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Dublin: 15°C Tuesday 16 August 2022

'I refuse not to feel safe': How women feel about cycling in Dublin

When women cyclists were surveyed, here’s what they had to say about travelling by bike.

Janet Horner

THE NUMBER OF people cycling regularly in Ireland has tripled over the past decade – but the benefits are not being enjoyed equally.

According to CSO figures, just over one in four cyclists in Dublin is female. For teenagers, this figure is even lower – close to one in 10 for teenagers. Why are there so few women cycling compared to men? Last year, a group of researchers with the Dublin Cycling Campaign formed Women on Wheels, with the help of the Community Foundation to explore this gendered phenomenon.

Following an initial listening session, we asked a core group of 20 people who identify as women to participate in our research. These women reflect a range of ages, backgrounds and experience in cycling.

Using the Liberty Bell mobile research platform, we mapped women’s journeys around the city by bike. The participants also kept a diary of their daily experience. At the end of the process we conducted reflective in-depth interviews with them to analyse their experience.

The initial data that we have gathered provides valuable insight into women’s experiences cycling and using public space.

Joy of cycling

One of the more striking aspects of the responses we received was the joy of cycling.

I only started in February. I surprised myself how much I loved it… It’s like my favourite thing now.

Women spoke of the benefits to their mental and physical health of cycling daily. Cycling provides a sense of community and the opportunity for interaction with others who use the streets for walking or cycling.

For many, this is the reason that they continue to cycle, in spite of the hazards that they face every day on Dublin’s roads. The depiction of cycling as representative of freedom and independence for women strikes a familiar chord. Susan B Anthony, the 19th century US suffragist famously said of the bicycle:

“I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel… the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.”

Staying safe in public

For the women we spoke to, cycling involved a consistent series of considered decisions to minimise their risk of violence, intimidation and aggressive behaviour from others.

In The Right Amount of Panic – How Women Trade Freedom for Safety the author F Vera Grey describes such consistent decisions to adapt behaviour to minimise risk in public space as “safety work”: “…these limitations become naturalised… leaving us feeling safer but unaware of the costs”.

Women spoke to us about how they wanted to be perceived by others.

I generally wear the helmet for other people. I think other people feel better about a cyclist, less aggressive towards cyclists if you’re wearing a helmet.

Some women spoke about how they would select their route to minimise their risk.

Because I go grocery shopping the road surface is really important – when you’ve got a child or have grocery shopping on a bike… you’re weighed down and those things make a big difference.
It’s slightly longer but I’ll go the canal way cos that means the majority [of the journey] is on a segregated cycle path.
I’ll try and avoid town as much as possible. I’ll try and avoid very major intersections – I cannot deal with them.

Participants also spoke of the pressure to be seen to do the “right” thing even when it wasn’t the safest thing.

It’s junctions where things come to a head. Because they’re [the kids] on the footpath and they’re following the pedestrian lights and I’m on the road because I don’t want to be seen to be on the footpath but when they get the green man, do I let them go ahead or do I?

Dealing with periods and pregnancy was also a consideration for some women.

If I’m around my period I may be grumpier or more tired so that may also affect [my decision to cycle]. When I was starting I think it would get to me more but now I push through.
I didn’t cycle when I was pregnant – I’m a bit clumsy anyway and when you’re pregnant your balance is just a little bit wonky.

Some found the negative perception of cyclists frustrating:

A certain percentage of cyclists break the red lights. You feel a bit tarnished yourself. When other drivers are saying ‘they all drove through the red lights’ – well I don’t. Generally speaking, I don’t.

There was also frustration about women’s relationship with others who share the lane:

People who cycle like that [aggressively] see themselves as a bit different – subject to different rules. Don’t have to wait, to have the same consideration of other people on the road. I’ll zip along, I’ll zip home or I’ll zip into work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman behave like that on a bike. And speaking as a woman, I would not be comfortable doing that kind of thing.

So why does all of this matter?

The insights into the experiences of women cycling in the city are part of an important conversation about how public space can and should work for everyone.

We need to better understand the different ways that people use the city and design a system that works for everyone – not just a default male commuter.

In design terms, this means removing the safety barrier for cycling – building a network of physically segregated cycle lanes and designating quiet ways and lower speed limits around schools, creches and other places that children and parents use intensively.

In policy terms, we also need to consider how to increase access for those on the margins of cycling.

Schemes like the bike-to-work scheme, for example, as a marginal rate tax break primarily advantages high earners, who are disproportionately advantaged men over lower wage employees, students, retired people or those who are working primarily in the home.

Cycling is part of the solution, not the problem, for many of the challenges we collectively face, whether public health, congestion or climate change. If it is to be truly effective our it needs to be made safe and accessible for all – regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or ability.

Women on Wheels research has been conducted by Louise Williams, Janet Horner, Áine Tubridy, Giulia Grigoli and Conor Cahill with the Dublin Cycling Campaign with support from the Community Foundation Ireland. The research was being presented today at Velo-City 2019, which is taking place in Dublin this week.

About the author:

Janet Horner

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