Cycling Embassy Open Letter To Cycling Minister Over Comments On Barriers To Women Cycling

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain notes with regret the uninformed comments made by Robert Goodwill MP at the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s meeting on Monday on why women don’t currently cycle in large numbers in the UK. 

Robert Goodwill says he will consider KPIs but we need to know why women don't want to cycle to work. His wife says a helmet spoils her hair

The Embassy believe that the evidence on the barriers to cycling for women is clear, and should take centre stage in such a debate, rather than concerns about “helmet hair” and other anecdotal evidence.

The Embassy is therefore today issuing an open letter to the minister to invite him to our AGM in Cambridge in July, where we will explore one part of the UK that does have a more even gender balance for those cycling.

Sally Hinchcliffe of the Embassy said: “We at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain were, like many others, shocked that such uninformed views could still be articulated by a minister who has now been responsible for cycling since late 2013. The evidence is clear that if we want to see greater diversity in cycling then we have to focus on the environment we are asking people to cycle in. At our AGM in Cambridge we'll be exploring one part of the UK that has achieved a better gender balance, and we're looking forward to seeing how the cycling environment begins to address this."


Dear Mr Goodwill,

We followed your evidence to Monday's APPCG inquiry into the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy with interest. Getting this strategy right will be key to tackling many current issues, from pollution to congestion, child health, obesity and economic growth, and we have submitted our own response to the strategy as part of your consultation. However, our attention was drawn to a remark you made at the end, in response to a question of key performance indicators into diversity in cycling - that you feel we still need to know why women don't want to cycle to work, and suggested that it might be to do with issues such as 'helmet hair'.

This shows a worrying unfamiliarity with the weight of evidence on this issue. As minister with responsibility for cycling, we would have hoped that you would be better briefed in this area. There is a great deal of consensus among researchers over why women don't cycle in countries like the UK where cyclists for the most part have to mix with motorised traffic. Indeed, the proportion of women cycling in any given area is a good approximation of its overall cycle friendliness - the share of women cycling, and the number of cycle trips by women are strongly correlated to the overall share of cycling as a means of transport.

We would suggest your officials get hold of a copy of City Cycling [1] for an authoritative survey of the evidence on barriers to cycling, and examine the findings of the Promoting Walking and Cycling Study [2]. Evidence from us and others at the Transport Select Committee’s ‘Cycling Safety’ inquiry in 2013 also covered much of the same ground. Although, concerns about their appearance do act as a barrier to cycling for women, which shouldn't be dimissed, this is generally a minor factor compared with the main barriers to cycling among women:

  • Women consistently express greater concerns than men about safety while cycling, particularly cycling in traffic but also personal safety (for example in unlit areas at night) [3]
  • Women who do cycle are more likely than men to take quieter routes which are separated from traffic, and avoid multi-lane roads, which may lead to longer journeys. [4]
  • Women are more likely than men to make multi-functional trips (such as stopping off at the shops on the way home from work), meaning that it's not just about tackling key commuting corridors but creating a dense network of cycle-friendly routes. [2]
  • In particular, women are more likely to need to transport children which makes the need for safe, direct and barrier-free cycling infrastructure paramount. [3] *
  • Recent work by the Near Miss Project found that women are more likely than men to experience dangerous and offputting interactions with drivers, possibly due to their lower average speeds.[5]

We also note that diversity is not just about achieving gender balance. The barriers to cycling with young children, or by older people and those with disabilities, are similar and the solutions are largely the same.

In order to tackle these barriers, the government's focus must be on changing Britain's road environment to make it welcoming to all, including the vast majority of men who also don't cycle. It is only by tackling that environment - which is increasingly hostile to cyclists of any gender - that the government can truly begin the cycling revolution the Prime Minister has called for. As you saw yourself when you visited Copenhagen, when the conditions are right, women can cycle in their ordinary clothes, and with young children. Indeed, with the very best designed infrastructure, as in the Netherlands where cycling is no more risky than walking, Mrs Goodwill may feel able to leave her helmet at home.

You may be interested to learn that Cambridge, the city in the UK with the highest everyday cycling levels, is also the one with the highest proportion of women cycling. The Embassy will be holding an 'infrastructure safari' - a tour of the cycling conditions in Cambridge that have enabled this - on the 16th July as part of its AGM. We would warmly invite both you and your wife to attend if you would like to see this for yourselves.

Kind regards

Cycling Embassy of GB


[1] Pucher, J.R., & Buehler, R. (2012). City Cycling. MIT Press.

[2] Pooley, C.G., et al. (2013). Promoting Walking and Cycling: New Perspectives on Sustainable Travel. Bristol: Policy Press.

[3] Garrard, J., Handy, S. & Dill, J. (2012). Women and Cycling in Pucher & Buehler (eds.), City Cycling. MIT Press

[4] Beecham, R & Wood, J. (2014). Exploring gendered cycling behaviour in a large-scale behavioural data-set, Transportation Planning and Technology 37(1).

[5] Aldred, R., et al. (2015). Cycling Near Misses: Findings from Year One of the Near Miss Project.