I wrote this thing a year and half ago but never quite got around to shaping it into anything I was quite happy with. Well, since the BBC have come around with yet another “what is stopping women cycling?” story, I figured I’ll never finish it and may as well get rid of it…
Another tweet scrolled past me this evening asking why a segment of the UK population doesn’t cycle.
It’s certainly an admirable exercise, trying to address inequalities in access. And there are certainly inequalities to address. But there is little to learn about what the inequalities are, or what the solutions to them might be, by comparing current cycling rates between different populations, or by asking the question “why don’t x cycle?”.
Because it’s not just x who don’t cycle. Black and minority ethnic populations don’t cycle, but neither do white populations. Women don’t cycle, but neither do men. And the number one reason all of these populations don’t cycle is the same.
That’s not in any way to say there aren’t inequalities of access, or to dismiss the additional barriers that women and minorities face, or to belittle the diverse ways that different people and populations can experience the same barriers. Only that when it comes to “why don’t people cycle”, the biggest concerns by far are the same for everyone.
Here is an entirely hypothetical society that we can imagine, with some entirely made up data for different populations in that society:
Compared to population X, 4 times as many population Y cycle. And 3 times as many again population Z cycle. When you only look at the few who currently cycle, these populations look vastly different in their propensity to cycle. But look at the many who aren’t cycling and you see they’re not very different at all. Almost nobody in any of those populations cycles. Clearly they live in an environment which is very hostile to cycling.
Some of the people would never ever cycle, no matter what the environment for it were like. But for the vast majority of people in all demographics, there are circumstances in which they would happily cycle, were the environment different. There are barriers stopping them, but they are only barriers in the context of the prevailing environment.
Indeed, in our hypothetical society, while Xs are currently substantially less likely to cycle than Zs, if you radically change the environment to shift the cut-off point to the left, the proportion of Xs to Zs converges until Xs slightly outnumber Zs.
Perhaps in our hypothetical society, Xs on average actually make more of the types of short journeys to which cycling is inherently the most suitable form of transport — but compared to Zs are typically burdened by this society with other duties, expectations or threats to their safety which make cycling extra unattractive in the prevailing conditions.
Understanding the burdens Xs face may be a worthwhile exercise in itself. But they’re not the answer the question “why don’t x cycle?” — and addressing them alone won’t change the fact that, just like everyone else, they overwhelmingly don’t.