New research based on 2001 and 2011 census data has found that where cycling to work has risen, it has remained a disproportionately male activity. The researchers also found that cycle commuting has also become even more skewed towards younger age groups.
The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and published in the academic journal Transport Reviews, used journey-to-work census data looking at gender and age balance among cycle commuters, comparing the situation in 2001 to that in 2011. The aim was to explore whether there was any statistically significant change in the representation of women and older people cycling to work.
Three main conclusions were drawn, which were that where cycling had increased, there was no statistically significant change in gender ratio; where cycling had declined, there had been a reduction in the proportion of women cycling; and where cycling had increased, the under-representation of older people had increased.
The paper’s lead author Dr Rachel Aldred, from the University of Westminster, said:
“We know from the Netherlands and Denmark that women and older people will cycle, if the conditions are right. But these results show that UK policy-makers cannot assume that if cycling grows it will inevitably become more diverse. This has not happened and so we should be targeting policy towards currently under-represented groups. In particular, evidence shows that women have particularly strong preferences for cycle infrastructure fully separated from motor traffic.”
It is certainly true that places where cycling levels are higher tend to have higher proportions of female and older cyclists. Cambridge sees almost equal proportions of men and women cycle to work, while in the Netherlands women cycle more than men. In contrast, the census data showed that in areas with very low cycling levels, the gender ratio was extremely unequal, with men up to 14 times more likely to cycle to work than women.
As such, the researchers expected to see a rise in the proportion of female cyclists where cycling levels had increased, but this didn’t prove to be the case. Although more women were cycling in those areas, the gender balance hadn’t become more equal.
Similarly, in 2001, authorities with higher cycling levels tended to have more equal representation of older people (defined as those aged 55-74) among cycle commuters, yet in 2011 the relationship was actually less clear. It seems cycling is still disproportionately attracting younger men, including the infamous MAMIL identified by Mintel’s 2010 market research.
In Birmingham, which has the lowest proportion of bike commuters of any major city in England – just 1.44 per cent of adults – making cycling more accessible to those who do not currently ride is a key part of the council’s strategy, yet one local councillor last year saw fit to object to spending on the grounds that “the vast majority of cyclists on our roads are young, white men.”
Birmingham’s Cycle City Ambition application was underpinned by a ‘built it and they will come’ attitude, but Conservative councillor, Deirdre Alden, clearly expressed her perception that cycling was not for everyone and even described it as ‘a discriminatory form of transport’.
"Most elderly people are not going to cycle, and it would be dangerous for them to start on our streets now. Women of any ethnic group who wish to wear modest clothing, and I count myself in that category, are not going to cycle. It is a discriminatory form of transport.”