Gender, Bike Lanes, and Questioning the Binary
on May 31, 2023
Cara Eckholm’s article boldly claims that cycling infrastructure is failing American women - and makes a strong initial argument contrasting American cycling infrastructure and demographics to those of Copenhagen, where she formerly lived and biked. Eckholm highlights the prevalence of women regularly biking in Copenhagen versus in New York City, where male commuters outnumber women 3 to 1. She goes on to assert that women are “indicator species,” meaning that when more women bike, other marginalized groups feel safer as well, and the lack of women on the road suggests an unsafe, risky environment.
Eckholm makes excellent points - it’s important to consider how our systems of transportation affect those who may be the least confident or the least comfortable using them, and it’s fair to say the term “women” is low hanging fruit in this department. However, I fear that its argument, structured around binary divisions, risks perpetuating common stereotypes and misconceptions made on gender lines. Women, like people of color and other marginalized groups, statistically face a greater risk of harassment and therefore often think more critically about personal safety when making decisions about where to go and how to get there. As a woman myself, I often perform quick mental math about my physical safety when deciding where to go and how to get there, especially after dark - an internal equation that most people who aren’t cisgendered, straight white males are probably familiar with. However, focusing an argument on women alone supports a gender binary that is ultimately more harmful than helpful: it potentially suggests that all women are less assertive and more fearful than male counterparts, perhaps inviting some readers to automatically state that “less women than men bicycle because they are more cautious and more inconvenienced by infrastructure, and also because they are weaker and less brave than men.” Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge the other groups of people left out by an urban design catering to white men: queer folks, people of color, people with disabilities - truly anyone who is slightly challenged or inconvenienced by the status quo.
Later in the article, Eckholm makes a pitch for e-bikes, which is also centered on gender norms, arguing that e-bikes make cycling more accessible and practical for women who need to look good at work and ferry children to school and other activities. I agree that e-bikes have the potential to open the door to bicycle commuting for many people, but what about considering them as a gateway based on employment type or length of commute instead of gender? An e-bike can get you to the office with well-coiffed hair and no sweat stains in your armpits, but it can also get you home after a long, tiring day working a physically demanding job outdoors. Regardless of occupation, e-bikes can also facilitate non-car commuting in a rural state like Vermont, where many people commute up to an hour one way with little to no rural transit options.
However, e-bikes can’t replace good infrastructure. If you’re afraid of being hit by a car, an e-bike won’t keep you any safer - but cycling infrastructure that is safe, inclusive, and widely used by folks of all identities and abilities will. I would argue that our current bike infrastructure isn’t just failing women, it’s failing everyone, regardless of gender. I, as a woman, am equally if not more capable of operating a bicycle in a car centric world than some men, turning the gender argument on its head. And doesn’t bringing gender into the equation simply encourage the perpetuation of stereotypes and assumptions based on the social construct of gender, which is a limiting and problematic construct in and of itself?
Of course, I have my own forms of privilege as a female commuter: I’m able bodied, I don’t have children to pick up or drop off at school, and I don’t work in an office, so my physical appearance isn’t something I need to particularly worry about. Sadly, Eckholm’s gendered argument is valid for many women and female bodied folks who do have to take children to and from school and perform the brunt of household errands (hence Eckholm’s reference to the City of Portland’s “Shopping by Bike” workshop). Statistically speaking, women are more likely to be the caregivers in a family unit, and even in families where both parents are working, in male/female partnerships the woman is usually still managing the majority of household chores. Not only does this make bicycle commuting more challenging and potentially more tiring, it also takes up women’s time from other things, including but not limited to advocating for better bicycle infrastructure, attending public meetings, and engaging in their communities and families beyond a caregiver or breadwinner role. People can’t advocate for themselves or build systems that work for them if they don’t have time to engage in the processes to do so - processes that often operate within systems specifically designed to shut them out.
Eckholm is correct that it is harder to be assertive and take up space as a non-male, which is why affinity groups like the Queen City Bicycle Club and Pride Rides VT are so important. She is also correct in her analysis that as more historically marginalized groups take up space in the bike lanes, our infrastructure will finally be shifting towards a more equitable transportation system. However, Eckholm’s suggestion that everyone in a female body needs to arrive to work clean, has to pick up children and groceries, and is less comfortable than men on American roads is a sweeping generalization that only serves to perpetuate the bonds of socialized femininity. Cycling infrastructure does need to be better for women - but more importantly, it needs to be better for everyone - and perhaps it’s time to begin moving away from binary analyses.
- Eckholm, Cara. “US Cities Are Failing Their Female Cyclists.” Bloomberg. May 25, 2023. Hyperlink. May 31, 2023.