Women cyclists are dying, why are we still talking about their clothes?

Cycling deaths are gendered and women's cycling needs must taken into account by planners and campaigners.

Beulah Maud Devaney
24 November 2015

Women don’t cycle as much as men because we are more vulnerable on the roads than men. There. In one sentence I’ve answered the tricky question that has haunted politicians, cycling campaigners and a multitude of think pieces for decades. But, of course, it’s not as simple as that because despite the overwhelming body of research to back-up claims that women cyclists face greater, gender-specific, dangers on Britain’s roads: this discussion keeps coming back to what we wear.

According to the government’s National Travel Survey, in 2014 British men made three times as many bike rides and cycled four times as many miles as women. There are multiple theories bouncing around as to why women cycle less than men. Have we been chased off the road by our lycra-clad male counterparts? Is cycling less compatible with the modern woman’s lifestyle? Are we worried about breaking a nail while fixing a flat tire? This may sound like a flippant dismissal of the earnest research and head scratching that goes into working out why women cycle less. Unfortunately it’s also fairly representative of the conclusions that keep being drawn.

Caitlin Giddings interviewed Martha Roskowski from People for Bikes about the way media outlets tend to focus on what a cyclist was wearing during a crash and prioritize this narrative over the vehicle driver’s behaviour. Roskowski was speaking about American bike culture but her observations also apply to the UK. While the media do cover bike fatalities they also focus on whether the rider was wearing a helmet, lycra, specializing biking gear. Research shows that women cyclists are more concerned with safety than style but every widely covered London fatality has seen multiple mention of the cyclists’ clothing. Women-focused publications tend be even worse, preferring to provide their readers with cute cycling gear, rather campaign for improved infrastructure and acknowledging women’s concerns.

In his 2013 Vision for Cycling in London Boris Johnson mentioned women exactly once and in direct juxtaposition to a comment on what cyclists wear, rather than their safety:

“I want cycling to be normal, a part of everyday life.” Johnson states “I want it to be something you feel comfortable doing in your ordinary clothes, something you hardly think about. I want more women cycling. ” [Italics the author’s own]

Johnson then went on to lay out his dream for London’s cycling culture without once referring to the specific hazards and impediments faced by female cyclists. It’s difficult to feel confident about the future of women on bikes when the Mayor of London can’t even take the time to acknowledge that our experience differs so radically from our male counterparts.

Transport for London recently announced that while women are responsible for 25% of bike journeys in London they represent 39% of casualties since 2009 and in June 2015 the Evening Standard released figures showing that a much higher proportion of female cyclists were killed by Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGV) than male cyclists. HGV are responsible for the majority of cyclist deaths in London and the Standard’s research suggests that it is the less aggressive or assertive cyclists who are more likely to be caught in a collision. The fact that women are more likely to be injured by a HGV backs up claims from Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston that cycling deaths are gendered and women’s cycling needs must be taken into account by planners and campaigners.

Johnson appears to suggest that if women were just able to wear normal clothes then we’d all be constantly cycling. The thing is, Boris, women already can and do wear our normal clothes on bikes. I cycled in London for 3 years before moving to Amsterdam 2 years ago and I have never owned a single piece of lycra. I’ve cycled in (faux) fur coats, high heels, Dr Martens, mini and maxi skirts, structured dresses, blazers and that was just my morning commute through Camden. Some of my friends wear their normal clothes and some have special cycling gear but the ongoing theme among regular cyclists is that we can do it in our normal clothes just fine, it’s the aggression that we are required to display that makes us uncomfortable.

Studies of UK cycling infrastructure report that cyclists who are more assertive are more likely to enjoy cycling, a form of behaviour many women feel uncomfortable with. A study by academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in 2011 found that women are often put off by the hyper-aggressive posturing seen in the current cycling community. This backs up research published this week by BMJ Open which found that women cyclists tend to be more cautious and take fewer risks on bikes. It’s a mistake to characterize aggressive cycling as something men enjoy and women abhor; but we cannot ignore the fact that the assertive behaviour demanded of cyclists on UK roads is at the root of many of the hazards women face.

UK roads place cyclists side-by-side with motor vehicles, which means that a lot of cycling safety advice is focused on encouraging cyclists to be assertive while on the road. Riding in the middle of a lane, rather than at the side, increases invisibility and lessens the chance of being dangerously overtaken. Taking up position in front of the cars waiting at a red light allows the cyclist a quicker getaway when the light turns green. These are basic safety suggestions, but they require the cyclist to be assertive in their behaviour: a move that in men is often read as confidence and in women is frequently read as pushiness.

The difference between the UK and other more cycling-friendly countries like The Netherlands and Denmark isn’t that women can cycle in their normal clothes; it’s that they feel safer. In The Netherlands women cycle more than men, making 55% of bike journeys and only 159 women were killed in traffic accidents in 2014, in comparison to 411 men. In July Lilli Matson, head of surface delivery planning at TFL, gave an interview to Guardian writer Terry Slavin in which she said it was clear that women gave a higher priority to safety when cycling. Slavin went on to point out that despite evidence that safe, non-aggressive environments encourage women to cycle more, TFL is budgeting £11 per person, per year for cyclists. Which is less than half the amount allocated in some Dutch cities.

It is difficult to understand why, when faced with such compelling evidence of the dangers women cyclists face, the discussion around women cyclists continues to focus on what we wear. There is a gap between what female cyclists need and what they are being offered. Women are saying that they do not feel comfortable displaying aggression and research demonstrates that less assertive cyclists are in physical danger on Britain’s roads. There is still a woeful shortage of funding for safer cycling infrastructure and the media coverage of women’s cycling continues to focus on what cyclists are wearing. High-profile politicians suggest that all female cyclists need are better outfits and HGVs are yet to be banned in city centres. In the meantime women keep dying and we keep talking about their clothes.


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