A guest post by Marita Hunt
A handful of recent articles on cycling, gender and the climate demonstrate the value of centralising women when designing cycling infrastructure.
In February, a paper called Pedalling Towards Equity: Exploring Women’s Cycling in a New Zealand City by Marie Russell, Cheryl Davies, Kirsty Wild and Caroline Shaw was published in the Journal of Transport Geography. The study used qualitative research methods to understand women’s experiences of ‘cycling in a New Zealand city’ (the study participants were based in Lower Hutt).
A few weeks later, The Guardian published an article by Kate Jelly that was all over my social media feed, titled Want to make the streets safer for women? Start with cycling.
It was striking how similar the themes are in these two pieces, and fascinating to look at the Aotearoa-specific focus on Māori women’s experiences of cycling in the article by Russell et al. Both pieces begin with a description of just how different the cycling community looks between high-cycling and low-cycling countries. The Guardian article notes that:
Evidence from other countries shows that women are more likely to cycle than men when there is supportive cycling infrastructure in place, such as bike lanes that are well-lit and fully separated from traffic, and safe routes that facilitate diverse journeys (not simply commuting from the outer to inner city). In the Netherlands and Copenhagen for example, 55% of journeys by bike are made by women.
While the piece by Russell et al. leads with this:
In low-cycling countries, cycling tends to be unevenly distributed by gender, with women much less likely to cycle than men (Garrard et al. 2012). In Aotearoa New Zealand, three quarters of regular cyclists are male (Shaw et al., 2020b). […] In high-cycling cities and countries, however, gender variance in cycling is low or non-existent, (Aldred and Dales 2016; Bonham and Wilson 2012) suggesting these issues are context-specific and modifiable.
We know that cycling is a crucially important tool in our fight to reduce emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. But low-cycling countries like New Zealand, the UK and Australia won’t increase numbers of people on bikes until women feel safe and comfortable on the streets.
The instinct can be to invest in increasing women’s confidence on and access to bikes. But the onus shouldn’t be on women to change their behaviour. The problem is the context, not women’s timidity. The Guardian piece reports that –
research has found that female cyclists in the UK are twice as likely as men to have faced “near misses” or harassment by drivers, while a US study found that drivers are 3.8 times more likely to pass female cyclists too closely than male cyclists.
The road is a scarier place for women than for men on bikes, just as it is on foot. As the participants in the New Zealand study reported, many people’s image of the ‘normal’ cyclist is male, able bodied, and Pākehā. The study found that women face a double or even triple burden when compared to this ‘normal’ cyclist. First, there is the safety burden that every cyclist takes on, then the additional burden of being exposed to greater risk due to being female, and the third burden of responsibility towards children or other dependents. Russell et al. note that rates of cycling drop off particularly quickly for mothers with young children – but not for fathers.
So what would make women feel safer on bikes? What does a feminist cycling infrastructure look like? Safe, well-designed cycling infrastructure is an obvious answer. Women feel happier on a bike when they can ride in separated, well-lit cycle lanes. But it’s also about where it is.
Women of all ages are still much more likely than men to be at home during the day, shifting children to and from school, running errands, getting to part-time jobs, visiting others. These are often short trips with multiple stops. Many New Zealand women, particularly in urban areas, could become local cyclists. They would be better served by a low-traffic neighbourhood that’s bike and pedestrian-friendly than by cycling superhighways and commuter bike paths.
I’m reminded of the mamachari bikes ridden by women in Japan: step-through ebikes often with a basket in the front and a couple of extra seats for children on the back. You see hundreds of these navigating quiet, narrow streets in Japanese cities throughout the day.
Māori participants in the study spoke in particular about being able to ride with whānau. For these wāhine, cycling was something they could do for fun, with a group of family and friends, to a destination such as the beach or a park. Cycle infrastructure needs to be designed with groups in mind, and should connect residential areas to local amenity and recreation spaces. Recreational cycling still looks too much like a group of able-bodied men on road bikes – not a whānau group of mixed ages and abilities out for a slow ride together.
The study also revealed the more subtle barriers that put women off cycling. Examples ranged from the practical, such as the expense of gaining access to a bike, lack of suitable bikes for older and less able-bodied women, and the difficulty of riding a bike in a long school uniform skirt; to the social – for some teenaged participants, being seen to ride a bike to school was a source of shame; for working women, they wanted to be able to look put together and in control when they arrived places.
Removal of these barriers relies on the normalisation of cycling, and changes made at a small-scale, granular level to make it easier to get around by bike. As well as safe infrastructure, Aotearoa needs:
- more cheap, sturdy bikes with frames that women feel comfortable on,
- cycling-friendly school uniforms,
- and cycle-friendly schools and workplaces with plenty of storage, showers and changing areas.
All these changes represent a culture shift, to one where cycling is a natural factor in a range of daily decisions.
Finally, research reported on at bicyclenetwork.com.au has shown how switching to a bike for even just one trip a day can make a big dent in an individual’s CO2 emissions. The study, by researchers from Oxford University and Imperial College London, demonstrates the possibly already-obvious fact that mode shift, from motorised to active transport such as walking and cycling, is a key tool in cities’ efforts to reduce their emissions. The authors finished with this –
To improve active travel take-up, cities across the world will need to increase investment in high-quality infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists and incorporate policy and planning concepts that require a fairly radical rethink of our cities.
In the quote at the top of this post, Russell et al note that the fact that more women than men get around by bike in high cycling countries ‘suggests that these issues are context-specific and modifiable.’ Cycling uniquely suits women – if they feel safe doing it. If the needs of women are made central in development of cycling policy and infrastructure, we might find that one of the essential climate change levers, mode shift, is that much more easy to pull.