Fiona Forster had never felt comfortable driving on the busy roads near her home in St Albans, but when the cars disappeared during lockdown last year it opened up a whole new world.
“I would never have gone out in the traffic levels like they are now. I was too worried that I’d get knocked off by a car or someone would drive past me too quickly, I just never had the confidence,” said the 40-year-old who is self-employed. “But I never saw a car probably for most of April.”
She started cycling longer distances, taken part in a 100km sportive, and over a year later she continues to cycle twice a week, despite traffic levels going back up. “I don’t feel vulnerable now on the road where as I would have before,” she said. “And without the lockdown, I don’t think I would ever have done it.”
New data shows Forster is one of many women to have got on to a bike saddle during lockdown. The number of cycling trips made by women in England rose by more than 50% in 2020, with quieter roads helping to open up cycling to a demographic known to be more wary of the dangers of the road. Women’s cycling increased from a quarter of all trips in 2019, to just under a third in 2020.
“I wasn’t a cyclist at all, but it was made so much easier because there weren’t cars all over the place. I think I can only cope with them now because they’ve come back gradually and I started without them,” said Louise Watson, a 54-year-old teacher in Leeds. She started cycling just after the first lockdown began, setting out to ride five miles and ending up doing 20. Over the summer she completed a 100 mile cycle.
But now that traffic has resumed in full force, Watson – like many – has found it difficult to keep up her new passion as much as she would like. “I’d love to go out and cycle straight after work but it’s just so busy and I don’t want to put myself in that position because there are just too many cars.”
Lizzie Harris, a 38-year-old doctor in Newcastle upon Tyne, started cycling to work during lockdown in order to avoid public transport. She said the quiet roads and extra cycle paths which were installed transformed her experience: “I felt much safer and I noticed that the chronic cough I had disappeared when the traffic disappeared.”
While she feels the situation has improved, she would welcome stronger cycling infrastructure now that the roads are busy again – she was knocked off her bike by a car earlier this year.
“If people feel the conditions are safe enough – as many felt they were during lockdown – we will see more cycling and not just the same largely male demographic,” said Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK’s head of campaigns. “It shouldn’t take a pandemic to produce an increase in cycling, but it’s an opportunity to build on the government would be mad to ignore.”
It wasn’t just city cyclists who found lockdown liberating. Tracy Park, 55, lives in the Lake District where many cycle routes would usually be clogged with tourists. “Cycling in the Lake District pre-Covid, in the summer months you wouldn’t go out over the mountain passes because there would be millions of tourists there, driving really badly and stopping and parking in the wrong places.
She started going out on bike rides three to four times a week and says the experience meant she finally ‘got’ cycling. “I finally worked out what all those folk in Lycra were on about and I haven’t looked back.” Earlier this month she took two weeks off work to cycle from Lands End to John o’Groats.
She still cycles regularly but has had to find alternative routes now that the crowds are back. “They’ve all arrived back in their hordes, and I totally get that because people can’t go abroad. So I’m afraid they’ve reclaimed it again so we have to go and find the quiet roads they aren’t on,” she said. “But I feel like cycling has opened up a whole new world for me in a really positive way.”