On her bike: why women won’t ride

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.