Women and cycling
Much is made of the large disparity between the number of male and female cyclists in some countries - notably the USA, UK and Australia. Numerous differences are cited, from appearances to different patterns of use - most of which don't stand up to scrutiny given the higher rates of female cycling in many northern European countries.
Melissa Lafsky at The Infrastructurist cites some physiological reasons, arguing that commuting by bike is more amenable to the male, testosterone driven mind-set. This is, by no means, a unique observation, but it may be an important one. If female risk aversion is the major reason for lower cycling rates on unsafe streets then we should see some differences in commuting patterns.
Unfortunately, strong data on commuting patterns and demographics is hard to come up with, particularly at the sort of finely grained detail needed for this type of study. A student of mine looked into this earlier in the year and observed almost double the percentage of female cyclists on roads with bike lanes (45%) versus roads without (25%). Unfortunately the study was also small, short and biased towards routes that we already know from the census had high numbers of female cyclists - which may or may not be a cycling lane thing.
Still, this was valuable confirmation of the idea expressed above. The more recent availability of CData for the 2006 census allows me to test another hypothesis: if female cyclists are more risk averse, then the percentage of cyclists that are female should correlate strongly with the percentage of cycling commuters.
Using data from every Statistical Local Area in Australia, we can see graph these two data sets to see what occurs. CData's tendency to randomise small numbers makes this graph a little problematic. Quite a few SLAs have fewer than 10 female cyclists, and I excised SLAs with either no female cyclists or less than 20 cyclists over-all.
The correlation is not linear, so the graph has a logarithmic scale on the y-axis. The correlation is strong, however. Essentially, for every doubling of the percentage of cyclists commuting, you get a 10% increase in female participation rate. The vast bulk of SLAs have very low female participation rates (5-20%). But there are a number of area (notably in Melbourne's inner north) with both high number of cyclists and close to parity in terms of female participation rates.
I agree, therefore with the conclusion made by Melissa:
"All of which leads to our point (we're getting there, we promise): Letís stop talking about the "women on bikes" issue as a psycho-socio-gender phenomenon, and start talking about it as a policy call to action. If we reprioritized public and private initiatives to push biking, by creating more safety features like mandatory bike lanes, bike checkpoints and safety checks, as well as more incentivizing programs from employers ("bike to work" payment vouchers, etc.), we might see a real and meaningful change in the number of women - and men, for that matter - who chose to bike."
With one caveat. Because women are less likely to cycle when conditions are not favourable they are a better barometer than men if you want to find out why 90+% of the population do not cycle. While there are no shortage of commuting cyclists who have grievances - albeit often important ones - with the policy focus on bicycle facilities, their confidence in traffic and tendency not to expect the same of others is less useful if your aim is to promote and expand the base of cyclists. The non-cycling commuter, particularly the female non-cycling commuter needs to be heard.
Which brings me to my final point. While it was good to see a cycling strategy released earlier this year that actively promoted the idea of cycling as a "serious transport mode", the actual actions proposed, beyond the basic infrastructure already mooted, were thin on the ground. One of the things Copenhagen does very well - largely ignored by politicians who'd rather take pictures of bike lanes on overseas junkets than read a strategy document - is set a series of benchmarks for cycling safety and perceptions of cycling safety in the broader community (that is, outside the existing cycling community as well). We need, in Victoria, proper annual surveys, not of cyclists, but of non-cyclists, particularly women, with regard to their reasons for not cycling, with the aim, through the existing programs, of attacking those reasons. Without that, we are, unfortunately, still aiming in the dark, sometimes at real targets, and sometimes, not.
31st December, 2009 21:54:53
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Monday Melbourne: CLXXXI, December 2009
Over-built and under-sized: the rectangular stadium. Taken July 2009
29th December, 2009 21:31:10
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