Looking at Women on Bicycles
By Carlosfelipe Pardo
Carlosfelipe Pardo is a psychologist and urbanist based in Bogotá, Colombia who has worked on transport policy in developing countries and can write emails while riding a bicycle – despite some close calls. He is the executive director of despacio.org.
In my work on transport policy in cities of the developing world, it is always a struggle to find clear and concise arguments that illustrate a point about, for instance, why one should not build a pedestrian overpass but rather a signalized crossing, or why expanding roads is never a win-win solution. In the topic of cycling-inclusive policies, it is even harder to find useful documents that provide a convincing background to support many decisions, from the overall decision to create a cycling-inclusive policy to very specific ones such as making infrastructure more suitable for women’s travel needs and characteristics.
In looking for such arguments, I read the City Cycling book that John Pucher and Ralph Buehler have edited, and in particular the chapter on “Women and Cycling” by Jan Garrard, Susan Handy and Jennifer Dill. From my perspective as someone who promotes sustainable transport policies and is in constant need of useful information, I found that the book (and the chapter on women and cycling in particular) does a good job of providing a summary of the state of the practice, guiding people through difficult decisions, and just illustrating points. Though some experts in this subfield of transport policy may find that the chapter may not provide all the in-depth knowledge that is out there, I am sure the chapter is useful as an initial source for experts on other topics of urban transport. This brings me to my own take on the topic of women and cycling, which I describe in the following paragraphs.
The topic of women and bicycles has given us a lot to talk about. There are statements ranging from the absolute sexist extreme to more serious ones. More significantly, there have been thorough studies understanding women’s participation in cycling as a transport activity in various settings (such as those summarized by the authors I mentioned above). The important thing, I think, is to find ways to improve women’s conditions for cycling (and for mobility in general) based on all findings, opinions and perceptions.
More importantly, we should stop writing transport policies that are based on studies from tall, enabled, employed men (a point made recently by Maryvonne Plessis-Fraissard during the TRB Developing Countries Committee meeting January 2013).
There is one extreme which I find nice but relatively useless, which is when women’s beauty is used as an instrument to “lure” people into cycling. These visual statements can range from the totally sensual to simply “chic” images of women and bicycles. The outcome of this view is an aesthetic appraisal of women’s bicycle usage. This may be useful as a short-term advocacy effort, but it may present few opportunities for long term strategies to create a more equitable society or a more equitable approach to cycling and gender.
(Before continuing, I must clarify that I do not include in that extreme presentations of cycling as a symbol of liberty and sensuality. But this is too off-topic to address here, and has been beautifully addressed by Kern in his book The Culture of Time and Space, 1880- 1918.)
At the other end of the spectrum, commentators take women’s contexts, interests and physical conditions into account to understand their mobility patterns and needs. This is what I found most useful about the approach of Garrad et al. Practitioners can use such information to change policies, infrastructure, regulation, and in the case of other modes such as public transport, improve fare structures and routes. We have a long way to go in this respect, especially because data isn’t there (e.g. surveys and traffic counts seldom differentiate between genders, even in raw data), transport policies are normally “pendular” (i.e. they give priority to one-origin-one-destination mobility rather than trip chains, which are more common among women) and generally transport is a de-gendered study field to a large extent when it comes to policies and practice.
But research that focuses on women and transport is growing, and I’d like to present my own top list of publications (in no particular order):
- Jan Garrard, Susan Handy, and Jennifer Dill (2012). “Women and Cycling,” in City Cycling, John Pucher and Ralph Buehler (eds). MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. This is the one I’ve described above.
- Mika Kunieda & Aimeé Gauthier (2008). Gender and Urban Transport: Smart and Affordable. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit: Eschborn. Probably because I was involved in its development, I like this publication. It presents the importance of including gender as a cross-cutting topic in urban transport planning and provides examples of how this works (or how its exclusion doesn’t work) in developed and developing countries. It is aimed at developing countries, and it is free!
- Pryianthy Fernando & Gina Porter (eds). (2002) Balancing the load: women, gender, and transport. Zed Books: New York. I’ve always referenced this book as an “older sister” of the Kunieda-Gauthier one I describe above, since it was published before and has the same intention, though it is mainly describing the issue for rural settings
- World Bank Gender and Transport resource guide: This is a general resource guide that is useful to delve into specific topics and provides a large range of links and information that can be useful to anyone.
- GATNET: Gender and transport listserv: This discussion group is composed of many experts in the topic and is generally aimed at developing countries, and has many interesting discussions.
As it may be clear from the above, I am definitely not an expert in the topic, and I know there are many other experts and publications that do great justice to women in transport and cycling. My interest in the topic, other than from the fact that I work in transport policy, stems from the fact that I have always promoted cycling in policy. And in my personal life, I have met many women who know that cycling can be a transport option but have found many more obstacles to using it frequently than men might. The reasons for this are presented most thoroughly by the authors I’ve cited above (and others!), and we must definitely start working to improve conditions. If we do, we’ll probably see what David Byrne, one of the “coolest” advocates of cycling, has predicted: get women on bicycles and men will follow.
Looking at What (Dis)Empowers Women on Bicycles
By Melody Hoffman
Melody Hoffman is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota where she studies the intersection of race, class, and gentrification in community bike advocacy. Only because it is the easiest way to commute, Melody bikes through Minnesota winters.
I first heard about City Cycling, edited by Pucher and Buehler, and its sole chapter on gender, “Women and Cycling” (Garrard, Handy, and Dill, 2012) via this blog post. Critiques of the blog post aside, I approached both the book and the chapter with apprehension. In researching the existing literature for my dissertation, “Our Bikes in the Middle of the Street: Community, Racism, and Gentrification in Bicycle Advocacy,” I have been disappointed by the social science/quantitative-oriented research on women and cycling. Because Garrard, Handy, and Dill’s chapter is largely a review of this literature, I remain apprehensive about the productivity of such research.
This chapter compiles ideas that may be familiar to those who cycle in the United States or study bicycling: women ride their bikes less in the “low-cycling countries” because of our travel patterns, being adverse to risky behavior, and the need to uphold particular social expectations of appearing feminine. The authors begin the chapter by asking, “why do these factors appear to constrain women in low-cycling countries more than women in high-cycling countries?” Although they end with many suggestions to get women cycling in greater numbers, this question is largely left unanswered. The authors are very upfront that, overall, there is a lack of research on women and cycling. And because this chapter is a literature review, the authors are documenting the dearth of research.
Overall, I wish the authors had problematized the research they summarized. For example, we need to talk more about the “psychological, social, and cultural factors” outside of cycling that may make women more averse to cycling (Garrard, Handy, & Dill, 2012, p. 225); we need to talk about why women are “very concerned about being mugged or attacked” while biking (Ibid, p. 222). In the United States, women are held to impossibly high standards concerning beauty, work life, childcare, exercise, and mobility. We must always show up to work looking our best and are not necessarily given time or space to freshen up before our shift starts. We are still the primary caregivers and household workers, despite the increase in mothers working full-time. We need to stay skinny but we cannot build too much muscle. And we need to travel in style; riding down the street with snot dripping down our nose and our mascara bleeding is just not acceptable. It is depressing to hear that women are afraid to bicycle for fear of getting attacked. When 1 in 5 women are victims of sexual assault in the United States, I suppose it should be no surprise. Until we change these standards designed by the smothering patriarchy including the rape culture that continues to grow in this country, then we will keep spinning our wheels wondering where all the women are at.
I am disappointed, too, that the authors did not discuss the fact that research on women and cycling tends to paint women cyclists as homogeneous. Ethnicity, sexuality, class, and ability are all erased in this chapter. Yet we need look no further than the Community Cycling Center’s study “Understanding Barriers to Bicycling” to see that working class people of color face much different barriers than what mainstream research would suggest. We cannot do research on women without discussing specific identity markers that uniquely impact their experiences of bicycling.
Beyond the unquestioned reproduction of women as a homogeneous category, there is an opposition implied between American women and women in other countries. This is consonant with a common assertion–many bicycle scholars like to discuss “high-cycling” countries as the vision to which the United States should aspire. The Netherlands, for example, has women-appropriate bicycles and no helmet laws (Garrard, Handy, & Dill, 2012, p. 228). The assumption is that if we model bicycle advocacy on the Netherlands, then we will see an increase in women cycling. This gets me to my main critique, which is not just about this chapter, but about cycling research in general. The United States is a neoliberal, capitalist, patriarchal, and white supremacist country. This stifles our ability to rebuild our cities so schools are blocks away from grocery stores and our homes. This stifles women seeing their potential beyond being perfect mothers and perfectly feminine beings. This stifles efforts by people of color to participate in city meetings that determine where bicycle infrastructure goes. And this stifles poor people accessing bike maintenance and adequate storage for their bicycle, lest it rusts out in their backyard. We are so far from the ideologies, values, and politics that drive places like the Netherlands that it is not even a fair comparison.
We can keep doing research that argues chain guards and drop crossbars will enable women to ride in everyday clothing. Or we can ask why women need chain guards and drop crossbars and men do not. Women are being held to an unfair standard even in the cycling world and it may be better to educate women about their options beyond the patriarchal confines that argue 1890s-inspired bicycle components will help them. There are bigger institutional and systemic barriers we need to face before we can normalize anything.