12 April 2014

Cycling and the Gender Dilemma

First bike.
I'm the worst possible person to speak about 'getting people cycling' and especially 'getting women cycling'. It's just always been something I've done, and I didn't ever question that until I moved to Edinburgh.  I learned to ride a proper bike a bit later than my friends -- I had a big old trike and was small, so it fit me for a long time. Wish I had a picture of the trike - I loved it, even though my friends teased me about still riding a trike when they were on bikes, and I couldn't keep up with them.  Then my parents gave me a second-hand bike - blue with white tires, that I loved (even though my friends still teased me because it was one a big girl up the street had grown out of...aren't kids great).   I have two abiding memories of that bike - my big brother taking me to the petrol station to put air in the tyres, and the tyre exploding as we rode off.  And riding with my Dad to a nearby park and falling in the big mud puddle under the swing, so that I had to ride home soaking wet and dripping.

My $99 Canadian Tire Special. Still going strong.
I must have ridden other bikes in between, but the next bike I remember was a 10 speed from Canadian Tire for $99.  It was the cheapest bike they sold - I remember poring over the newspaper advert insert. But it was my OWN, NEW bike. Bought with my own money, that I had earned. And - 30 years later - it's still running fine, with all the original components.

I don't recall ever cycling to school.  We lived up hill from my primary school and downhill from my junior and senior highs.  But when I started kayaking seriously and had to get to the other end of town every morning at 6 and every night at 6, it was clear I'd have to get there on my own.  So I cycled.  And then I would sometimes ride to Uni too, even though it was walking distance. I don't recall ever receiving any training in riding on the road. Or anyone worrying about it being dangerous.

 And when I moved to Oxford, pretty much the first thing my new friend and I did was go out and buy bikes - matching white ones with flowers and baskets.  And with a great group of friends we explored all sorts of places around Oxfordshire on our bikes. And I cycled in Harare - the wide roads were lovely.  Until we got to Edinburgh, cycling had just seemed the obvious solution -- it wasn't a 'thing' for me, I didn't race. I didn't know how to do any maintenance.  I wasn't 'into' bikes. I just found them convenient.

Edinburgh changed that. Living just off Leith Walk kept me off my bike for 5 years.  No way I was cycling up and across the bridges to get to work ever day. And I didn't know about any of the off-road paths that would have allowed us to get out to East Lothian or to Cramond.   All those years we took the bus, or walked.   But then we had a baby and just didn't have the time to get her to nursery and get to work, so we moved house and bought bikes.  It was an entirely pragmatic response, and I didn't regret doing it, but when I saw http://citycyclingedinburgh.info/bbpress/  mentioned in the Evening News, I checked it out, and found a wealth of people and information that helped me cope with the hostile roads that was encountering on a daily basis.  Even though I considered myself an experienced cyclist, I found I needed their camaraderie and advice to cope.  They also opened my eyes to issues like road design and the finer details of the Highway Code (especially as it pertains to pedestrians).  So, when POP came along, it made sense to join in, and try to help improve conditions for others.

So, unlike others, who have rather wonderfully described POP as an epiphany my attitude to bikes has always been rather hum-drum - it gets me where I need to go and under my own steam. That's why I particularly love the first 5 points on the Guardian bike blog.  But it also makes me feel rather useless when asked about 'getting people [ie women] cycling'. Yes, having had all those blue bikes, and equally boring blue raincoats, I love the fact that you can get girly accessories - baskets, pink gloves, flowery helmets. But ultimately, it's about freedom, and efficiency, and health (mental and physical). And those shouldn't be gendered.

Decent infrastructure and safer streets are needed so that women who want to cycle can feel just as independent, save just as much time and money, and be just as healthy as all the lyrca-louts and businessmen commuters.

So rather than 'encouraging women to cycle' my goal is to make cycling something that isn't gendered, and then we won't need to organise special events. It's not women we need to change, it's the environment.

Me and my girl on our tandem.


Sara said...

I never thought about how poor the infrastructure was until I needed to start riding with my son.

I didn't start riding seriously until I'd passed my driving test and was a fairly experienced driver, so navigating the roads by bike wasn't really too much of a stretch.

I admit that when my son was a baby/toddler I didn't ride with him. But I continued riding when I was by myself - to work etc.

Then a couple of years ago I went car free, my son was 8 and suddenly he needed to ride on the roads, the rules of which are too complex for a primary school child to comprehend.

Planning a route with a child can take a long time. Even using the "quietest route" option on the bike hub planner can put you on some pretty unpleasant routes. So I often end up planning routes using google street view, its time consuming and takes the spontaneity out of using a bike for transport.
Of course, if we had dutch style infrastructure, this wouldn't be necessary. We'd be able to get on a bike and go - anywhere, anytime.
And its not just about infrastructure, its about culture. Even on quiet backstreets my son and i find ourselves subject to unnecessary close passes, getting cut up, left hooked etc I think the majority of drivers have absolutely no idea how to drive safely round cyclists and have a mentality where getting ahead as quickly as possible is all that counts.

Sara Dorman said...

Hi Sara - you're so right. we don't let is stop us, but i understand why others do. Wrote another blogpost tonight, inspired by your comment here :)