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Apr 4, 2011

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Transport planner Rachel Smith writes: Last week my colleague told me that she was selling her bike. She likes the idea of cycling and has no actual hostility towards her bicycle it’s just, as she says “our roads are too dangerous for females”.

So why don’t Australian women cycle? In other cities around the world the bicycle is a central part of life for most women.

It’s not just here. The problem is the same in London too. Transport for London’s latest report Travel in London found that the London cycle hire is primarily used by white men from higher-income households, thus coined by the tabloid press as “Boris’ Posh Boys Toys”.

A while ago I conducted focus groups with women in Brisbane to find out why the bicycle was the “elephant in the room” and what planners really needed to do to make riding acceptable. Unsurprisingly, I was not surprised with the answers I heard at coffee shops, at my yoga class and at work: women didn’t want to ride because of a lack of safe and dedicated cycle infrastructure, traffic fears, personal safety fears and topography. What Australian women wanted was complete separation from parked and moving cars.

In Copenhagen, a city of 560,000 bicycles, 521,000 people and 35,000 cycle parking spaces 85% of residents own a bike, 70% cycle all year around and 60% use their bike every day. A huge 37% of commuter trips are by bike (that’s more than 150,000 people cycling to work every day!) and a quarter of all families with two children own a cargo bike. In Denmark cycling is chic, stylish, and sophisticated but Copenhagenites don’t only cycle because it’s good for their health or their environment, they cycle because it’s the fastest, safest, easiest and most convenient mode of transport, and because their city has a network of dedicated bikeways.

With the help of an AITPM scholarship I visited 21 ‘cycling cities’; the famous ones in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany as well as the lesser known ‘icons’, such as Bogota in Colombia, to discover first-hand what infrastructure had transformed a city into a ‘cycling city’. What I found was that each city had its own unique network of bikeways, but there were common themes including: 4.0 – 5.0 metres of ‘usable’ cycling space, complete separation from motorised traffic, a consistent level of service as well as high quality streetscaping and signage. All of the cycle routes in all of the cities were designed with cycling in mind — they were direct, quick and traffic free. They were lined with cosy cafes, enticing boutiques and townhouses with window boxes and above all they were beautiful.

Back in Australia, it was clear that we had a problem with width and protection. We had cycle lanes but they were skinny, unprotected, on-road cycle lanes, on busy highways, often less than one metre wide. ‘Normal’ people — women, children, seniors, families, tourists — weren’t riding bikes and so in an attempt to ‘get more people cycling more of the time’, we were building more skinny, unprotected, on-road cycle lanes and not surprisingly the vicious cycle of people not riding was continuing.

According to City of Sydney research (quoted at the 2010 Bicycle Victoria conference) 41% of our population are ‘potential’ cyclists; people who want to cycle but are concerned. Research (Munro 2010) suggests that 46% of regular cyclists think Sydney roads are ‘unsafe’ but 84% of non-regular bike riders in Sydney say they would start riding a bike if they could use separated cycleways.

In 2010 I launched my Cycling Super Highways concept; a vision for seven metre wide cycleways that are completely separated from cars, well-lit and —  importantly — designed for everyone.

“Why so wide?” people asked. Cycling Super Highways are seven metres wide (3.6 metres of ‘usable cycling space’ in either direction) to allow two cyclists to cycle side by side — because it’s a sociable mode of travel — whilst providing enough space for a faster moving cyclist to overtake a slower moving cyclist.

They are wide and segregated so that ‘average, normal, everyday people’; women, children, seniors, will be encouraged to cycle not because they are cyclists but because riding a bicycle is a safest, convenient and enjoyable mode of travel. Finally they are wide so that they are safe enough for everyone to use regardless of their age, physical ability and cycling skills, for example young children with stabilisers cycling to school to use and mothers on cargo bikes cycling with their weekly shopping.

I know we can’t just go out digging up roads and knocking down houses to build Cycling Super Highways but we can identify opportunities to reshape our towns and cities. Last week the Adelaide Advertiser announced that Grenfell Street would become a public transport-only zone under a final plan put forward by ‘Thinker in Residence’ Fred Hansen. The street’s footpaths would be widened, allowing for outdoor cafes, and buses would be the only traffic. Rob of the Roy posted “add some bicycle lanes and the project will be a huge hit”. Rob is correct, we need to consider and include all modes, especially cycling, in our city planning.

Grenfell Street offers real possibilities for the city, and the people, of Adelaide to increase mobility, broaden accessibility and really change travel behaviour with the introduction of safe and dedicated cycle infrastructure.

When the Los Angeles Department of Transport said “for the bike to catch on we need a revolution in our bicycle infrastructure” they were right. If we really want cycling to be a central part of our lifestyle, our transport system and our cities we need an ‘infrastructure revolution’ because… that’s what women want.

Rachel Smith is a Principal Transport Planner with AECOM in Brisbane. Rachel’s Cycling Super Highways Toolkit (downloadable here) and study tour received financial support from the 2008 Australian Institute of Traffic Planning and Management Janet Brash Memorial Scholarship.

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30 thoughts on “On her bike: why women won’t ride

  1. abarker

    @lindsayb – No, I don’t. I think Nici’s comment shortly after yours was kind of along the same lines of what I was trying to say. What I was trying to say was that Women don’t tend to have that overburdening need to dominate or be territorial or obstinate as (some) men do, and I think (some, especially the ones I’ve met in my own personal experience) cyclists fit that bill pretty well.

    At the end of the day, I have a right to walk into a biker bar, storm through it to the counter, push between two large men drinking, and order a pink appletini. But I don’t. Common sense dictates against it, in much the same way that it dictates against riding a bike and being oblivious to other, heavier, more powerful vehicles on the road.

    Case in point, in Adelaide a year ago a guy died on Anzac Highway riding a bike. It was sunrise, the sun was pelting into a truck drivers eyes as he turned right across traffic and hit the cyclist travelling the other way. While a tragedy, the cyclist could have been on a purpose built cycle path that runs parallel to the highway, not 500 metres away, and been perfectly safe.

    I had this conversation with a cyclist and he shook his head, enraged. “No. That track is no good for road cyclists man”. Which made me wonder why was it built in the first place? Methinks the posing and the “I’m allowed to be here it’s my right I can do it if I want to and I’ll put myself and others at risk just because I can” attitude wins out. Cycling to get somewhere is fine, but for the racer boi’s – they need to realise, They’re not Lance.

  2. the man on the clapham omnibus

    Options like those in Perth would be ideal, they are created along the passenger railway, freeway and major highway corridors of metropolitan Perth and are called ‘Principal Shared Paths’.


    We should demand that every new trainline / freeway also has this alongside it in a protected area :

    I’ve started riding in the last year as Melbourne’s road and public transport networks are at capacity, its still dangerous and lanes are frequently cut off by cars and too narrow. However the main trails like those to the docklands are fantastic but there are not enough of them.

    Meanwhile, we seem to be captive to road obsessed Transport departments like Vicroads (notice the emphasis) who will happily advocate spending 1.5 billion on adding a lane to a freeway when the same traffic volume is using a bike path.

    “Bicycle Victoria says it recently counted 1772 cars using the new 3.5-metre lane on the Monash to the CBD between the peak hours of 7am and 9am.
    It counted 1239 bikes heading into the CBD on the Main Yarra trail over the same period, with both counts carried out from the MacRobertson Bridge in Burnley”
    from The Age , Feb 28 2011

  3. jimbo89

    @abarker, your attempt to blame the victim of that accident you bring up is pathetic. Regardless of the circumstances, it was still almost entirely the fault of the truck driver. If it were a motorcyclist he hit he would have likely killed them too; would you be blaming the motorcyclist? As for the bicycle pathway, I don’t know about Adelaide but in Brisbane and Sydney (the major Australian cities I have lived in), the paths are generally either poor quality, take a completely circuitous route, so stop/start that you cannot train properly on them, are shared pedestrian paths on which it is completely dangerous to do any sort of speed, or a combination of all four. Your cyclist acquaintance was likely correct in what he said. Much cycling infrastructure is seemingly an attempt on the part of governments to be seen to be doing something,
    when it completely ignores the needs of cyclists.

    That you bought up the ‘but they don’t pay rego!’ chestnut shows your ignorance. Bikes don’t pay rego because they do no damage to the road surface, emit no pollution (the rider’s breath notwithstanding), don’t really contribute to traffic congestion to any meaningful extent, and injure very few people relative to cars/trucks. Besides, if you really wish that all road users should pay their fair share, be careful what you wish for. There are a large number of economic analyses indicating that fuel tax and rego do not cover the total economic cost of car usage, such as Economics at the Wheel: The Costs of Cars and Drivers, by Richard C. Porter, and hence if such taxes did truly reflect the cost of car usage, you would be paying a lot more.

  4. the man on the clapham omnibus

    Some positive stats are that there is definitely a large increase year on year and that it is starting to tell in office buildings with increased demand for bike storage and lockers. Offices with these facilities are getting better rental returns and increased demand.

    “A white paper released by Colliers International and Bicycle Victoria, 10 per cent of vehicles entering the CBD during the morning peak are bicycles, with the total number increasing by 20 per cent each year.”


    If the 10-12 km around the CBD could be made bike friendly this would take a large load off the road and public transport network which appear to be at capacity in our largest cities with no means of fixing the problem in sight.

    Have to think one of the only reasons we may have helmet laws in Australia, is that our facilities are so poor and dangerous for cyclists that we have a much higher incidence of bicycle head and bodily injuries per head of population than the other countries analysed here. We may have used helmet laws as a means to address the symptoms rather than the root causes of these statistics.

  5. rachel smith

    Great to see so many comments!

    Quite a few people have raised the women/gender issue and it’s an interesting one. You are right. It’s not just about women, it’s about everyone. The current situation, across Australia, is that typically 75% of all bicycle trips are made by males and only 1 in every 100 journey to school trips are made by bicycle.

    New cycling infrastructure needs to appeal to ‘new’ cyclists and ‘return to cycling’ cyclists and in particular women, children and seniors, the people who are currently minority user groups.

    Well designed cycleways attract people – everyone – to ride bikes, as proven by the new City of Sydney cycleways. Data I have seen in the media reports a 173% increase in cycling.

    The market for cycling encompasses bike riders of all different ages, physical abilities, cycling experience and road safety awareness. For this reason I am increasingly categorising bike riders into 4 different categories:

    1. Strong and fearless.
    This group are typically highly confident road cyclists who seek out the fastest and most direct route and who will cycle without fear in almost all road traffic environments. Research in Portland (USA) showed that this group accounts for only 1% of the bike riding population (Geller 2010).

    2. Enthused and confident.
    This group are enthused and are encouraged to ride a bike when cycle infrastructure such as dedicated on-road cycle lanes is provided. This group have been the key success story in the UK Cycle Demonstration Towns (pilot projects to demonstrate modal shift when infrastructure and behaviour change initiatives have been established). For example in Exeter in the UK the provision of on-road cycle lanes, off road shared paths and travel programs has encouraged many people to become regular bike riders. As a result 9% of journeys to work and 20% of journeys to high schools are now made by bicycle (Devon County Council 2010).

    3. Interested but concerned.
    For many cities around the world this is the main ‘target’ audience to achieve mode share targets. This group of ‘potential’ cyclists would like to ride bikes for transport, for utility trips and for recreation but want safe, direct, comfortable, attractive and connected cycle infrastructure to enable them to ride bikes on a regular basis.

    4. ‘Non cyclists’.
    There are a number of people in our cities who could not be encouraged to ride a bike despite the provision of infrastructure or initiatives… and that’s ok.

  6. ripley

    SobhanA: There is no need for doorings to happen to cyclists. If your choice is between exposing yourself to a potentially fatal dooring or being assertive and inconveniencing the drivers behind you by cycling well away from the swing of a door, I suggest you choose inconveniencing the drivers behind you. They generally wont understand why you are riding so far into the road and most likely assume you are doing purely to piss them off, but that is a reflection of the average intelligence of an Australian.

    To cycle safely in Australia you need to be very assertive, not easily intimidated, be confident and very aware of your surroundings. Once you have that confidence you need to not hesitate. For whatever reason, women do not generally have the confidence and assertiveness needed on the roads. Many drivers try to intimidate cyclists and I think this often scares women off cycling, which is a shame as cycling in spite of all the intimidation games on the roads is a great way to develop your confidence and assertiveness. I would recommend cyclists use an ipod to “turn off” all the abuse, honking and other intimidation games used by drivers. If you’re going to this you must take your time and become very visually aware of your surroundings.

    Australia is a ultra-conservative country which rarely progresses until 20 years after Europe does it. You can see this in many facets of our society. While we have plenty of road rules which are meant to protect road users, they are rarely enforced (in Melbourne at least) other than in token political publicity campaigns. Drivers are generally the most competitive road users, taking enormous risks to simply gain one car space (which is generally pointless as if they had not taken that risk they would have ended up at the same point or arrived at their destination seconds later). Drivers resent cyclists who can zoom past them in peak hour queues and are fit enough or gutsy enough to ride a bike. Just as some of the anti-bike posters here have shown, they believe cyclists should be intimidated by the traffic on the road because they certainly would be. And when a cyclist does not show this fear, they resent them.

    Just last week I was cut-off by a police car who, eager to reserve her spot in a queue of cars (in peak hour) drove across the bike lane assuming there was no traffic coming because all the cars were banked up. I see police blatantly ignoring traffic infringements by drivers every week. Better cycling infrastructure is certainly a major part of the solution, but the police actually enforce the road rules on a day-to-day basis. The problem is many of the road rules that put cyclists in danger are the ones police consider minor because they “only” endanger cyclists.

    I order for this to happen cyclists need to stop being fooled by the superficial token police blitzes and see these for the political publicity stunt that they are. Then punish the responsible political party with your votes.

  7. Bellistner

    lindsayb @ 6:<blockquoteI am curious to know how high fuel prices will need to go before community pressure forces local planners to move away from the planning model pushed by the oil/car/road lobby groups. Or perhaps I am overestimating the average intelligence, and people will starve or bankrupt themselves rather than give up driving their beloved cars.I think it’s essentially infinite. When petrol prices spiked in 2007/08, people stopped driving weekends. They stil drove to work, the shops, whatever, but the weekend drive to the country or coast became less common.

    Then prices dropped a bit, and it seems that people collectivly went “Wow, fuel is cheap now” even though it was only 20c cheaper than before. And now fuel is higher than it was in 2007/08, but the roads are still clogged both weekday and weekend.

    What’s needed to get a non-private transport revolution is not necessarily a price spike, but a rapid and seemingly unending price escalation. $1.50 this month. $1.60 next. $2 by Christmas. $3 by next autum. That sort of thing. The reality is that prolonged crude prices of $80/bbl tends to kill economies, which is why the developed economies are finding it hard to gain traction now that Crude is over $100/bbl.

    Another problem is medium-distance transport: it takes a long time to build the capacity. Buses have months of lead-time, trains years. Bicycles are cheap and almost ubiquitous, but not suited for >20km daily use (unless it’s an electric bike) on ‘regular’ clothes.

  8. marigee

    My husband and I are keen recreational cyclists. We are also motorists. We know and abide by the rules whichever mode of transport we are using and try to be courteous to fellow road users. If everyone stopped for a second to consider that each and every person on the road is a flesh-and-blood human being instead of letting their ignorant, nasty, vindictive prejudices run free, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The loss of empathy in our selfish society is at the root of so many woes!

    Yes, there are selfish cyclists who run red lights, overtake five-abreast and scare the living daylights out of pedestrians. Yes there are dozy or inexperienced cyclists who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. Yes, there are vicious motorists who deliberately drive as close to you as possible, who scream abuse merely because you are wearing lycra, just as there are stupid motorists who cut you off and pull out in front of you even while they are looking you square in the eye, and selfish motorists who get indignant because they have to touch their brake and golly-gosh, might lose 30 seconds on their journey time!! There are arrogant pedestrians who get pissed off because you ring your bell to let them know you are coming and stomp along in the middle of the ‘shared path’ refusing to budge a centimetre. (Guess what people? That’s so you know we’re there and don’t step into our path and hurt us both, not because we’re arrogant bastards!) And there are foolish pedestrians who have their ear buds in and their music players turned up full bore with absolutely no idea what is going on in the environment around them.

    But you know what? Most people on two wheels, in cars, or on foot, are decent folk, who mostly try to do the right thing but sometimes make a mistake.

    Recently I volunteered to count cyclists for the nationwide ‘Super Tuesday – Getting More People Cycling More Often’ census run by Bicycle Victoria. I live in the City of Stirling in Perth, and as I watched the stream of silver 4×4 vehicles speeding past for two hours, it confirmed my view that while I – a driver of more than 30 year’s experience – feel confident riding our roads, there is NO WAY I would let my children cycle to school.

    The Stirling City Council has recently spent hundreds of thousands of dollar re-doing two roads in my area – Hale Road and Brighton Road in Scarborough/Wembley Downs. In both cases they have laid down MASSIVE pieces of ‘road furniture’ in the middle of the road to make the lanes narrower. They have installed HUGE kerbs. There are NO cycle lanes. The end result: motorists and cyclists are both inconvenienced and cyclists’ lives have been endangered. Traffic flow has been ‘calmed’ – idiots! In other words, cyclists have no choice but to obstruct motor vehicles because there is simply no room for cars to pass safely – it’s a lose-lose situation.

    As for the gender issue, every week I am struck by the lack of female cyclists out there. On my Super Tuesday count, there was not a single female commuting to work. On my training and recreational rides, a few females are vastly outnumbered by males. Both genders come in ALL ages, shapes, sizes and on all kinds of bikes, so it’s simply not true to pigeonhole cyclists as mid-life crisis men. Probably the only demographic missing is teenage girls, but, as the mother of one of those, it’s jolly hard to get them involved in exercise full stop.

    I think the lack of personal safety is probably the biggest hurdle to getting more women out there cycling more often, and I agree that a network of good, wide, safe, cycle paths is a must. It has to happen for the sake of the environment and our health! (Ladies, my hubby lost 10kg by taking up cycling and the weight has STAYED OFF.)

    Some women may be intimidated by the large numbers of male cyclists but don’t be! Men like women! And most of them are friendly and gallant (yep, they’ll change your flat tyre for you 😉 And if a big, fast peloton is bearing down upon you, just keep left and don’t panic! They are yelling to let you know they are there, not to scare or abuse you.

    And finally, a word about lycra. You don’t have to wear lycra to ride a bike. But if you decide to cycle more than 40km, you might well change your mind. Cyclists don’t wear lycra to pose or make some kind of statement (what on earth was that bizarre comment about ludicrous lycra-wearers ‘knitting their own sandwiches’ supposed to mean?) Cyclists wear lycra because it works. It doesn’t rub and chafe, it wicks away moisture (the canvas-shorts-wearing-I’m-so-sweaty-it-looks-like-I’ve-just-urinated-in-my-pants look is truly grotesque in my opinion), it doesn’t flap and get caught on things. It’s bright so people can see us (hopefully). Lycra is a comfort and safety issue first and foremost, then, like typical humans, we move on to fashion!

    Vive la bicycle! Come on girls – get out there – it’s so much fun 🙂

  9. bikecommuter

    I agree with Byron Bache. Men should not be excluded from safety issues. There are a lot of men like me who consider that riding on the edge of roads with trucks and cars passing at speeds 40-80kph faster than I am travelling is a recipe for disaster. I object to the lycra loons on the grounds that their behaviour is often dangerous to other road users and illegal. I wear mountain bike shorts because they look like normal clothes and last a lot longer than street clothes, which are not designed or made for sitting on a bike seat. Up until the 1950s, clothes makers took into account that a lot of people would ride a bike in their clothes.
    I have always used bikes as transport and for some jobs — school and uni holiday jobs in the post-office. In the past five years I have also done some touring.
    I grew up in Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s when most main roads were two lanes with a wide strip of dirt on the left, a lot of suburban streets still had cobblestones (up until the late-1970s) which slowed motor vehicles and drivers gave cyclists a wide 1.8 metre berth by law, plus most of them had grown up riding bikes for transport and respect for cyclists. I rode to school on main roads quite safely from the age of 11. However, it was impossible for me to ride 30km to university on the other side of the city and public transport was a very unco-ordinated bus-train-bus trip of two hours each way. I had to use a car.
    As the roads expanded to four and six lanes and some suburban backroads became arterial roads, bike riders were ignored and a year ago it was still impossible to follow the my route to school safely on a bike.
    The other big factor largely ignored is the money saved. In two years after moving to Perth, I saved a quarter of the deposit of a house by cycling 7km into the city and not paying parking — my shifts did not match public transport. The route was half on low-traffic suburban streets and the rest on a tourist/recreational bike path.
    The house I bought was in an area that took 15 years to get a proper cycleway 8km to work. Cycling was a hazard even in off-peak traffic and my route ended up being very circuitous, slow and used a lot of footpaths. However, shopping was a cinch — 15 minutes there on back streets and a path, straight through the carpark up to the door, lock the bike to a post, do the shopping, load it on to the bike carriers, unlock the bike and home in about 15-20 minutes while some people were still circling the carpark trying to find a space — a neighbour’s record was about 45 minutes with four bored, 7-12 year olds in the car. And, cars had to follow a complicated, circuituous system to get in and out designed to stop peak-hour traffic using it as a “rat run” shortcut — bikes just went through the barriers designed to stop motorcycles.
    The neighbour was laughed at for spending the money to get proper commuter bikes for her and her children to all go shopping. And when 150 metres of path was built alongside an arterial road, she could escort the kids to school and then go 3km to her part-time job accountant job. The money saved on car use paid for all the bikes in about 15 months. However, she reckoned the biggest saving was her sanity from the stress eliminated plus the two hours saved. Another really big bonus was that the children liked riding to places on their flash bikes with gears, mudguards, lights, carriers and proper kickstands. They still use bikes as transport.

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