Hugo moved to Adelaide from the Netherlands, and quickly noticed that there was a huge difference in cycling demographics. Where were all the women riding bikes?
Let’s start with an ordinary picture of a random location in the Netherlands, bicycles everywhere!
The first 30 years of my life I have spent in the Netherlands, where cycling is part of everyday life. You go shopping on the bike, go to friends on the bike, go to work, visit your parents on the bike. You see little kids cycling with training wheels. In primary school you do a cycling exam on the public road. It doesn’t matter whether you are young or old, male or female. Everyone cycles everywhere.
In the Netherlands I never noticed a difference in cycling participation between men and women, didn’t know there was a difference! Apparently almost 60% of the people riding a bike in the Netherlands are female… Quite a contrast to what we see here in Adelaide. Statistics show that only 13% of Australian women ride a bike at least once per week, compared to 22% of the men (Sydney Morning Herald). If you just look at commuting (the most common bicycle use in the Netherlands), the rate of Australian female commuter cycling is less than one third of the male rate. For every 3 men that ride a bike, only 1 woman rides! The good news is that 50% of the women who hadn’t ridden a bike in the past 6 months are keen to start, and 60% of those who already ride are keen to ride more, according to the Women and Cycling Survey 2013 results.
What stops Aussie women from cycling?
So how do we get those 50% of women on the bike? After doing some basic Google research, I keep seeing the same barriers that affect women more than men in deciding whether or not to ride a bike:
- Concerns about traffic and a lack of infrastructure
- Lack of confidence & worry about fitness
- ‘Having to wear cycling specific clothing’
How to overcome these barriers?
Much is said about the lack of cycling infrastructure. In a recent report the UN urges governments to spend 20% of the transport infrastructure budget on cycling and walking infrastructure; South Australia spends an embarrassing 0.5% on cycling… We’ve got a long way to go here… Having said that, the availability of cycling infrastructure is definitely increasing, and if you live anywhere near the Linear Park, the tramline or the parklands for instance, you can commute by bicycle pretty much without sharing your route with cars. Bike SA has maps of the whole metropolitan area with suggested bike routes away from busy car traffic. Cycle Instead provides a very useful online route planner for cyclists. You can set your preferred maximum gradient and whether you prefer dedicated paths or low traffic roads. Really a great tool!
Lack of confidence
How to overcome a lack of confidence? One option is to just try. Ride as often as you can, along a road you’re comfortable with (e.g. bike path along beaches, other dedicated bike paths) and just practice, practice, practice. And please choose a bike with normal pedals, without needing to click your shoes onto the pedals. Consider using a sit-up-straight bike, they are more comfortable and easier to handle than sporty road bikes or mountain bikes.
Confidence will grow with training. Another option is to get some professional riding lessons, like Ride a Bike Right. What also helps is to ask your friends to join you and make it a social event; riding is more fun when sharing. Consider registering for bike events like Gear up Girl or Boucle De Burbs to get to know more like-minded women and build your peer support network. If you’re worried about your fitness, try an electric bike. More on that later.
‘Having to wear cycling specific clothing’
The assumption of having to wear cycling specific clothing is probably connected to the use of the bicycle. If you want to go for a 60-100 km bike ride on your road bike as a part of your exercise regime, you probably are better off wearing aerodynamic, sweat-friendly clothing. But do you really need the lycra for a 5km leisurely ride on your sit-up-straight commuter bike along the river Torrens? The preparation and inconvenience of changing clothes would probably take the pleasure out of the ride and would prevent you from riding in the first place. Consider riding in your normal comfortable clothes at a comfortable pace and see whether it would invite you to ride and stop for a coffee along the path. And consider an electric bike to make your ride even more comfortable. You can arrive sweat-free if you want to, no cycling specific clothing required.
Electric bicycles – or ‘ebikes’ – are bicycles equipped with a small electric motor that provide assistance up to 25km/hr. It’s like riding with a permanent wind in the back. Ebikes come in all sorts and shapes. The comfortable sit-up-straight models like this one are so common in high-cycling countries because they are so convenient: no special clothes or shoes required, the sit-up-straight position is comfortable and makes that you can better oversee the traffic around you, and optional panniers carry your bags and groceries. You don’t have to worry about lack of fitness, as the eBike significantly reduces the effort required. You still need to put in some effort, but the eBike allows you to go much further with the same effort. Suddenly, commuting by bike seems a realistic option! If you’re curious about trying an electric bike, give us a call to try our eBikes in Henley Beach, or at a location you’re comfortable trying an electric bike.
Make cycling safe and convenient and women will ride
I admit, part of the solution lies outside our individual control, but there are things you can do as an individual to make cycling a real option. Forget about dress codes, choose a bike that helps you build confidence and further increase your confidence by practising on safe dedicated bike paths. Consider an electric bike to take away barriers of fitness or distance. And plan your route to suit your needs. 50% of the women who don’t ride bikes are keen to start; I truly hope next surveys indicate the female cycling participation has equalled the male participation levels.