women cycling to work

A true measure of how a city’s transport networks perform is the number of women walking, cycling and using public transport, Sharon Moller argues.

I’m a transport planner – a woman working in the built environment professions. Part of a minority group. I’ve been trusted to plan investments in big infrastructure like light rail and metro rail systems: integrating rail infrastructure and land use planning in a way that engages communities and stakeholders.

But there is another important part of transport planning and urban design that doesn’t attract the same recognition in Australia: active transport.

I do something considered unusual – I ride a bike. My cycling club in Sydney has a membership of 320 people. Twenty-five per cent are female. Amongst lycra-clad athletes, women are a minority. In the non-recreational world of bike riders, women make up even less of the cohort, usually between 10 per cent and 20 per cent.

Is walking more equal? Until now, I believed that moving around cities was a gender-neutral pursuit. We all need to get around and we have the same travel choices available to us, right? Or perhaps not.

Women and bicycles

Cycling in some parts of Australian cities is experiencing a renaissance – following the lead of cities like London and New York – and growing from strength to strength in European heartlands like Copenhagen. But what kind of cyclist is fuelling growth?

In Sydney, USNW’s Cities Futures Centre partnered with the Bicycle Network to collect data on cyclists using smartphone GPS tracking and rider profiles. Results of their RiderLog analysis were reported in local media showing a dramatic difference between men and women: between 2010 and 2014, of those who rode up to five kilometres, a quarter were women. At 5-10 km, only 15 per cent were women. It turns out my cycling club is doing well with 25 per cent female participation.

Women and walking

The dramatic difference in cycling leads us to consider walking. Researchers at Stanford University studying activity inequality used smartphone data in over 100 countries to compare activity rates in different cities. The paper, published in Nature,in 2017 uncovered a global gender gap: men walk more than women. In Australia, men average 1428 more steps a day than women – a difference of 25.2 per cent. Australia has more in common with Qatar than Sweden when it comes to activity rates and gender inequality.

Is there a problem?

From a built environment practitioner’s perspective, I wondered if this specific gender gap was a big deal. There are plenty of other problems and travel options. Stanford researchers have concluded that North American women make more journeys on public transport than men, partly because they use it to “chain trips”. Chaining means women make trips in addition to their daily commutes: to go to the gym, drop off or pick up children from school or run errands. The same pattern was observed by the European Institute for Gender Equity. Higher public transport use is expected if women cycle or walk less, and remember using public transport almost always involves walking.

These bus or train fares (or alternatively driving a car to all these places) are expensive. They’re an expense walking and cycling could mitigate if it was more accessible. Paying a premium to avoid walking or cycling is a financial burden women can ill-afford, considering the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows on average women in full time employment earn 22.4 per cent less than men.

The added travel cost is a problem, but the health implications are life-limiting. The University of QueenslandAustralian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health reported in 2014 that “lack of exercise is a greater risk for heart disease in women over 30 than smoking, obesity and high blood pressure”. The Heart Foundation agrees: heart disease is the biggest killer of Australian women; it’s three times more likely to kill us than breast cancer.

Why do we accept the problem?

Speculation is rife. Most of the reasons offered are stale. Weary and time worn excuses: “women can’t ride bikes, they don’t own bikes, they don’t want to risk having helmet hair or arrive at their destination sweaty”.

A Transport for London 2014 survey found 79 per cent of women have the ability to ride a bike. The arrival of bike-sharing companies like O-Bike and Mobike has put more than enough ready to ride bikes in Australian cities. We now live in an era where most organisations at least say they don’t have a problem with women arriving at work on bikes, often providing them with female showers, changing rooms and clothes washing services.

A more likely reason why women cycle and walk less relates to perceptions of safety. The theory is women perceive dangers of the urban street environment and traffic as far greater than men. The fact urban environments were historically designed by male-dominated engineering and architecture disciplines in the 20thcentury seems to have had a dramatic impact. An example is the concept of “vehicular cycling”, a common conservative narrative alleging people on bicycles fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles. The idea resonates with traffic engineers and provides another justification for increasing road capacity. It’s not working.

How does the female perception of road danger differ from reality? Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s studyreviewed road vehicle crash statistics between 2001 and 2010. The rates of life-threatening collisions for male cyclists were so much greater than for females they had to use different scales on the charts. Collisions involving male cyclists aged 45-64 were lower than those of younger cyclists, but grew the most over the 10-year period: by 14 per cent annually.

Despite lower participation share in cycling, collisions involving females of the same age on bicycles grew over 10 years, especially between 2003 and 2005. Women of the 25-44 age group saw a slight increase in collision rates.

A growth in female cyclist collisions is apparent in another place where people are cycling in more significant numbers: London. The 2013 Transport for London’s Cycle Census recorded cycling as the second largest road-based mode in central London’s morning peak, behind cars. It comes at a price: between 2009 and 2015, 84 people on bicycles were killed in crashes in Greater London. Of these fatalities, 33 were women representing 39 per cent of the total deaths, despite them being a quarter of cyclists. Eighty-two per cent of these women were killed in collisions with trucks. Less than half the males were killed the same way.

Australian crash statistics showed no gender related trends in walking over the previous decade. So far so good, but if the risk of being killed or injured is no greater, what is preventing women from walking as much as men?

The American lobby group Stop Street Harassment commissioned a survey in 2014 into the prevalence of harassment in the US. It showed 65 per cent of women had experienced street harassment, 57 per cent of it verbal harassment and 41 per cent physically aggressive behaviour. Twenty-five per cent of men had experienced harassment (note: the number was higher for gay and transgendered people who experienced homophobic or transphobic abuse). Thirty-one per cent of female respondents said they avoided going to places alone because of the potential for harassment. Two-thirds of women said the harassment took place in streets. Twenty per cent said it happened while riding trains or buses.

Closer to home a 2015 study by the Australian Institute surveyed people about harassment and showed even higher rates: 79 per cent of female respondents had experienced verbal harassment and up to 42 per cent had experienced some form of physical harassment. Fifty-six per cent of these incidents had happened while the women were alone. Women then change their behaviour – especially at night.

This issue of harassment may not immediately seem relevant to transport planning until it is connected to the problem of suppressed travel demand by women. Walking, or even taking public transport after dark, is simply not worth the risk. Women are foregoing trips: consequently turning down employment or training opportunities, leisure and other discretionary journeys. This in turn affects the economic productivity of cities: businesses are missing out on much needed talent in the workforce, limiting their potential client bases and the chance to cultivate diverse and vibrant industries.

Attitudes play a role in reducing levels of harassment. It is a reinforcing cycle, when left alone the problem will deteriorate. Less active movement reduces the amount of safe public places in our cities and has broader implications for public health. We need to plan and design our public places better.

The final and common cause is road danger. Currently women are dramatically under represented amongst cyclists in particular, and this proportion is very unlikely to change unless radical steps are taken to improve safety for all people in the public domain.

What needs to be done?

We should start to use female participation in active travel as an indicator of overall city health. The federal minister for urban infrastructure and cities could prioritise it in the national cities performance framework.

The immediate benefit of considering female walkers more seriously is inclusive public places. More inclusive planning and design creates better quality spaces for everyone: cities that people want to live in, work in and visit. Considering design quality more closely means we need to invest in high quality places. The Greater Sydney Commission is on board, signalling a desire to consider inclusivity and safety earlier in the planning process.

Sharon Moller, Arup

The actions needed to improve women’s cycling participation are radical, but achievable. The idea of “vehicular cycling” must

go and be replaced by a European approach of segregated and prioritised trunk bicycle infrastructure. Every street needs be considered as part of the walking and cycling network. This necessarily reallocates street space away from private vehicles either by removing on-street parking or traffic lanes. It poses a challenge for road designers to meet the needs of other road users who have a reasonable need for kerbside space, such as: businesses with no off-street loading access, bus and coach operators. But it can and has been done in other parts of the world.

The scale of the challenge might seem daunting: to overturn decades of historic transport and urban development policy with inappropriate standards that have excluded women from entire ways of moving in cities. There’s no reason to give up. Examples of cities that have already delivered that necessary change are well known.

Perhaps more important are the cities trying hard to change now: London, New York, Vancouver, Munich (a private vehicle strong hold). All the cities making changes share strong city leadership, supported by committed integrated transport agencies skilled in engaging and inspiring communities to act. The saying “build it and they will come” is clearly wrong for some contexts, but for active transport infrastructure it turns out to be true.

Trade-offs are a part of city living. If we navigate the opposition from small groups, the potential benefits can be transformative: both at the city scale and for individuals.

Reductions in private vehicle use lead to improvements in air quality and boosted daily activity levels for everyone – regardless of gender and age. The direct and indirect benefits of a strategically planned, segregated cycling network and a better walking offer are clear. Realising these public benefits is increasingly critical for growing Australian cities.

Sharon Moller is a senior transport planner at Arup.

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  1. I believe that infrastructure legitimises cyclists’ presence on the roads and even painted lines help to do this. I’ve been harassed many times on my bike but never when in a cycle lane or path. I think some people find bullying those who seem vulnerable irresistible and that the cure is ongoing public education and the creation of bike paths.

  2. Interesting article. I’m Dutch and have been living in Sydney for 3 years. I cycle to and from work as cycling is how I got around in my home country and I like that it’s environmentally sustainable. Unfortunately I have incidents on almost a daily basis and it makes me less and less comfortable on the bike. The incidents mostly consist of car driving people showing me that they don’t agree with me sharing the road with them. I get yelled at, cursed at, they overtake me with high speed or too close, they cut me off, honk their horns behind me the list goes on. In my 10 km ride only about 750 meters is on a busy shared road (which I can’t avoid) and that’s where it always happens. The absolute low point was a couple of weeks ago when I had my youngest child on the back my bike and someone pretended to drive into us. Since then I very rarely take my kids for a ride.

    I often think about who and what is to blame. Yes, the cycle infrastructure design is poor, which is frustrating to both cyclist and car drivers. To be honest I don’t really have much sympathy for the lack of space argument as a reason for faulty design. It’s about choices and choosing to make cycling part of this city. Amsterdam has way less space and I have always felt safe cycling there.

    I agree a more holistic approach to traffic design is in order. But there is also a big problem in people’s attitudes that needs to be addressed. I should not be surprised if I had an incident free commute to work. I should not feel the need to ride with a go-pro attached to my helmet to get evidence of the abuse and dangerous actions of certain car drivers.

  3. Great article Sharon, may every transport planner and decision maker be required to navigate the places they design on a bike!

    Jennifer, I can recommend a step-through bike – makes it much easier to get around town in heels than walking.

  4. Until high heels go out of fashion, women are always going to walk less than men. Crippling shoes and painful bunions – not a recipe for active transport.

  5. Thanks for this Sharon. It’s a topic close to my heart. We run a social enterprise that recycles bikes to get them back into our community in the Macedon Ranges, Victoria.
    We collaborated with a range of stakeholders to submit a behaviour change program to our council, for all sexes and all generations. Page 13 offers some insights on women riding. We had great input from Bicycle Network too.