11th March 2016

Why do fewer women cycle than men?

Sally Hinchcliffe with POP

Sally Hinchcliffe, front right, next to Kezia Dugdale MSP observing a minute’s silence during Edinburgh’s Pedal On Parliament demonstration. Photograph: Chris Hill

Written by Sally Hinchcliffe, serial campaigner and organiser of Pedal On Parliament, Cycling Dumfries, the Women’s Cycle Forum and We walk, we cycle, we vote

Why do fewer women cycle than men? (Bearing in mind, of course, that only a small minority of men cycle regularly in the UK too). In fact, the reasons aren’t so hard to find: While there are plenty of women and girls who do cycle – and quite happily, even on the scariest roads – women are statistically more likely to be busy caring for children or responsible for doing the weekly shop.

“Women are often expected to present higher standards of appearance at work, making integrating cycling into daily life much more complicated.”

They’re also often expected to present higher standards of appearance at work, making integrating cycling into daily life (as opposed to sports or recreational riding) much more complicated.

Yes, you can overcome these problems, but they each require more of an effort than just cycling to work and back on your own. And then there’s the fact that women – again, on average – cycle more slowly than men, which makes us more of a target for aggressive driving on the road.

It’s also drummed into us from an early age not to venture into parks at night or down dark back streets, so that all those nice canal towpaths and off-road routes aren’t all that practical for commuting during the Scottish winter. In fact, the real question isn’t so much why women don’t cycle, as why so many of us do.

woman cycling netherlands

Cycle paths such as this underpass in Maassluis, Netherlands, are less intimidating than Scotland’s canal paths at night. Photograph: Cycling Embassy of Great Britain

Looking to the Netherlands and Denmark

And yet, not many miles away across the North Sea, in the Netherlands and Denmark, all of these things hold equally true, but women actually cycle more than men do. 52% of bike trips in the Netherlands are made by women, largely because women make more trips (because even over in liberal Northern Europe, women are still more responsible for shopping and childcare than men are).

The reason isn’t hard to see. The dense network of separated cycle paths mean that cycling with kids is a breeze; it’s easier to park your bike right by the shop than your car; you’re not having to mix with traffic so you can go as slowly as you like without having some enraged driver honking at you; and the paths are properly lit and maintained. They’re also busy with other bikes – so you don’t have to worry about who might be lurking around the corner. Even Dutch underpasses look inviting to cycle through, instead of a haven for muggers and rapists.


The only way to travel: An older Dutch woman cycling with shopping. Photograph: Cycling Embassy of Great Britain

No wonder Dutch and Danish women can look so fantastic on a bike – they can choose stately upright bikes with chain guards to protect their clothes, and cycle at a speed low enough not to need to shower or change when they get to work. They also cycle all their lives – from tiny girls pedalling independently to school, to teenage girls in gangs (or alongside teenage boys…), to supermums on cargo bikes, to older ladies who find the bike the easiest way to get their shopping home.

Bicycle campaigning in Scotland

As a campaigner, I saw that there were two options to get more women cycling back here in Scotland: I could help to dismantle the gender stereotypes that complicate women’s lives and impose barriers to cycling (along with many other things) or I could campaign to transform Scotland’s towns and cities into places where anyone could ride and where the bike is obvious choice for short trips. On balance, while the former would be fantastic, I decided that the latter was marginally more achievable in my lifetime. And as a bonus, it would also enable men to cycle too.

That’s why I’m one of the organisers of Pedal on Parliament, and this year of We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote. By asking for investment in cycling and walking, and the sort of infrastructure that women (and men) enjoy on the continent, we believe that Scotland could see the same levels of cycling as its neighbours over the water. If you’d like to see more women (and men) on bikes, I hope you’ll join us on April 23rd in the Meadows – men, women and children – and together we can make Scotland a cycle-friendly country.

And when we’ve done that, I’ll get on with dismantling the patriarchy…

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