine long restrictive skirts and impossibly high neck lines were impractical for cycling, and slowly bloomers and even trousers became mainstreamed for women.


Suffragettes were often seen with their bicycles which were adorned with ribbons and placards calling for Votes For Women. Bicycles played a huge part in their campaigning, most notably when suffragettes blocked Winston Churchill’s motorcades with bicycles.


So, why it is then that over 100 years later almost three quarters (70%) of women living in Cardiff never ride a bike for local journeys?


Inclusive City Cycling a report published today by Sustrans, details women’s travel habits, views and attitudes towards cycling based on an ICM independent survey of over 7,700 residents living in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Greater Manchester.


The report revealed that 31% of women in Cardiff who do not ride a bike would like to, with the majority of those wanting to see cycle safety improved.


Claire O’Shea is one of those women:


“I would love to cycle but I have had my confidence knocked after being run off the road by a car. Cycling should give me that time to be mindful to and from work and it is the easiest and cheapest option. In reality riding a bike isn’t mindful or easy on the streets of Cardiff. Its hard work navigating through patchy cycle lanes with cars cutting up your route and watching out for car doors opening on the other side.”


A huge 79% of women surveyed would support building more protected cycle lanes, even if it means less space for other road traffic. This new data goes to show how important it is for Welsh Government and Local Authorities to invest in good cycle infrastructure, not only to bridge the gender gap when it comes to cycling, but to improve the health and wellbeing of its population.


Investing in cycle infrastructure has many benefits to the Welsh economy:   only 51% of women in Wales meet the recommended physical activity levels. Changing perceptions and making it easier for women to get on their bikes for those short journeys could go a long way to improving Wales physical and mental health. Increasing the amount of women in Wales being physically active is essential to reducing strain on the NHS, with physical inactivity costing NHS Wales £35 million a year. For many people, especially those living in cities, the easiest and most accessible forms of physical activity are those that can be incorporated into our everyday lives, for example walking or cycling to work, education or other everyday journeys. 


Cycling infrastructure also benefits social mobility with 43% of women in Wales not having daily access to a car. Women from low income households are less likely to travel far from home for work, and are more likely to rely on public transport. Still, their male counterparts are twice as likely to cycle in all seven of the cities surveyed. Increasing the opportunities for women to walk and cycle will have a positive effect on their prospects and horizons, and the overall prosperity of Wales.


Investing in improving mobility can go a long way to breaking down existing inequalities in society, improving health and wellbeing and improving air quality, so let’s stop back pedalling and take investment in walking and cycling seriously. For women’s sake.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Ellen Jones is Senior Policy Officer at Sustrans Cymru

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