Cycleways are a women’s thing

In Germany, on fieldwork. A German transport planner asked me this week to explain the connection between cycleways and women in my research. First off, I was so astounded, for once, to be asked a question! I realised that I am so used to being explained at, that I had forgotten how good it feels to be dragged into a conversation by an interested inquiring other.

In the ensuing exchange we performed a very natural ping pong where I kicked off by outlining the process of socialisation. Fast track: through our upbringing in our society, country, city, family we pick up cues and we act on them. We, women, still comparatively do the family work, the household work, the caring work (yes, a lot of it is still unpaid – thanks patriarchy: when will we change that to finally put a smile on Marilyn French’s face in the afterlife at least). The transport statistics back up this gendered work distribution.

And through that process of socialisation arise needs. When having precious cargo (the most precious kids, the less so shipping, errands, goods) certain things, when cycling, come in handy. One is not to have to use your cognitive load on mixing with motorised traffic on a busy road. Imagine cycling with a kid next to a busy stream of traffic, bus or tram line. Madness! shouts the interested but concerned group loudly. And rightly so, your view and experience counts.

Our conversational dance continued and we chatted about the different makeup of trips, (men’s) commute versus all the other trips (that women do). I know, I know I am being deliberately pointed here. Household-organising journeys are often chained. I start at home, hop on the bike to the supermarket, via a friend’s house to drop of some things, when it’s time to pick up the kids from school to go home. It’s vastly more complex to do that than to put the briefcase on the back of the bike, and you are off to work and a few hours later coming back, retracing the same route. (Yet much in transport planning focusses on the commute, go figure.) And if a household has a car, it’s earmarked for the commute, for the breadwinner, usually the man. Leaving the other with options walk, cycle, public transport. In any case, these shorter yet more complex journeys need consideration in urban design including cycleways on main roads, good crossing points of main roads, good mode-filtering for neighbourhoods and easy bike parking.

We went on to chat about communication abilities and behaviours with regards to expressing feelings and emotions. Women, by and large, are more community/team/group based, less self-focussed in their general outlook, in their way of doing things. That is expressed in speech too. Women, through socialisation, are more attuned (allowed) to talk about emotional matters (without being called weak – patriarchy might give us an eye-roller, but you certainly would not be called a weakling per se, you are already labelled as the weaker sex anyways). Sad as it is, women are better placed to talk about fears and desires (spare a thought for the suffering man, who ought to repress these in our society which can lead to many a problem). In relation to what’s needed for infrastructure women can probably be more expressive and more honest in their needs for separation and protection from motor vehicles aka cycleways, protected bike lanes. Whereas man may feel they cannot say this, or they are ok to cycle in those conditions and actually are happy with cycling in motor traffic.

After that we proceeded to talk about activism (to support officers and politicians). The planner suggested it would be a great idea if this view for protected cycleways could be expressed in advocacy groups more clearly, it’d certainly make his work easier to have a clearer position (from the outside, in support of his work). And he lamented the lack of women in these interest/community groups. Now he had me fired up, as you can imagine. I could not agree more.

Doing this ethnographic research is very rewarding. I am getting to talk to people, and through the running dictaphone I am afforded the immense privilege to re-listen to the conversation (yes, to stay on the right side of research ethics, informed consent form needs signing first). This re-listening process, for me, has really opened up many conversational nuances that I certainly didn’t catch at the time, and in some cases totally new strands of understanding. The transcribing process is a pain (no, I still do not have a footpedal to start/stop the audio) but it is the medium that allows you to listen more deeply than you ever could during the actual interview.

It’s all so exciting. Here is the engineer turned ethnographer. Way to go folks.

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