Equality Streets – article for Get Britain Cycling 2014

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.

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9 Responses to Equality Streets – article for Get Britain Cycling 2014

  1. Interesting approach Rachel.

    In the local authority I worked in 25 years ago all Committee reports had to have Race Equality, Sex Equality and Disabilties sections filled in. I remember pointing out that traffic claming schemes, for example, would have particular benefits for people with disabilties crossing roads, children crossing roads (with beenfits for child carers) and in places where there was a higher degree of underprivilege, meaning people would be less likely to drive and therefore be more at risk from road danger. Nowadays that is subsumed under the kind of approach you mention.

    However, I have doubts about the success of what you seem to be advocating. Women often use the argument that they need car parking close to their homes and otherwise easy access to cars in order to avoid potential sexual harassment. Disabled people’s groups often use their disability to attack provision for cycling. So it could be a double-edged sword.

    That might just me being pessimistic, of course. I would argue that if you are pushing the equalties issue the threat of motor danger is a particular concern for older people (I would guess).

    • Hilary Reed. Your Voice 21 says:

      Dr Davis is pessimistic. Disabled groups often represent an incomplete range of disability, perhaps the more obvious physical ones. I like many have a life limiting condition – “disability” invisible to strangers now, for whom cycling is crucial to maintain my health and well being, and independence. Rachel Aldreds article represents a big opportunity to change local authority culture. Cycle Campaigners up and down the country need a well researched PSED briefing note to confidently engage in discussions with their local authorities on transport policies, plans, budgets that affect them, together with Local data on protected groups.

  2. Shane Foran says:

    In my view Bob Davis is correct to see a double edged sword. I have also come across instances of disabled groups attacking provisions for walking. As an example representatives for the visually impaired attacking plans for zebra crossings instead of pelican crossings. In this case, we the disabled making common cause with the motor-lobby to favour measures that reduce the level of service for pedestrians and in effect seek to manage and control pedestrians for the benefit of car-users. (It is the pedestrian who must always wait by default at pelican crossings.)

    Appealing to equality arguments may seem attractive but can backfire. It all depends on who wants to be “equal” with whom.

  3. Hilary Reed. Your Voice 21 says:

    Maybe. That is assuming that the disability definition is traditional and limited. PSED covers many groups, it requires new creative thinking and action to find common chracteristics between the groups, providing relevant protected group data, and partnership with protected group partners. When diversity is highlighted, this will be in context of better equality awareness, and possibility of new solutions. Willingness to look for new creative approaches to match new law and opportunity is preferable to negative pre- judging based on the past.

  4. this has got me thinking…

  5. Pingback: Equality for all cyclists: The social justice case for mass cyclingSports News Stories | Sports News Stories

  6. Sarah Tanburn says:

    It would be useful to see the citation for the comment:
    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. That would make the whole article more useful.

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