Cycling and Femininity - A Guest Post

This guest post is by Pearl Ahrens, who is currently studying at UCL. You can find her online as @PearlMRAhrens.


If power is vested in space then to be vulnerable is to not possess space. This concept is visible in the domination of the streetspace by motor vehicles and men over cyclists and women. The relations between these four groups give rise to some comparisons and paradoxes regarding vulnerability and the mechanics of safety.

The relations in streetspace are not entirely directly the same as between cyclists and motor vehicles and between men and women, not least because one chooses to cycle, but one doesn’t choose to be a woman, and also because for cyclists, part of the systematic domination of the space is through the behaviours and actions of the drivers of motor vehicles, but a larger part is due to a fundamental difference in physical form between cyclists and motor vehicles which renders every interaction unsafe.  However, the difference in physical form between men and women doesn’t exist to even nearly so large an extent, if at all.  Men are not inherently dangerous - instead the dangers which women are warned about are due to the behaviours and actions of individual men.

But this is not to say that there aren’t parallels to be drawn about the ways society treats both groups, women and cyclists.  Cyclists, like women, are expected to be nice all the time. Women are supposed to enjoy the company of small children, while cyclists are expected to stop at traffic islands or on small streets to let pedestrians cross in front.  And, like women, cyclists’ choices are endlessly scrutinised and criticised. Cyclists choosing to jump red lights is a disastrous epidemic while women who don’t want to get married are demonised to a similar degree, because, like women, it’s assumed that cyclists know nothing about the thing they do every day.  For cyclists to be ‘making mistakes’ it must be that they don’t know the Highway Code, while women’s experiences of living as women all the time are undermined and brushed aside.

To return to the problem of vulnerability in shared streetspace, the most common solution society suggests for cyclists is to coat themselves up to the gills in reflective material. Now, some reflectors and lights are not out of the question, to match the level to which motor vehicles are reflective and light up. However, to respond to a systematic problem by offering advice not only bypasses the systematic nature of the problem (it cannot be solved purely by individual action) but shifts the burden of action onto the vulnerable group, whether that’s women or cyclists.  If it’s their responsibility to keep themselves safe, then it’s their fault in the first place that they’re in danger.  The failure of ‘advice’ to provide a proper solution really comes to a head when it’s given to female cyclists.

Some paradoxes include cyclists being advised to stay away from busy roads, while women are advised to stay away from quiet ones. Cyclists are told not to cycle at night on the basis that there are fewer motor vehicles - but they drive faster. And cyclists are also told not to cycle at rush hour because there are more motor vehicles and they are angrier.  Women are told not to walk alone at night because although there are fewer men on the streets, the ones encountered are more dangerous.  So women cycle to avoid being followed, in the daytime as advised, but men come up with an inventive range of cycle-specific catcalls instead.  Female cyclists are advised not to listen to music to block out the catcalls in case they miss the sound of a motor vehicle behind them.  Cyclists are told to wear reflective jackets and women are told to not mark themselves out as noticeable.  Women are told not to wear short skirts but long skirts get caught in the bike wheels.

As is clear from these contradictions, advice offered under the guise of safety of impossible to enact as a female cyclist.  These paradoxes are the collisions of femininity proper and the femininity of cycling.  The giving of advice exposes these collisions, but does not move any further in seeking a solution to the problem of sharing the streetspace.  We gain nothing from giving advice about changing personal behaviour to the vulnerable group.  However, what that group, women or cyclists, loses is the ability to fully control their own lives.  To advise women to not leave the house at night is not new: everyone knows that a woman’s place is in the home.  Everyone knows that cyclists are a nuisance on the roads and the pavements.  Thus, under the guise of safety, women and cyclists are pushed out of the streetspace.

The problem of how to share the streetspace still stands unsolved.  A systematic problem requires a systematic solution, thus any true level of safety is unattainable unless the space itself changes its shape.  A systematic solution would resemble a shift in the way we think about travelling around the city, and a large-scale restructuring of the physical space.

If the interaction of cyclist and motor vehicle is unsafe at any speed, these interactions must be prevented by placing physical barriers between the two groups.  For the streetspace to become safe for cyclists it must be divided, because for cyclists to become less vulnerable they must be granted space.  To have been granted particular designated space (segregated cycle lanes) cyclists would not be pushed out of the streetspace we all share.  In fact, they would be more able to make choices about which route they take when traffic levels cease to be a factor in route-planning.

Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs) are an interesting case of barrier disregardment.  They grant space to cyclists in front of the traffic queue through the use of a ‘barrier’ of paint, which makes the cyclist more visible to the motor vehicles, and which also creates a subsequent ‘barrier’ of time: the cyclist moves off first in order that they can make turning or get a headstart whilst on an empty road.

When a motor vehicle waits in an ASL, it doesn’t just take up the immediate physical space granted to the cyclist (thereby rendering them less visible), it also obliterates the time barrier.  A physical barrier prevents spaces like these being taken up by motor vehicles, in other words free-standing kerbs or bollards are necessary to keep cyclists safe from the actions of motor vehicles.

A coherent systematic change of infrastructure take years.  In London there are some changes taking place, but they’re moving too slowly and there’s not enough money being ploughed into an overall shift.  This isn’t something that works well when done piecemeal: coherence of the infrastructure makes it better. While that process of change occurs, and while we work to make it faster and better, an interim solution is needed to the problem of sharing the streetspace.

Women in clubs sometimes dance with their elbows out.  They know from experience that men will touch them, men will grab their hips and stroke their hair.  So they dance with their elbows out as a pre-emptive measure, as an aggressive strategy of protection: to take up more space in order that that space isn’t taken from them.

By analogy, to take the space, aggressively, without asking permission, is to cycle in the middle of the lane.  It’s to yell at pedestrians until they get out of the way.  It’s to cycle really fast and weave in amongst traffic and keep going if a pedal scrapes a taxi parked in the cycle lane.  It’s to keep going on small streets and at traffic islands so that pedestrians can’t cross in front. It’s to jump red lights.  This is keeping oneself safe until the infrastructure can do it instead.

Even within this interim solution there are paradoxes where femininity proper collides with the femininity of cycling.  A female cyclist in the middle of a lane receives much more verbal abuse than a male cyclist doing the same thing.  The verbal backlash from (especially male) drivers against a woman cycling aggressively is sexualised and thus more threatening.  It’s not just hate, it’s hate against a woman, a woman taking up too much space.  The male cyclist who has just jumped the red light is an “idiot” or a “bastard”, while the female cyclist having just done the same thing is a “bitch” or “are you a bit premenstrual, love?”.  To reach the peak of irony we can conclude that it’s dangerous in itself to cycle aggressively as a woman, because it instigates a potential violent response from a motor vehicle.

Whether this violent response and verbal backlash are just as dangerous as the problem of sharing the streetspace (which we were trying to solve in the first place) is unclear.  The aggression which conflicts with femininity proper serves at least as a personal pretense of agency.  But this agency is baseless whilst true safety is unattainable, so ultimately the only solution is a radical restructuring of the streetspace.