With the Women's Institute in Cambridge this week publishing a superb essay about the London Cycle Map Campaign, written by the wonderful Rebecca Watts, it seems like an appropriate time to consider the vexed question of why more women don't cycle in the capital.
The cycling community in London is disproportionately made up of males in the 25-44 age bracket. Why is that? Perhaps these men are at their peak, so they’re busy and they’re confident – and cycling is fast, fulfils a desire for autonomy, and offers a fitness and energy boost without the cost and time commitment involved in working out in a gym.
These explanations, though, should apply not just to men at their peak, but women too. Maybe, rather than these positive incentives, there are some disincentives which explain why fewer women than men cycle in London.
One major deterrent could be the fact that female cyclists make up a higher proportion of deaths involving lorries than male cyclists. Main roads containing lots of big vehicles can always be avoided on a bicycle – that’s my personal policy, anyway. Sadly, it’s harder to avoid the media furore about cyclists and lorries. Perhaps women are especially put off by it.
Perhaps women are also particularly put-off by the thought of getting lost on a bike, thereby ending up in heavy traffic or, worse, in an unfamiliar and isolated place, such as a dark industrial estate. London’s existing cycle routes have a habit of petering out in unexpected places.
An obvious solution to the problem of getting lost is to carry a detailed map, such as an A to Z. But perhaps this solution is not always as helpful to women as it is to men. As any stand-up comic (or cognitive psychologist) will tell you, there are differences in spatial reasoning between the sexes, and, although there are countless exceptions, men tend to find navigating easier.
Most people would also admit that women - again, generally speaking - spend longer getting ready to go out than men do. So maybe the extra hassle of planning a route, carrying spare clothes, changing clothes, etc, has a deterrent effect.
A London Cycle Map would counteract all of these possible deterrents, therefore possibily making cycling a more attractive option for women.
The routes of the London Cycle Network which Simon Parker’s London Cycle Map rationalizes are generally on quieter, safer streets, with less of the heavy traffic characteristic of the capital’s major roads and junctions.
With signs and trails of colour on the roads, those routes would be as easy to follow as the lines on the Tube – so getting lost on a bike would become a rarity.
Also, since the London Cycle Map is based on the design of the Tube map – a famously simple and brilliant nagivational aid – navigating by bike would be as easy as it is on the Tube.
And by removing the need for advance route-planning or having to remember hundreds of turn-rights and turn-lefts en route – users of the London Cycle Map could get from anywhere to anywhere in the capital by following just a few, straight coloured routes – cycling would become more convenient, spontaneous and fast.
By removing all these barriers to cycling, maybe the London Cycle Map would encourage more women to give it a go.