Bikes as transport: getting Australian women along for the ride

European women love to get on their bikes. kamshots/Flickr

Cycling for transport in Australia is characterised by several “missing” population groups: women, children, adolescents and older adults.

Women comprise about one-fifth of commuter cyclists in Australia. In countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Japan, more women than men travel by bike.

There has been considerable speculation about why cycling for transport in Australia is less socially inclusive than in a number of other industrialised countries. For women, explanations have centred on time constraints, household responsibilities, and concerns about traffic hazards and personal safety.

While all these factors undoubtedly play a role, a recent analysis of international comparative data adds another perspective. It has found that women ride bikes for transport when the environment is friendly to cycling.

Make cycling safe, convenient and fast, and women will do it

Whether you look at national, city or local government area data, when bike riding makes up a bigger proportion of trips, the proportion of women cycling also increases.

City level data is shown in the graph below. It shows that the measures that make cycling generally appealing are those that are particularly important for women: safety, convenience and fast travel time for the short to medium-distance trips that characterise urban living.

Bicycle mode share of trips and percentage of female cyclists, large cities.

Traffic safety, in particular, is a key factor for addressing gender equity in cycling.
Concerns about safety are a major barrier to cycling in Australia, and a greater barrier for women than men.

While actual injury risk is important from a road safety perspective, subjective risk perceptions appear to be more important in shaping cycling behaviour, particularly for women.

Cycling injury data in Australia and the UK indicate that women are actually at lower risk of a traffic-related cycling injury than men, particularly for the more severe injuries. However, consistent with gender differences in risk aversion in general, women are both more concerned about safety and more affected by safety concerns.

Relative to men, women prefer to use cycling routes where they can get further away from motor vehicle traffic. They are also more likely to go out of their way to use a safer route, and to cycle more cautiously in traffic.

In Australia, road safety is about cars

While Australia is among the world leaders in road traffic safety in general, the focus has been on protecting motor vehicle occupants. Cycling safety has been relatively neglected.

Serious injury rates for cyclists in Australia are increasing. They are several times higher than fatality and injury rates in the high-cycling industrialised countries of Europe and Asia.

In Australia, efforts to increase cycling and improve the safety of cyclists have focussed on separating cyclists from motorists. Investment in cycling infrastructure has been ad hoc and inadequate.

Older women have gone missing in the Australian cycling population. marcusuke/Flickr

Effective cycling safety measures that potentially affect motor vehicle flow are avoided. There has also been a misplaced reliance on the “safety in numbers” concept whereby cycling supposedly becomes safer as more people cycle, due to factors such as higher visibility.

Countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Japan take a different approach. If you’re making a short to medium trip in an urban area, they encourage you to ride a bike.

These countries have consistently implemented a range of transport, traffic safety and urban planning measures that systematically prioritise cycling over car travel for these trips.

Measures include establishing an extensive network of high quality bicycle routes that provide:

  • good separation from motor vehicle traffic where appropriate

  • good management of interactions between bicycles and cars where complete separation is not feasible.

How do “high-cycling” countries do it?

There are many policies aimed at improving the ways cyclists and drivers interact.

Intersection treatments can provide safe flow for both bicycles and cars. Extensive traffic-calmed urban areas with speed limits of 30 km/h or less make cycling more appealing.

Road safety measures consistently make the safety of cyclists more important than keeping motor vehicles moving. For example, car drivers have the legal responsibility to avoid collisions with cyclists and pedestrians. The principle is that the responsibility for injury prevention lies with the operator of the vehicle that can cause most harm.

Bikes need to take their place as another form of transport. Mikael Colville-Andersen

Because of these measures, cycling environments are both safe and pleasant. Cyclists rarely experience the hazardous and unpleasant interactions with motorists that characterise cycling in countries such as Australia and the USA.

It is important to recognise that these high-cycling countries are not “anti-car”; rather, they provide a more level playing field for a wider range of ways of travelling.

As in Australia, motorways and arterial roads provide for high-speed, high-volume motorised travel between major population centres. But transport and urban planning measures make cycling faster and more convenient than car travel within cities, towns and suburbs.

It’s not just regulation that makes cycling more appealing for women, children and older adults. In high-cycling countries, people are more likely to use bicycles appropriate for everyday travel - more upright bikes, in other words. Their bikes have a bigger carrying capacity (so you can take your children and do your shopping), and it’s normal to ride in everyday clothing rather than sports gear (including to work).

Because of these measures, cycling is seen as a convenient form of everyday travel for everyone, rather than a vigorous form of sport and exercise that is more appealing to young to middle-aged men.

Australia’s path forward

In countries like Australia, where few women cycle for transport, many of the factors described above are either lacking or only partly addressed.

More people, and more women, would cycle if we prioritised bicycle travel over car travel for many of the daily trips that are part of urban life. Think of the short trips you make everyday that could be on a bike if cycling was easier: taking the kids to school, picking up some things at the shop, going to work or to the gym.

Urban environments designed for safe, enjoyable bicycle travel are quite unlike those where cycling is simply tacked on to the “real transport business” of moving cars as quickly as possible at all times in all locations.

The evidence shows that as bicycle travel becomes a convenient, safe and enjoyable everyday transport option, increasing numbers of girls, adolescents and adult women will almost certainly go along for the ride.