I AM furiously pedalling down Glasgow’s Argyle Street. My thighs burning, my face is reddening and my chest is wheezing as I half-choke on the aromatic diesel fumes from the bus trundling past me. Ah, I think: the glamour of journalism.

Rather than being invited to premieres or asked to try out luxury products, I have been chosen as the guinea pig for the updated nextbike (formerly the pink People Make Glasgow hire bikes), and have been tasked with finding out why women are less likely to use them.

After discovering that their bikes were far more popular with men than women, nextbike hopes its remodelled bikes –lighter and smoother, and with more gears – will encourage more women to give them a go.

I would like to cycle around the city more often, but like a lot of women I don’t. Why? Statistics show that in Scotland, three times more men than women commute to work by bike. Some may presume it is vanity issue: women don’t like being sweaty, getting their clothes dirty or having their hair messed up.

HeraldScotland: Alex Burns. Photo by Kirsty Anderson

(Alex Burns. Photo by Kirsty Anderson)

Yet my experience suggests that practical issues and crucially, concerns over safety, are far more likely to prohibit female cyclists than mere woes over “helmet hair” or a red face.

Particularly on urban roads, cycling often requires a level of aggression and risk-taking that perhaps comes less easily to women, who have been generally found to be more psychologically cautious and risk-averse.

As I wait at my first set of traffic lights to take off, I can feel this “female” caution building inside me; I’m nervous to avoid recklessness but am also conscious of the eyes of motorists drilling into me and urging me to speed up.

As a non-regular at cycling on city centre roads, I will myself not to wobble as the lights turn green and I try to find my feet on the pedals, desperately trying to avoid beeps or other signs of impatience from those behind me.

Surveys have shown female cyclists are more inclined to “hug” the kerb and to pay careful respect to traffic flow, which may prove counter-productive in an environment where many motorists seem intent on intimidating and bullying cyclists.

The consensus seems to be that to fit in on the roads cyclists must be quick, brave and assertive – but the nextbike doesn’t make this easy. As I cycle further I become more accustomed to the vans and buses shooting past me, but the bike soon proves an obstacle in itself as it is heavy and cumbersome.


(Alex Burns. Photo by Kirsty Anderson)

Although nextbike promises the bikes are lighter than before, gaining speed is difficult when the weight of my transportation proves a challenge for my relatively little legs.

Combine this lack of speed with the potentially “female” sense of carefulness and politeness, it is easy to feel unsafe and intimidated. Yet there are other problems.

On my adventure around Glasgow I noticed the scarcity of decent cycle lanes, with some available in the approach to the city but few within the centre itself.

Earlier this year, in Edinburgh, Zhi Min Soh, a medical student at Edinburgh University, was killed by a tour bus after her bicycle wheel reportedly became trapped in a tram track. Campaigners pointed to the lack of a safe space for cyclists as a potential factor in the accident, and called for cycle lines to be introduced in the city centre as a matter of urgency.

Research by Sustrans in 2013 has found “feeling unsafe” was women’s biggest concern about cycling, with 67 per cent arguing that cycle lanes to separate bikes from traffic would be the best way to encourage more women into cycling.

Whenever I found myself in a cycle lane, I felt less pressured and more able to cycle leisurely without needing to assert myself or prove my worth on the roads. Cycle lanes have an undeniably more friendly atmosphere, which seems to attract women on to their bikes.

In New York, the Hudson River cycle path can boast that nearly 50 per cent of its cyclists are female, compared to just 20 per cent of cyclists in the centre of Manhattan. Although positive steps have been taken to aid cyclists in Scotland, it still seems to me local authorities could do more to introduce bike lanes and make cycling accessible for all abilities (and not just the confident).

Yet another, specifically female, danger may also be causing fewer women to take to the roads by cycle. Women are inevitably targets for catcalls from motorists and passers-by. I am far from being the only female cyclist who has had to put up with leering comments about my appearance.


(Alex Burns. Photo by Kirsty Anderson)

For my nextbike experience, I wore a loose-fitting outfit and was able to avoid catcalls, but if I was to cycle as a commuter I would inevitably need to invest in sportswear. This can then become a Catch-22 situation: wear loose clothing and it becomes difficult to cycle; wear Lycra and expose your body to critique and comments.

This, unfortunately, is an issue that women themselves are relatively powerless to change, and one that may be a crucial factor causing the gender disparity in the numbers who take to two wheels.

It is a problem that will instead be solved through education, as we must all take responsibility for teaching those around us to respect one another and move past sexism.

But what of the nextbikes themselves? They are certainly a blessing to tourists or those who don’t have a bike of their own, with a straightforward pick-up and drop-off at any one of 43 stations across the city.

Whether you are renting the bikes via an app or their hire hotline, the process is pretty painless and costs £1 for every 30 minutes.

While on the bike, I found the gears easy to change and the saddle relatively comfortable – until, that is, I hit my first drain cover and became painfully aware of the lack of suspension.

Yet the bike’s biggest shortcoming is its heaviness, which would certainly prevent me from using one as a regular mode of transport. They would work well for sightseeing or day trips, but if I was to take up cycling as a way of commuting I would need to invest in my own bike.

And would I? Although initially not enamoured of city cycling, my confidence steadily grew the more I pedalled the streets of Glasgow.

The problems faced by female cyclists did become apparent and it was clear that without cycle lanes, a level of aggression is required to fit in as a cyclist on city streets. Yet by the end of my outing I was less nervous and so I see no unassailable reason why nextbikes, or city cycling, should be dominated by men.

To get more women on to bikes, it may simply require a societal attitude change as much as anything practical (although more cycle lanes wouldn’t go amiss).

Motorists must respect all cyclists, whether they are aggressive or tame. Those who catcall women must be reprimanded, or at least be made to realise the stupidity and crassness of their actions.

And women themselves must rise above sexism and work up the courage to strap on a helmet, join their male counterparts and begin to change the statistics about cycling.