Cycle campaigners are fond of the maxim: “build it and they will come“, i.e. if you create a safe environment for people to cycle in, then people will, of their own volition, change habits and start cycling.
But is it really that simple? And, a related, intriguing question: would building a safe environment in and of itself rectify the current gender imbalance in cycling? In other words, we talk a lot about how to get more women cycling in the face of male-domination across all types of cycling in the UK. However, does that question miss the broader point that most people, whether women or men, don’t cycle, so is it not more a matter of taking measures that will appeal to all non-bike-riders, whatever their gender? Given the woeful levels of cycling overall, it is relevant to be discussing gender differences at all?
So, earlier this year, curious about this question, I thought I would ask people. I thus posted the question in a local cycling group. Something along the lines of, “Is the way to increase the number of women in cycling simply a matter of improving road safety or are there other issues that also need to be addressed?”. And the answer I got was emphatic: you bet there are a whole range of gender-relevant issues in cycling. I list just a few here by way of example:
- Patronising attitude of some male riders is offputting to a lot of women
- Some men’s insatiable competitiveness and refusal to be beaten by a woman, both on organised rides and generally about town, is offputting to a lot of women
- Incidences of sexual harassment by some male riders are offputting to a lot of women
- Incidences of sexual harassment by random road users are offputting to a lot of women
- Safety fears, both traffic-related and personal – especially after dark – are offputting to a lot of women
- Patronising attitude of people asking dumb questions in Internet forums about whether there are gender issues in cycling….
So that told me. And what it told me was that there is a whole wealth of lived experience that I and other men simply don’t see because it doesn’t affect us directly. I discussed these matters with my other half, who is a fearsome, fierce intersectional feminist, and she agreed to write a guest article for this blog on the subject. And that’s how we came by the rather splendid So why don’t more women cycle? piece, which has been very well received and widely viewed.
The other day, the article was retweeted on Twitter, and I quickly became embroiled in a discussion with a couple of male cycle campaigners I know. They were both, in their different ways, again trying to downplay any effect of gender differences and reiterated the “build it and they will come, infrastructure will conquer all” mantra. And thus we had a situation that is not uncommon not only in cycle campaigning, but much more generally within our society where men are conditioned to be always right: men arguing among themselves about an article written by a woman about women. What is more, as the one defending the article’s conclusions (essentially that infrastructure counts for a lot but is not everything), I got to experience the phenomena of mansplaining and gaslighting for myself. What joy.
So, I thought I’d just put a few thoughts together about the appropriateness or otherwise of speaking for, or indeed arguing with, groups whose experience is not the same as yours. For some my ideas may seem a little crude as I don’t have a background in gender studies or non-discriminatory practice, but I do my best to acknowledge the limits of my own experience and to be open to others’ perceptions of the world and how it treats them.
Indeed, as a straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied, cisgendered man (what Grayson Perry helpfully calls “Default Man“), I think it’s important to acknowledge just how very limited my experience of the world is and can only ever be. I’ve never faced misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableist prejudice, the stigma of extreme poverty or any other form of harmful bigotry. Yes, I have to put up with assorted nonsense in life, like we all do, but mine isn’t compounded by having to deal with daily sexual or racial harassment, or using a wheelchair in a world designed by and for people who like stairs and so on. And that is the definition of privilege: I can choose whether to be concerned by the issues that people who aren’t like me face daily, whether they want to or not. In a nutshell: I can choose how selfish to be. That’s my privilege.
The next point that I think is important is to acknowledge is that discrimination, prejudice and oppression do actually exist. This seems to be a bigger stumbling block than it needs to be. Thing is, some people feel that acknowledging certain types of bigotry implicates them as being involved within that dynamic. So, for instance, acknowledging that racism exists is not to suggest that all white people are racist, but rather that most, if not all, people of colour will have experienced prejudice as a result of their ethnic origin – in many cases to an extent unfathomable to white people. And I’d say a human approach to that is to show empathy and solidarity with that situation: “I acknowledge that this goes on and will be vigilant to do what I can to stand up to it, too. I’ll be an ally, not a bystander” And not: “well, are you sure you aren’t exaggerating?” or similarly flippant dismissals.
In the context we’re talking about (cycling), there seems to be a real reluctance to address the existence, let alone the causes, of sexism. Again, many seem to feel that acknowledging that their favoured hobby/transport mode/sport exhibits a gender bias implies that they themselves are sexist. Some arguments I’ve seen made include (with obvious rebuttals thereafter):
- Man says: “I was on a ride at the weekend and a woman beat me fair and square.” (Suggesting that men will only take a woman seriously if she’s as good or preferably better than him.)
- Woman says: “If you join a group you have to be able to put up with all the banter from the blokes or else you’d never be able to go riding.” (Suggesting it’s an unreasonable expectation to expect to be able to go for a bike ride without having to tolerate sexist chatter.)
- Man says: “I’d be quite happy cycling with a group of black lesbians”. (Misses the point that many black lesbians may not be quite so thrilled about being alone in a group of Default Men.)
- Woman says: “I disapprove of women-only cycle groups because they discriminate against my husband”. (Misses the point that certain women may prefer a safe, female-only space for all the reasons we’ve been discussing.)
Acknowledging that not everyone responds in the same way to forms of discrimination is not proof that those forms of discrimination don’t exist. Anyone whose response to the experiences chronicled e.g. by the Everyday Sexism project is to say, “well, I’m not like that”, as opposed to being moved, appalled, outraged, is, frankly, probably part of the problem.
In campaigning, too, we face similar issues. The cycling campaign I was active in for a number of years only has Default Men in its officer posts. Greater Manchester’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner is a Default Man, as is its Mayor. When writing up the network planning meetings in Bury, Rochdale and Salford, I made sure I also chronicled the level of diversity at each meeting and, guess what: most attendees were again Default Men (with a couple of notable exceptions, such as the incomparable Catriona Swanson in Salford). And this is where we need to be really careful when pressing ahead with, for instance, the Beelines vision: when we say we want a cycling and walking network for all, are we giving all an equal voice or are we Default Men making assumptions about what people who aren’t like us need, as we so often do? Is Chris Boardman’s twelve-year-old (the notional user whose skill level the Beelines network is aimed at) male or female? White or a person of colour? Able-bodied or disabled? Because all of these things matter, and can affect the way systems are implemented. Sustrans recently released a report on “Bike Life – Women: Reducing the gender gap report” which contains a number of interesting insights:
Women and men often have different travel patterns, barriers and needs. Therefore, if a city is serious about addressing inequalities in transport, they will need to take action to understand and address the needs of all genders. In reality however, understanding and designing cities for women, including cycling, is often poorly understood or not fully considered.
So women’s perspectives are often neglected in urban design, a perspective mirrored for instance in a recent Guardian article. The following is also key:
The expanding network of dedicated bike routes and schemes has increased cycling levels in London yet the “build it and they will come” approach ignores the fact that not all individuals start from the same point. Targeted social interventions are an important yet often forgotten part of the package to achieving equity of access to cycling.
So different groups will be differently amenable to the idea of cycling: while for existing commuters like me and my two aforementioned campaigny counterparts a nice new protected cycle lane would be a welcome enhancement to an already habitual activity, for other, underrepresented groups different strategies may be needed to induce a behavioural and cultural shift. Of course, this is all discussed in the So why don’t more women cycle? piece, but perhaps if I repeat it, as a man, it may get taken more seriously?
In sum, “build it and they will come” is a great soundbite, but as ever there is more to it. Exactly who are the “they” who come, and who’s staying away and why? In other words, it’s not for me to presume what might be needed to enable, for instance, more Muslim women to cycle. I can surmise that separation from motor traffic might be a start. As for any additional factors, it’s for us Default Men to listen and take on board what we hear. Better still, get members of these target groups actively involved in the processes right from the outset. The outcomes may be different from our original imaginings, but isn’t that the point? A network for all, and not just one built in our image that we invite others to use. To a lot of Default Men, diversity feels like a loss of privilege because that’s exactly what it is: it means us Default Men not automatically getting our way any more. Yet: do we truly want a cycle network, or for that matter a world, that’s as easy to negotiate for anyone as things have historically been for us? Because, if we do, we need to let go of our presumed superiority and give others’ lived experience at least as much, if not more, weight than our own.
To conclude, the following tweet says it all: