Keep building protected bike lanes if we want women to cycle more

Despite the increase in cycling uptake in the last decades, women still cycle much less than men. What role does the urban environment play in this gender-cycling gap? How can policymakers intervene to induce women to cycle more? Alice Battiston explores these and more in light of their recent article in EPJ Data Science.

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In the last decades, the number of cyclists in western cities has significantly risen. However, the typical cyclist riding around European and North American cities is still a young man.

As women represent nearly half of the population, the presence of a relevant gender-cycling gap means that this is the main socio-demographic group for policymakers to target, if they hope to enlarge the societal and environmental benefits associated with cycling. 

Our Study

Why do women cycle less than men? Can this gender-cycling gap be linked to characteristics of the urban environment? If so, how can policymakers intervene in the urban environment to make it more women-friendly?

In the article “Revealing the determinants of gender inequality in urban cycling with large-scale data”, we study the strength of association between cycling uptake by women – measured through data from the sport-tracking application Strava – and several characteristics of western cities, both at a macro and microscopic level. 

At a macroscopic level, we show that the cycling uptake of women is typically larger in flatter cities with a safer urban environment, such as cities with large low-speed limit zones and fewer ‘blind’-intersections (e.g., three-ways crosses).

This macroscopic result has a direct counterpart at the microscopic level. Delving deeper into street-level features, we show that in New York City streets with protected cycling infrastructures are up to four times more likely to have a large influx of women than streets with no cycleways.

This result is not limited to the city of New York but generalizes to the vast majority of the cities in our sample.

Why is this important?

As the rate of urbanization of western countries keeps rising, it has become of pivotal importance to rethink how we move around our cities.

Forms of active mobility, such as cycling and walking, not only guarantee a reduced environmental impact but they are also associated with many individual and societal benefits, such as improved mental and physical health.

In this spirit, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals indicate cycling as one of the pillars of a sustainable urban-mobility system and interventions targeted at increasing the number of cyclists are recommended as one of the solutions against traffic congestion, increased emissions, and poor air quality.

But how can we aim at increasing the number of cyclists if we do not know why half of the population is particularly reluctant to cycle?

Identifying obstacles to cycling for women and understanding their preferences in terms of urban environment is thus of pivotal importance towards transforming cycling into a universal means of transportation.

And now?

Obviously, this is not the end of this story and more research is needed on this topic.

On one hand, the data used for this study are obtained from one of the major sport tracking applications, and as such they are better suited to represent regular cyclists than occasional cyclists. Therefore, future research will be needed to understand how the results generalize to the overall population.

On the other hand, future studies in experimental settings could shed light on causal relationships and the impact of specific urban interventions.

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