by Ben Nielsen
Despite an increase in the popularity of cycling, a recent study conducted by the Australian Bicycle Council has found that women account for just 12.4 per cent of overall Australian bicycle trips.
The National Cycling Participation Survey was released as part of the National Cycling Strategy 2011-2016. The initiative, which is a joint venture between various government and private organisations, provides information on cycling behaviours and aims to increase participation in cycling in Australia.
The survey found that 3.6 million people in Australia ride a bicycle for recreation and transport in a typical week. However, women are almost 10 per cent less likely to participate in cycling activities than their male counterparts. Bicycle advocacy groups believe that this disparity is largely due to sexist attitudes towards female cyclists.
“I receive some form of unprovoked harassment or abuse nearly every time I get on the bike,” says Caitlin Turner, 24, of Wollongong. “The abuse is primarily verbal from individuals in cars, and predominantly men, tradies and seniors.”
Ms Turner currently studies Sports Business at the Australian College of Physical Education and coordinates various community cycling skills and maintenance workshops. Despite having been a target of sexist and threatening behaviour, she continues to cycle in both a recreational and utilitarian capacity.
“I receive more physical harassment when riding on my own in quiet areas, because I’m seen as more vulnerable and an easy target,” she says. “It might be being slapped from behind from someone in a moving car, or being followed by motorists.”
Pip Vice, of Bicycle NSW, says that such incidents of abuse are far too common. She has ridden a bicycle for most of her life, and claims that the National Cycling Participation Survey reflects Australia’s gender divide and general stigma towards cyclists.
“It’s definitely become more normalised to see young women on their bikes, but Australia isn’t used to a cycling culture like there is in northern Europe,” Ms Vice says.
In places such as Denmark and Holland, cycling is both common and popular. Mixed-mode commuting (cycling, public transport, and motor vehicle) is encouraged, and most cities have cycle-specific infrastructure. Children begin cycling from an early age and skills relating to traffic rules, behaviour and regulations are integrated into the curriculum.
“I think some education could be put in place, particularly in a city that isn’t really used to cyclists,” says Ms Vice. “What Bicycle NSW does is run a ride, it’s called Gear Up Girland it’s a ride specifically for women of any age. It’s basically to encourage women to ride.”
In 2008, Gear Up Girl held its first event, a mass-participation ride from Cronulla to Olympic Park. The program has since expanded into a network of organisations that provide social, fun and accessible courses and events for women.
“Confidence on the bike is a factor that contributes to many women’s reluctance to ride, and Gear Up Girl provides an environment that is safe and supportive,” says Donna Little, Bicycle NSW Events Coordinator.
Gear Up Girl’s main event is run across various major cities and usually coincides with International Women’s Day. Margie Abbott, Dr Mehreen Faruqi MLC, and City of Sydney Councillor Christine Forster endorsed this year’s main riding event.
Despite the efforts of organisations like Bicycle NSW, female cyclists continue to be the target of unprovoked harassment, even in cities with a more overt cycling culture. Lucy Rash, 24, of North Melbourne, is regularly harassed while riding her bicycle.
“My preference is always to say something to perpetrators, because usually they don’t expect it and stop the abuse,” she says. “But, I am always running through how much stronger the perpetrator might be than me, whether it’s daylight or not, if there are people around to help me if I need it. The risk of physical violence, following verbal violence, is a real fear for women,” Ms Rash says.
“Close to 99 per cent of the abuse I experience is perpetrated by a man or a group of men and is sexual in nature. This is the experience of many women. It’s fuelled by a power imbalance in society that runs much deeper than many realise.”
Ms Caitlin Turner agrees that threatening behaviour towards female cyclists is indicative of a far more unsettling community mentality. While events and organisations are able to conquer issues of cycling safety, logistics and knowledge, Ms Turner says that society’s innate attitude of sexism also needs to be addressed.
“I think these interactions are reflections on how women are perceived and treated not only as cyclists but as a group of people in general. The abuse is of the same nature as when I’m walking down the street or driving a car,” Turner says. “It’s abuse towards women in general, and when coupled with the vulnerability of a bike rider against moving vehicles, this abuse is taken to the next level.”