Gender and Cycling24 February 2015
In many places around the world, Australia included, the majority of people on bikes are male. Is this a problem? I reckon so. As I’ve outlined a number of times over the course of the year in this column, cycling is great both for people who cycle, and for society as a whole. So if women (and other non-male people) would like to cycle but aren’t able to, they’re missing out on cheaper transport, the freedom that cycling can bring, a range of health benefits and just pure fun. On a broader scale, that’s about half the population who are grossly under-represented in cycling, which is a huge lost opportunity to reduce pollution and congestion, spend less on transport infrastructure, and save on public health costs.
So why is this the case? It’s a complex question with many answers, as each individual’s reasons for cycling or not cycling are different. But there are some broad trends that could be useful in closing this gender gap and making cycling more inclusive. One major factor, and one that I discussed last month, is perceptions of safety. This is something that puts people of all genders off cycling, but particularly affects whether or not women cycle (and potentially people who don’t identify as male or female, but I haven’t seen any research on this topic that goes beyond the gender binary).
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all male cyclists are fearless and all females timid. I interviewed a woman for my Masters thesis on this very topic the other day who was one of the most confident cyclists I’ve ever met. She told me she rode anywhere and everywhere, even on busy highways without bike lanes, with the exception of when she was riding with her less confident male partner! However, research – including my current research on cyclists in Melbourne – seems to suggest that women are, on the whole, more likely to feel unsafe while cycling than men, or at least that it affects whether, where, and how often they cycle to a greater extent.
Research also suggests this trend comes down to gender differences in risk tolerance or aversion, which is socialised and part of ingrained gender roles, rather than being anything innate to being biologically male or female. Men seem to be taught to take risks, while women are taught to stay away from them (and that it is their fault if something bad happens to them). My housemate offers an alternative explanation: “Women are just smarter than men.’
A solution to this issue would be to deal with gender norms, but there are also solutions in how we design the places and routes we travel around. Interestingly, there’s a good correlation between proportion of people cycling and a more even gender split, including in Melbourne, such as in the cycle-friendly inner north. In fact, on Canning Street in (North) Carlton, it’s about 50:50, which is very different to men outnumbering women three to one across the city. This is similar to the case in famously cycle-friendly countries in Europe; 45%, 49% and 55% of all cycle trips are taken by women in Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany respectively. Basically, where cycling conditions are better, there are more women on their bikes, along with other under-represented groups such as children and the elderly.
So what do we need to do to fix this? Well, basically the kinds of things I described in my last column – either creating separation between bikes and cars on busy roads or providing convenient routes through quieter side streets. We also need education around sharing the road and acting respectfully to stop road rage and harassment. I saw these ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ measures working hand in hand when I was in Munich last year. There was a good network of safe bike routes, complemented by promotional campaigns that sold cycling as an everyday activity for a diverse range of people, not just Lycra-clad dudes with rock-hard calves on carbon fibre bikes.
Women and other non-males comprise over half the population. Making cycling more inclusive, whether it’s through improving infrastructure, calling out harassment and other behaviour that excludes, or working on cycling’s image as a male activity is not only the right thing to do, but a smart move towards getting more people cycling.