So at the moment, I’m thinking about these things: the too-often, default, hostile attitude between cyclists and motorists. Adherence to the law. Corruption. Cycling infrastructure. The mode-share of women cyclists. And, how these are all related. This is way to big a topic to do more than briefly introduce a few ideas, so that’s all this is. Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments.
Yesterday morning I was out for a ride with a friend who was just in Melbourne for a few days, and he said that it seemed to him that roughly half of the cyclists there either ignored red lights or treated them like yield signs. This is of course one of the hot-button topics of cycling, and often the first thing that counts as evidence for motorists who would like to see cyclists tucked neatly away in the background. It is also something that divides cyclists quite sharply, where those against such acts feel betrayed or sabotaged by those who assume their identity and represent them to the rest of the world.
This morning I was reading some of Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic, in which he was discussing the interesting fact that institutional and even national corruption levels decreases as the percentage of women involved increases (chapter eight).
I hadn’t ever thought about it before, but the vast majority of people who break some of the, shall we say, soft rules of society, like pedestrians crossing the street against the lights or crossing mid-block, through to more costly grievances like dangerous driving or assault, are men. The data is everywhere and it is sobering to realize (if you are a guy). Just Google anything like “offenses male female” and get ready for some interesting reading.
An interesting topic for debate, but not one I’ll get into here, is the idea that a key component of crime is the concept of masculinity itself…
So men, as Vanderbilt suggests, are more easily corruptible, and as all the evidence in the world shows, far more criminal minded. Therefore, I’m going to suggest that because most of the countries that are struggling to increase their cycling mode-share have a preponderance of male cyclists who are by nature more aggressive and corruptible than female cyclists, there is more hostility engendered in the social fabric of that community, with a more adversarial attitude towards the “out-group” (even though both the “out-group” and “in-group” are extremely fluid categories).
Great cities are often great because they have great, strong leadership, but how often do our political leaders act on rational, altruistic, evidence-based motives that are for the good of the community, even though their constituency might not like it? Let’s just say not all that often.
Maybe that’s one reason why there is so little progress for practical cycling in places like Australia, particularly on a societal level (and, as a result, on a political level). Without strong leadership, we are left to the court of public opinion, and in regards to cycling, it then becomes a bit of a vicious circle.
Like so: The roads are not a welcoming environment for those who are not in cars. This results in low numbers of cyclists, and of those the majority are men. Men are generally more aggressive and corruptible, and so we have a collective understanding here that cyclists are scofflaw, unreasonable, selfish dickheads who don’t deserve to be given space or respect on “our” roads (they don’t even pay “road tax”!!!). This is likely due to the mere fact that cycling is a minority activity and can easily be kept in the corners through sheer numbers, but it is also socially legitimized by “all the men racing around in Lycra and running red lights”. Because there is no cultural acceptance of the legitimacy of cycling, all are then made to wear helmets, and the general theme of Australia’s cycling safety campaigns put the responsibility of personal safety on the cyclists themselves (for example, Be Safe, Be Seen). This makes cycling seem even more dangerous, and women, who are more risk-averse, decide that it’s not worth their time. So, mode-share remains stagnant, infrastructure tends to be poor, most of the cyclists remain men, and the attitude regarding cycling remains poor, and under constant tension.
Round and round we go.
I hate to trot out the “look at The Netherlands” argument, but, look at The Netherlands. Their gender-split for cycling is 56% in favour of women, and in Denmark, it’s 55%. Why? Because women are comfortable with the cycling conditions, both physical and social. What is the percentage of women in Australia? 21%.
Perhaps the “war on our roads” in Australia, for example, is egged on by the preponderance of more aggressive, less risk-averse male cyclists, encouraging the shoving match between those on bikes and those in cars (and I think I am of the opinion that gender roles tend to decrease once a person is locked safely inside their tower of power).
So, it is interesting to consider the circular nature, or at least, the interconnected relationship, between infrastructure, female mode-share of cycling, road safety, attitudes, possibly the gender balance in government, and a society’s relationship with cycling.
Australia is a really blokey kind of place, and our roads, and the make-up and attitude of those on them, reflect this.
What is clear is that we need to see more women on bikes, because that is a clear measure for safer streets, and I dare say that it would also likely improve the image of cycling to the general public who think very little of it. The only problem is that to get more women on bikes, our roads need to be safe enough for those who are more risk averse to consider it a viable mode of transportation.
Is this an inevitable problem that stems from too many dicks on the dance floor? If guys just generally bigger dirt-bags than women, represent cycling in a less than stellar light compared to women, yet this is unlikely to change based on the fact that our roads are below the acceptable standard to attract more women onto it, then what are we to do?
The key in this puzzle is obviously better infrastructure, but that just begs the same million dollar question of how, in places like Australia, are we going to really get behind the complete streets concept in a meaningful way?
More women? I don’t know. I’d just settle for people who have an interest in building communities rather than just moving people through them.
Header image: The Sticky Bidon