Mobility Cycling How to Seal (and Heal) the Gender Cycling Gap

How to Seal (and Heal) the Gender Cycling Gap

Jo Helme
I studied (and cycled) at the Universities of Cambridge, Nottingham and Vienna. My day involves squeezing information out of cycling advocates, experts and policymakers, and then writing all the juicy bits into articles. When the climate crisis gives you lemons, ride bicycles.

The cyclist, geared up and lycra laden, darts through rush hour traffic. Tucks behind trucks and weaves past weary commuters. Races the lights with the ease of the breeze. Pulls straight into the workplace parking lot, helmet in the locker and showers – ready at the desk for 9am. 

Did you picture a man? 

A women’s commute is not as sleek as the streamline cyclist. 

Instead, she’s looking behind her, ushering children through traffic – hoping the beeping horns don’t rattle their stride. In the churn of speeding vehicles and unsteady shopping bags, she scans in search of safe backstreets. Reaching the workplace parking lot, she clampers to fix her hair, shoes and clothes – to erase any evidence of sweat or dishevelment. Finally sat at the desk, she signs relief at the commute’s end.  

Stale Stereotypes 

You’re rolling your eyes as we’re rehashing old stereotypes? Sadly, there is more to it than you might think. 

Research after research shows women are consistently more worried about road safety than males, face greater pressure to be ‘presentable’ at work and are more likely to make detours for groceries or childcare.This drives a persistent ‘Gender Cycling Gap’ in numerous cities, particularly in anglophone countries, where ‘the cyclist’ is more often a man than a woman. 

In order to bridge this gap, addressing these issues needs to be the priority.

#Number 1 Most Effective Actions 

An instant way to begin tackling the gap is by creating protected, continuous cycle tracks. This means building cycle routes separated from road users and pedestrians, which are wide (1.9m at least) and well connected throughout the city. 

Studies in New York City (2015-2019), Philadelphia (2013) and Minneapolis (2013) found this to significantly increase female uptake of cycling – by 276% in some instances. The fact that cities which already have gender parity, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, or growing gender parity, such as Seville, feature comprehensive and segregated cycle routes further testifies to this. 

Cycle tracks, however, may not be a long-term solution. Angela Azzolino, founder of ‘Get Women Cycling’, warns that cycle tracks can end up being less safe than roads, due to the number of users squeezed into a small lane and the lack of maintenance. She further argues that “the more local government separate the modes of transport, it becomes increasingly difficult for the bicycle to be recognised as a true vehicle.” Training drivers to share the road with bicycles is thus equally important increasing safety –something that Angela is teaching in New York City’s driving schools.  

Accompanying Actions

To compliment safe cycling infrastructure, other strategies which encourage female participation can be used to close the gap. Maintenance and training classes led by women for women, high profile female cycling competitions and local female cycling support groups are examples which would encourage women to take to the saddle.

Get Women Cycling founder Angela Azzolino runs bicycle maintenance classes for women. Image credit: Minda Gralnek

An increase in bikes designed for women and female-headed bike repair shops would also re-tilt the gender imbalance. Workplace cycling clubs for women and even conscious use of the term ‘people that cycle’, rather than ‘cyclists’ which emits masculinity, have been advocated by the project PedalLove

#Number 1 Worst Action 

Body shaming should not be used to target women into cycling.  Too many campaigns use ‘weight loss’ as a promotional tool towards female participation. The EU’s ‘PRESTO’ cycling campaign handbook states that the key message for women should be ‘cycling is chic, fun and shapes your body’.

Active Network, a multinational corporation, claims that one of the most motivating ways to get women cycling is reminding them of the weight loss potential and reduced signs of ageing because, as they state, “What woman doesn’t want to preserve her youth?”. Most distressing of all, the EU supported project ‘Beauty and the Bike’ attempted to show teenager girls ‘how they can or could realise cool transport on a bike.’ The resultant product was a 40-minute film, which showed girls how to cycle with high heels on. 

Not only do these campaigns miss the point that women are most concerned with safety, they reinforce the heavy societal pressures placed on the female physique. Weight loss campaigns feed upon the low body self-esteem of a woman, by telling her that she should alter her unattractive body through cycling. Policymakers should not be condemning females to this, particularly young impressionable girls. 

Body shaming should not be used to target women into cycling. Image credit: Pexels / Pawel L

Historically, the bicycle was a symbol of female liberation. The two wheels gave women the freedom to travel without male chaperones, don trousers, attend rallies and escape the confines of domestication. Susan Anthony, a prominent American women’s right advocate, stated in 1896 that the bicycle had ‘done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.’ She said a woman riding a wheel was ‘the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.’ It is particularly disheartening then, that current campaigns use the bike as an instrument to shame women about their bodies – trammelling on the icon of untrammelled womanhood. 

Hence, rather than giving women body shaping tips, concrete action should be taken to address the priorities of women.

How to In a Nutshell.. 

Returning the bicycle to an emblem of female emancipation requires targeting the hinderances to cycling. This means implementing safe cycling measures, through protected cycle lanes and driving awareness. This needs to be followed by projects to promote female cycling, such as cycling social clubs within the workplace. 

Through this, we can best begin to seal (and heal) the gender cycling divide. 

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