Cycling towards Feminist Cities

3 min. read
Lucas Snaije is the Research & Advocacy Manager for BYCS and the editor of BYCS Perspectives.

The relation between the bicycle, women and the city is a vast, limitless topic of discussion. From its historical role in women’s emancipation movements of the late 19th century, to its ability to facilitate mobilities of care as well as educational and economic empowerment, the bicycle has an important part to play in the feminist city. Recognising the inadequacies of current transportation systems through the lens of gender and the potential solutions that the bicycle can provide can help situate this mode of mobility within an entire spectrum of processes and principles of patriarchal city-making that need dismantling. 

Feminist theorists have extensively explored how cities have failed to account for the diversity of people, needs, and experiences that live in them. Cities have essentially been built by men, for men, and this androgenic perspective has provoked stark inequalities in the right to the city. Urban planning principles have indeed long assumed the typical urban dweller to be an able bodied man, and the way mobility systems are conceived, from the modes that are prioritised to their physical design, routes, and schedules, reflects this troublesome reality profoundly. 

Patriarchal family structures continue to create unequal access to different modes of transport. Concerns around safety continue to make certain spaces of the city inaccessible and to impose a “pink tax” on transportation. The continued optimisation of transportation systems around morning and evening rush hours, as well as in and out of economic cores, continues to make time poverty more burdensome for women and reinforces the feminisation of poverty. Due to gendered divisions of household labour and care, the mobility patterns of women differ considerably from those of men, and while this notion of “trip-chaining” is commonly recognised in the realm of transportation planning, it largely continues to be misunderstood, under-researched and ignored by policy and advocacy circles when thinking of how to facilitate movement through the city.

If the right conditions are planned for, incorporating “gender aware cycling policy”, the bicycle could, in theory, provide a rapid, energy efficient, safe, fun and social option, free of most transit schedules and costs. Favouring policies that prioritise cycling and walking, focusing on the comfort of caregivers and young children, could be transformative not only for women but for all segments of society. Some cities have made strides incorporating feminist principles in their holistic planning strategy, such as Vienna or Barcelona. These steps go far beyond cycling, yet trend towards density, proximity, complete streets, and greater public spaces, all features of human-centric cities in which the bicycle can become the preferred and most effective mode of transport.

Of course, many barriers remain. Beyond the Netherlands and Denmark, a gender gap in cycling modal shares remains in most countries. Safety concerns due to lack of protected infrastructure and fear of harassment, as well as caregiving responsibilities, are often cited as key barriers. Women are more likely to be encroached upon by vehicles, and bike share systems remain mostly utilised by men. Activist spaces and the broader representation of who a typical “cyclist” is in the city also are in need of internal reflection and un-learning. Dramatically increasing the representation of women in planning processes must be seen as a mere starting point of many steps that need to be taken in making active mobility more inclusive, as well as the city more generally. 

For this issue of Perspectives, we chose to situate the bicycle within larger urban processes that need to be reimagined by speaking to experts from a range of fields, from municipal law to geography, gender studies and philosophy, to grassroots activism. We hope this can drive thinking in all fields of city-making, and highlight the potential of the bicycle in making movement through our urban environments gender fair.

Read the full edition: Cycling & the Feminist City