Women’s Safety and Active Travel

Continuing our activity to mark International Women’s Day, YF Networks Coordinator Amy Dwyer assesses the impact on women of the government focus on active travel.

In the past few years the Government has placed increasing focus on active travel, its benefits for personal health and the environment, reduction in congestion and beautification of local communities possible with less car-centric travel. This is not without merit. Promoting active travel is a worthwhile cause and it is certainly something that all of us should be considering where possible. However, this focus on active travel cannot come at the expense of prioritising women’s safety. It cannot be assumed that women feel safe or are even able to travel by walking or cycling in their communities. We cannot promote active travel without addressing this issue first. 

In July 2020, a new inspectorate and funding body, Active Travel England, was created to promote walking and cycling across the country and in January this year, Chris Boardman was appointed the first walking and cycling commissioner. The establishment of a new executive body and commissioner clearly demonstrates a commitment by the government to fund and promote active travel across the country. I have noticed new cycle lanes being established in my own city and have welcomed the move, whilst recognising we need much more focus on public transport to really decarbonise this sector. 

The creation of new and easier cycling and walking routes across the country will undoubtedly encourage people to actively travel but unless more is done to make women feel safe, to include women in the planning of towns and street layouts and consult women on where and why they feel unsafe, this will be of benefit mainly to men. We cannot decarbonise in a discriminatory way. Women are much more likely to travel by private vehicle, particularly at night, because they don’t feel safe walking. This is aside from the issue that women are more likely to feel unsafe on public transport than men. We need to carry everyone with us for transport decarbonisation to work and making women feel safer is the right place to start. 

Research has shown that 50% of women feel unsafe walking alone at night. Half of women feeling unsafe walking alone is something that should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds when considering how to promote active travel. If policymaking is to be based on evidence then it must be taken into account that a quarter of people living in society do not feel safe walking. Until we address this we will not see an uptake in active travel across the board. The ‘gender step gap’ is something that evidence has supported on multiple occasions. Women walk far fewer steps because they don’t feel safe using active travel as their primary, or even secondary or tertiary, mode of transport.

To address the issue, we need more female town and city planners, broader public consultations that are localised to identify particular problem areas or features of our streets that make women feel unsafe. If councils ask women if there are things they can do to make them feel safer this could make a significant difference to local communities. Of course, more women in these roles will ensure that dark, poorly lit streets aren’t the norm. Ultimately, there is little we can do until men stop assaulting women when they are walking alone. But what we can do is put measures in place to make women feel safer in their own communities, to ensure streets are well-lit, to incorporate better design into our towns and cities and ask women what else can be done to make them feel safe. Active travel needs to be a transition for everyone, not just those who feel safe enough to walk and cycle alone at present. 

Amy Dwyer is the Networks Coordinator for the Young Fabians and policy officer for the YF International Network. Amy works in government as a policy advisor and is an ambassador for 50:50 Parliament. She tweets at @AmyDwyer23.

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