New research finds women face unique barriers to cycling participation

Photo by Jack Alexander on Unsplash

On Thursday, the City of Sydney released findings from a study on the experiences of women who walk and cycle as part of their regular travel throughout Sydney. The study included a survey of almost 900 participants and 18 ‘go-along’ interviews. Its aim was to develop a broader understanding of the barriers to active transport for women and to better understand their unique needs from a transport planning perspective.

The study found that only a small percentage of respondents only walked (8%) or only used bicycles (10%) as modes of transport, with 16 per cent saying they only used a car and 36 per cent saying they used a combination of 2 or more modes, possibly including active transport.

The most common reasons women said they chose to ride a bicycle as a primary mode of transport was because it was good for their health and fitness (91%), they enjoyed it (87%), it was free (82%) and it was good for the environment (82%). The majority of participants said the routes they took by bicycle were influenced by whether or not there was a separated cycleway (64%), bike lanes (62%), and whether the route was safe (53%), quiet (57%) and off a main road (57%).

Among those who didn’t ride, the most common barriers to cycling participation were that roads in the area were not safe (39%), had no bike lanes (30%), and a lack of confidence while cycling (27%). In contrast, for walkers the biggest barrier was distance (66%).

However, the study also found that women experienced unique social pressures, ones that suggest the answer to increasing participation may not simply be to build more bikeways and lanes.

For those who said they had to make stops along their journey, 67 per cent said they had primary carer responsibilities such as dropping-off or picking-up children, grocery shopping, errands and caring for parents and grandparents. Survey and interview data also suggested women felt pressure to appear a certain way, and were concerned about riding in formal cloths, ‘helmet hair’, sweat and the lack of a shower or changing rooms at their destination. A number of participants also said they felt vulnerable in public places and were concerned about their personal safety due to poor lighting along their route.

Reflecting this, women also nominated having too much to carry (22%), not wanting to appear sweaty (22%), personal safety (16%), being unable to ride with their children (13%) and lack of street lighting (8%) as significant reasons they didn’t cycle more.

These findings are a reminder that barriers to gender equality in Australia are also barriers to cycling participation.

Household, income and labour research in Australia continues to show that women with dependent children are disproportionately responsible for housework and caring for children, including running errands that may require the use of transport. In 2016-2017 the ABS reported that among private-sector employees 95 per cent of primary parental leave was taken by women. Even in married partnerships without dependent children, women do over 9 hours more housework per week than men.

Photo by Shaun Low on Unsplash

Research by the Australian Human Rights Commission has found that almost 40 per cent of Australian women experience workplace sexual harassment, with almost 20 per cent saying they have been subjected to intrusive questions or comments about their private life and physical appearance in their workplace. These rates are substantially higher than those reported by men.

Women are more likely to face sexual harassment, cat-calling and other forms of street harassment in public places, with one study finding that one in three women between 18 and 25 had been routinely harassed while in public more than once a month.  

Additionally, a number of studies have shown that women face disproportionate incidences of sexual harassment and assault on public transport in Australia, with 45 per cent of female students stating they rarely or never feel safe on public transport, and the majority indicating they take steps to avoid risk of victimisation.

In February of this year, the ABC reported that a man had pulled a 35-year-old woman off her bike while she was cycling near Rapid Creek in Darwin. The man sexually assaulted her at knifepoint before the attack was interrupted by a passer-by.

Police told the press the incident was a “reminder” that individuals in the community needed to be “vigilant of their personal safety” and “maintain an ability to see and hear what is going on around them.” In actuality, this kind of victim blaming is more a reminder of the political and social hurdles women continue to face in convincing others they have the right to not be assaulted in public, regardless of the circumstances.

Researchers and urban planners must consider how the design of public spaces can either challenge or reinforce social inequalities.

The report’s authors recommend that people consider “active transport not only as footpaths, shared paths, bike lanes and separated cycleways, but also as a network of active, well-used and welcoming places” that create a “greater sense of safety”. They emphasise that the design of active transit spaces cannot be a “one-size-fits-all” approach, and that it must consider the gendered nature of barriers preventing women from taking up walking and cycling.

Active transport can be made safer and more accessible to women by providing better end-of-trip facilities, subsidies for electric and cargo bikes, separated and well-lit cycleways with opportunities for passive surveillance, connections to busy hubs and public transport, funding for women-led community based cycling groups, as well as community-led and community-based public safety and advocacy.

Critically, women need to be involved in the planning process and have the ability to provide input and make decisions in more than simply advisory positions.

If we make active transport convenient, safer and inclusive for women, we make it better for everyone. However, it is impossible to achieve this by simply designing active transport infrastructure ‘with women in mind’. It must be designed for women, by women, and to directly address the unique barriers that women face.

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