Alastair Dalton: Bake Off inspiration to get more women cycling

Some women have a "visualisation disconnect" over not seeing themselves as cyclists.
Some women have a "visualisation disconnect" over not seeing themselves as cyclists.
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Politicians were lining up this week to stress the importance of boosting cycling - but with barely a mention of the group who need to be encouraged the most.

There was widespread backing in a Holyrood debate for funding being doubled – though many want more – and new initiatives such as an “active nation” commissioner to be appointed next year.

Transport minister Humza Yousaf seems intent on making a mark with cycling. Rather than shelving the Scottish Government’s long-held ambition of 10 per cent of journeys being by bike by 2020, he committed to it after being appointed last year, despite mounting incredulity that the rate will get anywhere near it by then.

Mr Yousaf has announced that not just one but all five short-listed entries for the next major segregated cycle route will be funded, and he’s also giving “very serious” consideration to establishing a separate cycling unit within the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency.

But there’s still a steep hill to climb. The official Scottish Household Survey shows the overall cycling rate last year of 1.2 per cent of journeys was marginally lower than in 2014. The figure for cycle commuting was more than double that – 2.6 per cent – but no better than 2014.

For the minister to make any progress towards the target, more members of a key group who are significantly under-represented among cyclists will have to be persuaded to pedal: women.

An innovative approach to this is being pursued by a researcher at Glasgow Caledonian University, who has taken a lead from The Great British Bake Off to inspire women to try cycling.

Lee Muir reminded Cycling Scotland’s annual conference in Glasgow on Tuesday that the programme has triggered a trebling of baking product sales as viewers who had never baked, such as herself, sought to copy what they had seen on screen.

Ms Muir, a senior project officer in active travel development at the university, is seeking to achieve similar motivation among women to get on a bike, by overcoming what she describes as their “visualisation disconnect” – women say they “just don’t see themselves cycling”.

She has produced a series of “Cycle Stories” videos, featuring female staff and students talking about why they got into cycling, their experience of it and the benefits it has brought them. These include losing weight and “helping my mood and being able to better face the day”.

The short films also go into practicalities that deter some women from cycling, such as how to protect your make-up, “dressing for the destination not the journey”, skirt guards and enclosed bike chains, and accessories such as a normal-looking briefcase that can be fixed to a bike with a hidden attachment.

They are down-to-earth, non-preachy monologues with the type of observations that are likely to get non-cyclists thinking about giving it a try, such as “Time on the bike is time not online” and “Cycling in heels is easier than walking in them”.

Only half as many women cycle as men, and among commuters, they are outnumbered by more than three to one. Ms Muir’s work shows that while creating safe cycling routes, especially lanes segregated from other traffic, is important, helping women to visualise cycling as a normal way to travel could be an even more critical factor in achieving better gender balance – and get more people cycling.