Here’s an article published earlier this month in Get Britain Cycling magazine – you can read the published version and a range of other articles at http://www.getbritaincycling.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/gbc2014.pdf
Britain’s roads are unequal places, with substantial impacts on how people live – and die. In 1952, we lived in a multi-modal society. Distances travelled by bike, car, bus, and train were in the same ball-park. Now, the car is clearly the dominant mode. We can see the impacts of this in street design, as cyclists are pushed into uneven, unsafe gutter lanes, and pedestrians are held back by railings at staggered crossings. We can see it in funding priorities, as major roads projects continue to be prioritised and labelled ‘strategic’ while local bus services are cut.
This is a social justice issue, as hostile, motor-centric streets disproportionately threaten those with the lowest levels of car access. For example, children in poor areas who lack gardens play in streets where cultural, legal and infrastructural norms leave them vulnerable. Those who contribute least to the problem suffer most from its impacts.
Inequalities are particularly stark for cycling. In The Netherlands, ‘gender and cycling’ is a non-issue: rates are fairly equal, if anything women cycle slightly more. Yet in the UK, it’s very different. The 2011 Census showed only 27% of English cycle commuters are female, although women are 47% of all commuters.
At local level the disparities are even sharper. A few local authority districts look almost Dutch: in Cambridge, East Cambridgeshire and Fenland men and women are equally likely to cycle to work. But in most districts, cycle commuting is 70% male – or more. In Burnley, where disparities are greatest, only 24 of 397 cycle commuters are female.
Inequalities exist not just by gender, but also by age, ethnicity and disability. Research shows that women, older people, black and minority ethnic people and disabled people are all more likely to be excluded from cycling, primarily because they don’t feel safe on the roads.
This is shocking, but it’s also an opportunity for change. The affected groups share what are called ‘protected characteristics’ under the Equality Act 2010. Under this Act, public sector bodies (and other bodies with public functions) must show ‘due regard’ to the need to:
– eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimization;
– advance equality of opportunity between different groups; and
– foster good relations between different groups.
Advancing equality of opportunity involves having ‘due regard’ to the need to:
– remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by persons who share a relevant protected characteristic that are connected to that characteristic;
– take steps to meet the needs of persons who share a relevant protected characteristic that are different from the needs of persons who do not share it;
– encourage persons who share a relevant protected characteristic to participate in public life or in any other activity in which participation by such persons is disproportionately low.
Much of this is relevant to cycling, and to transport services in general. Women are clearly more likely than men to feel excluded by the cycling environments generally provided in Britain. It may even be appropriate to talk about “indirect discrimination”, which the Equality Act defines as being “when a service provider applies an apparently neutral provision, criterion or practice which puts persons sharing a protected characteristic at a particular disadvantage”. Under the Act, the relevant outcome is “disadvantage”, which can include denial of choice or opportunity, deterrence, rejection or exclusion.
One example of indirect sex discrimination given in the Act’s guidance is where a local authority temporarily closes the entrance ramp to a block of flats, with disproportionate impacts on women using pushchairs. It isn’t much of a stretch to see cycling policy and provision in a similar light. Traditionally, the policy assumption in this country has been that cyclists should be on the road, behaving like cars. But studies have shown women place a higher value on off-road infrastructure, and on avoiding busy roads, than do men (for example, TfL’s research into cycle route choice in London).
There’s a variety of possible reasons, one being the greater proportion of women’s journeys that involve trip chaining, or the greater likelihood that women are travelling with others, particularly children (women make 40% more ‘escort trips’ than do men). Some people might be willing to cycle alone on an A road, but not with two seven-year-olds in tow, for example. But whatever the reasons, the outcome is the same: women are less likely than men to cycle in these kinds of environments.
We know the general and specific changes that can make cycling more equal. The general changes are about separating cyclists from fast or busy motor traffic, through a variety of interventions: primarily, high quality cycle tracks on main roads and modal filtering on side streets. The specific changes include eliminating high-risk and high-stress junction situations, especially left hook risks and the need to cross lanes of motor traffic to turn right.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has said the aim of the Act is not punishing authorities, but creating a change in culture. This includes tackling the consequences of past decisions, as determined by a case taken under the previous Disability Equality Duty.
As cycling has been marginalised for many years, creating an equal cycling environment can’t only mean putting new policies through a brief Equality Impact Assessment, which on its own will mean tinkering at the edges. It needs a more radical approach: an honest assessment of the equality implications of the ‘business as usual’ approach, and how our policies, programmes and practices will need to change if we want to move towards equal streets.