U.K. Deaths Put Women Off Cycling, Wasting Tour de France Boost

Plans to boost women’s cycling in the U.K. are being hampered by road-safety concerns, squandering the potential benefit from Britain’s two-year stranglehold on the Tour de France, the sport’s elite event.

Chris Boardman, a former Tour de France yellow-jersey holder and adviser to British Cycling, told Bloomberg News the government’s “apathy” and poor understanding about the causes of cycling accidents are no better now than over 16 years ago, posing a direct threat to the governing body’s plan to attract a million more women into the activity by 2020.

British Cycling said in a statement on its website that 900,000 women who’d like to take up cycling are “prevented from doing so because of safety fears.”

The last two Tour de France races have been won by U.K. riders. Bradley Wiggins became the first British winner in 2012 before going on to take an Olympic time-trial gold medal, and fellow Team Sky rider Chris Froome won in 2013.

Top-level success helped to boost overall participation by 137,000 to 2 million between April and October last year, an increase three times greater than for the same period in 2012, according to Sport England, a public body that distributes funding for sports.

British Cycling says 31,500, or 23 percent of the new cyclists were women, lifting female participation to 523,000, a figure that would be higher but for the safety issue.

“Research undertaken in 2012 revealed that around 50 percent of women rated fear of traffic as the key barrier to cycling, versus one third of men,” British Cycling told Bloomberg News via e-mail.

‘Roads Are Too Scary’

Virginija Paulionyte, from south London, bought a foldable bike in September to give herself an alternative to public transport, to avoid busy routes, or to use if it’s late.

“Some roads are too scary, especially if it’s dark,” she said in a telephone interview.

Paulionyte, who moved to the U.K. from Lithuania nine years ago, said she would cycle more if roads were safer. The 30-year-old, who uses public transport for most of her journey to work, said cycling is safer in her home country.

“In Lithuania people ride their bikes on the pavement if the roads are too busy,” she said. “It isn’t actually permitted, but the police don’t care. In London you can’t do that -- you could get a fine. I’m not brave enough to cycle on the busy roads.”

Paulionyte said a female acquaintance died in a cycling accident at a busy south London junction a few years ago.

Parliamentary Inquiry

The U.K. Parliament’s Transport Select Committee is gathering evidence on cycling safety after one female and five male cyclists were killed in London between Nov. 5 and Nov. 18. In total, 14 cyclists died in accidents in the capital last year, nine of which involved heavy goods vehicles according to a British Broadcasting Corp. report. The Department of Transport says cycling deaths across the U.K. rose 10 percent to 118 in

2012. Last year’s figure will be available later in 2014, a government spokesman said.

Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Louise Ellman, who heads the select committee, said progress is being made, and that the findings of the current probe will be published in the first half of this year.

“The committee’s looked at cycling safety before and produced a number of recommendations to improve safety,” Ellman said in a telephone interview. “We’re still hugely concerned about the numbers dying on road.”

Cycling associations and haulage industry representatives have testified at the inquiry, Ellman said, and there will be more hearings with cyclists including Boardman, a former Olympic champion.

Boardman, who won the individual pursuit gold medal at the 1992 summer games in Barcelona, said in a British Cycling statement that lawmakers should be “embarrassed” over their lack of basic knowledge about the issue.

New York Model

Boardman, 45, who held the race leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour de France in three separate spells between 1994 and 1998, told Bloomberg News that the U.K. needs better cycle paths, especially in urban areas with more junctions.

“The government has a difficult choice. There is a finite amount of space so to make better cycle lanes you are going to alienate others,” he said. “It’s a scary change and it could lose votes.”

Boardman said London should learn from New York’s transport authority, which he says maintained the same level of cycling accidents since 2007 even when participation rose 250 percent.

“In New York there was the political will for change. In the U.K. it’s more like positive apathy, Boardman said. “Prime Minister David Cameron says he wants to make Britain a cycling nation, but what good is that if you have no participation target, no strategy and no funding commitment.”