Just give me some space! (Reflections by a lady cyclist in a car city)

I’m writing in italics, because this one is a guest blog post, by Rebecca Short. You may know her from the Today Show who recently had her as a guest, talking about the Bicycle Dating event that she organised as part of the Sydney Rides Festival. I know her best as the organiser of The Dollars and Cents of Building for Bikes at the institute of architects in Sydney last year. A lot of Sydney based firms with green agendas would be more familiar with her communications consultancy. I would like her to be known as the the woman who sparked some sensible discussion, among women, of the environmental barriers to women wishing to use bikes for transport in Australian cities. It is one of the most pressing issues of our day, but as a male I can’t lead the discussion. Over to you Becs:

Rebecca Short:

I don’t really care for cycle culture.  The actual people who ride bikes are great – fit, above-average in the looks department, and they host fun events. I’ll cop to reading cyclechic and this blog, hosting a slightly quirky inner-city bike event last year, and even defending lycra on mainstream morning radio.

But in order to get more women cycling for transport: space trumps culture.

Different estimates say that in Sydney, between 16% to 23% of cyclists are women. Last I checked we were around 50% of the population.

So, hypothetically, what if all the men who commute by cycling today keep doing so, but we could somehow add enough women to make up a true 50/50 split all at one time? If we generously say 20% of cyclists today are female, evening up the numbers would acheive a 60% percent increase in cycling overall. For comparison, The City of Sydney recently declared a 13% increase in people cycling in one year and called it a boom.

Steven tirelessly argues here that the key to getting more women cycling for transport is five–star safety rated infrastructure. So, what is women’s “cycle space” then? What can help get us out there? I suspect it’s going to take more than a pair of reflective leg-warmers, gorgeous though they are. To help discussion along, here’s some examples of what cycle-spaces for ladies can look like. Subtitle: “what I did on my holidays”.

Just a tangent – the wearing of high heels on bikes should be viewed as a correlation to cycle-culture, not a cause of it. I’d suggest women wear lovely shoes on a sit-up bike to get to work in places where they have safe infrastructure, great maternity leave, and a lovely society where their contribution is treated equally to their cycling brothers. But it’s not the shoes that got us those things.

So a segregated cycle space is a women’s space, right? Don’t worry, we are happy to share with the blokes though.

But, just this month in Sydney, one proposed new segment of separated infrastructure along the outside of a major park prompted some pretty disappointing responses online from cyclists. Like this one (paraphrased); “We don’t need a segregated bike lane in that location, because at the route decision point 90% of riders already join the [three lanes] of traffic, and slower riders can take a detour through the park.” At the spot he’s talking about, cars have just exited an 80 km/hr zone. I’d estimate 100% of women riders currently choose the park, but it is not surprising we look like 1-in-10 to this guy. It’s really dark in there at night, so perhaps our hours of riding are a bit restricted, too.

This attitude sounds a bit like an old chestnut of a letter that pops up every few years in university newspapers: “Why is there a women’s room but no men’s room on campus? Isn’t that sexist?” Of course cycle-space readers are far too sophisticated to fall for that one, knowing the answer in a blink: “because the whole campus and a lot of the public domain has been a ‘men’s space’ for a long time”.  Followed by “Let’s have a conversation that is less than 40 years old – how awesome was the latest season of Game of Thrones?”

I do wonder how many of today’s Sydney cyclists think that if a segregated cycle way is a women’s space (read: slow) then building new ones will mean that men, who happen to be the 80% at the moment, won’t be able ride their way (read: fast, and in traffic)? In essence they’ll be forced into the slow lane. And that would somehow be bad. Hopefully, not many. But just in case:

Annabel Crabb definitively describes a true perspective shift, when she says “behind every successful woman is a wife”. Keep reading – it is related to bike infrastructure, honest.

She says you can have all the quotas and positive language you like, but to really get more women into boardrooms and positions of power, men also need ways to become hands-on parents. Essentially, being able to change lanes for a while. Plenty of fathers want this – but until very recently workplace culture has said ‘no’.

Likewise, bike riding men – don’t be scared of the separated cycleway slowing you down. I may only manage 20km/hr to your 30, but I often catch up at the lights. Join me in a new cycleway, you won’t lose too much travel time and you gain so much! Sights and sounds, smiles, nicer odour when you arrive at work, the individuality of street clothes, maybe even being able to stick a child seat on that frame and do the school run. Oh, and a 60% increase in cycling overall. Imagine.

I’d love some hi-viz legwarmers and will keep asking my partner nicely if he can crochet up a pair. In the meantime, I’d just like some space out there.

With many thanks to Steven for making some virtual room for dicsussion!