What Stops Aussie Women From Cycling? A Dutch Perspective

bicycle

Hugo moved to Adelaide from the Netherlands, and quickly noticed that there was a huge difference in cycling demographics. Where were all the women riding bikes? 

Let’s start with an ordinary picture of a random location in the Netherlands, bicycles everywhere!

bicycles-amsterdam

The first 30 years of my life I have spent in the Netherlands, where cycling is part of everyday life. You go shopping on the bike, go to friends on the bike, go to work, visit your parents on the bike. You see little kids cycling with training wheels. In primary school you do a cycling exam on the public road. It doesn’t matter whether you are young or old, male or female. Everyone cycles everywhere.

In the Netherlands I never noticed a difference in cycling participation between men and women, didn’t know there was a difference! Apparently almost 60% of the people riding a bike in the Netherlands are female… Quite a contrast to what we see here in Adelaide. Statistics show that only 13% of Australian women ride a bike at least once per week, compared to 22% of the men (Sydney Morning Herald). If you just look at commuting (the most common bicycle use in the Netherlands), the rate of Australian female commuter cycling is less than one third of the male rate. For every 3 men that ride a bike, only 1 woman rides! The good news is that 50% of the women who hadn’t ridden a bike in the past 6 months are keen to start, and 60% of those who already ride are keen to ride more, according to the Women and Cycling Survey 2013 results. 

What stops Aussie women from cycling?

So how do we get those 50% of women on the bike? After doing some basic Google research, I keep seeing the same barriers that affect women more than men in deciding whether or not to ride a bike:

  • Concerns about traffic and a lack of infrastructure
  • Lack of confidence & worry about fitness
  • ‘Having to wear cycling specific clothing’

How to overcome these barriers?

Safe infrastructure

Much is said about the lack of cycling infrastructure. In a recent report the UN urges governments to spend 20% of the transport infrastructure budget on cycling and walking infrastructure; South Australia spends an embarrassing 0.5% on cycling… We’ve got a long way to go here… Having said that, the availability of cycling infrastructure is definitely increasing, and if you live anywhere near the Linear Park, the tramline or the parklands for instance, you can commute by bicycle pretty much without sharing your route with cars. Bike SA has maps of the whole metropolitan area with suggested bike routes away from busy car traffic. Cycle Instead provides a very useful online route planner for cyclists. You can set your preferred maximum gradient and whether you prefer dedicated paths or low traffic roads. Really a great tool!

Lack of confidence

How to overcome a lack of confidence? One option is to just try. Ride as often as you can, along a road you’re comfortable with (e.g. bike path along beaches, other dedicated bike paths) and just practice, practice, practice. And please choose a bike with normal pedals, without needing to click your shoes onto the pedals. Consider using a sit-up-straight bike, they are more comfortable and easier to handle than sporty road bikes or mountain bikes.

women-sit-up-straight

Confidence will grow with training. Another option is to get some professional riding lessons, like Ride a Bike Right. What also helps is to ask your friends to join you and make it a social event; riding is more fun when sharing. Consider registering for bike events like Gear up Girl or Boucle De Burbs to get to know more like-minded women and build your peer support network. If you’re worried about your fitness, try an electric bike. More on that later.

‘Having to wear cycling specific clothing’

The assumption of having to wear cycling specific clothing is probably connected to the use of the bicycle. If you want to go for a 60-100 km bike ride on your road bike as a part of your exercise regime, you probably are better off wearing aerodynamic, sweat-friendly clothing. But do you really need the lycra for a 5km leisurely ride on your sit-up-straight commuter bike along the river Torrens? The preparation and inconvenience of changing clothes would probably take the pleasure out of the ride and would prevent you from riding in the first place. Consider riding in your normal comfortable clothes at a comfortable pace and see whether it would invite you to ride and stop for a coffee along the path. And consider an electric bike  to make your ride even more comfortable. You can arrive sweat-free if you want to, no cycling specific clothing required.

Electric Bicycles

Electric bicycles – or ‘ebikes’ – are bicycles equipped with a small electric motor that provide assistance up to 25km/hr. It’s like riding with a permanent wind in the back. Ebikes come in all sorts and shapes. The comfortable sit-up-straight models like this one are so common in high-cycling countries because they are so convenient: no special clothes or shoes required, the sit-up-straight position is comfortable and makes that you can better oversee the traffic around you, and optional panniers carry your bags and groceries. You don’t have to worry about lack of fitness, as the eBike significantly reduces the effort required. You still need to put in some effort, but the eBike allows you to go much further with the same effort. Suddenly, commuting by bike seems a realistic option! If you’re curious about trying an electric bike, give us a call to try our eBikes in Henley Beach, or at a location you’re comfortable trying an electric bike.

Make cycling safe and convenient and women will ride

I admit, part of the solution lies outside our individual control, but there are things you can do as an individual to make cycling a real option. Forget about dress codes, choose a bike that helps you build confidence and further increase your confidence by practising on safe dedicated bike paths. Consider an electric bike to take away barriers of fitness or distance. And plan your route to suit your needs. 50% of the women who don’t ride bikes are keen to start; I truly hope next surveys indicate the female cycling participation has equalled the male participation levels.

You can find out more about Trendy eBikes here and Hugo will be making his bicycles available for test rides at the Gear Up Girl SA event village on Sunday 20 November. 

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25 Comments. Leave new

And not one word about mandatory helmet laws, the over zealous policing of them, and the culture of fear and danger that helmet laws have fostered. Riding a bike in Australia, other than for sport, is now considered a bit odd, and bike riders a target for jokes, derision and threatening behavior. In my opinion, these are the reasons few women ride. Remove the barriers to bike riding being perceived as a normal activity, helmet laws being the main one, and more people would ride

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Alas, ill informed rubbish. I know a family whose son was killed instantly when he fell from a bike without the protection of a helmet. Helmets are compulsory for a reason – to save lives.

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Stuart Hilborn
November 4, 2016 4:49 am

I know a family whose father was killed instantly when he fell from a ladder. Ladder helmets are compulsory for a re… oh wait.
I know a family whose brother was killed instantly when he fell out of bed. Bed helmets are compulsory for a re… oh wait.
I know a family whose mother was killed instantly when she crashed her car into a tree while texting. Car helmets are compulsory for a re… oh wait…

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So you would send kids out on their bikes without a helmet? Or perhaps wear a helmet until their vanity kicks in and suddenly brain damage or worse becomes a secondary consideration?

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I have witness two occasions where people have triped over when walking. By your logic everyone should be wearing a helment when ever they are moving

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Yep.
Your response is ill-informed rubbish with zero basis in fact.
No facts anywhere in the world can prove your suggestion.
No country in the world has hospitals filled with brain injured cyclists.
You should stop believing that our government is here to protect cyclists through their laws that the rest of the world laughs at.

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And I also know a family who were devastated when their teenage son died of a head injury. His helmet didn’t save him, but safety in numbers and culture of cycling for transport in countries with more cyclists could have made all the difference. If helmet laws worked, why would Australia have far more injuries and fatalities per cyclist than countries without helmet laws? We know that helmet laws discouraged cycling and that, if anything, injuries per cyclist increased. That’s hardly consistent with saving lives.

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I’ve recently ridden around Canberra and surrounds for a week where the cycling infrastructure and respectful co-existence between riders, drivers and pedestrians put Adelaide to shame. The ACT govt. is considering relaxing helmet laws to make it non-compulsory in designated ‘safe areas’ e.g. uni campus, parks, cycling paths. Fair enough but I still believe that if you choose to not wear a helmet you’ve got rocks in your head, or soon will if you come off. You don’t have to fall very far to cause serious head injury. Try it- just stand on the footpath and fall backwards!

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nathalie van egmond
November 3, 2016 10:21 am

Woman in Australia are alway’s too busy working , shopping , cooking , entertaining , socialising and trying to be perfect . They are rushing around in and out of the car , picking up kids . There is no time for woman to go cycling while Aussie men go cycling go sailing , fishing or play golf all day . But I have noticed a lot more young woman on road bikes these day’s , more to do with health and fitness . Sport is big in Australia . For kids it is not cool to ride a bike to school .
In Holland there is less social pressure to be the perfect woman who is good at everything . No hurry , hop on your bike to the shop , more a mode of transport and maybe go for a leisurely cycle on the weekend . Also in Holland all the kids ride to school together on their bikes , it is a real cultural thing . Not cool to be dropped off . People are not so focused on fitness there , yet .

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I don’t ride a bike like I used to in Europe due to helmet laws.
Australia is already hotter than the UK, women typically have more hair than men, middle aged women have overheating problems and helmets make your head crazy hot.
One of the best things about cycling is having your head cooled by the breeze.
Helmets should be a choice.

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Some areas of Australia do have 50% of riders being women. They are the small pockets that have the infrastructure to support riding and where most people ride in normal clothes not ‘sports’ clothing. The City of Yarra in Melbourne, the southern parts of the City of Moreland in Melbourne and of course much of Darwin where the flexibility of the helmet laws also makes a big difference.

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Alan Todd, President FreestyleCyclists
November 3, 2016 9:03 pm

When the author mentions “having to wear cycling specific clothing” I assume this includes the legal requirement to wear a helmet? Is BSA just being their usual coy self and refusing to name the elephant in the room of Australian cycling participation? For those of you who might have been asleep for 25 years, the way people cycle in the Netherlands is illegal in Australia, and relentlessly punished by the forces of law. Do you really think cycling is going to have a majority appeal for women when the first message is “cycling is so dangerous you need a crash helmet”? – and if you disagree, you will be fined.

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I would never consider riding a bike without a helmet. Like seat belts it is obvious that if you fall on your head a helmet would offer some protection. Perhaps those who don’t wear them would be prepared to sign a disclaimer that releases them from receiving any medical attention when they fall, that way the general public would be saved from providing them with the full time treatment they would be needing for brain injury. I guess if you have no brain to protect you don’t need a helmet ?

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Abusing people who disagree with you, by saying they have no brain, is not an argument Kym.

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I am a road cyclist and had two crashes where, by the look of my helmets after the shock, things could have been much more unpleasant. I am a man and wear short hair, but I think it is a largely a myth that helmets will make your head hotter to the point of being uncomfortable, at least not the helmets used in road cycling. I believe however that your helmet will not protect you from the sun! I rode with a cap under my helmet throughout the hot SA summer. I am now back in Europe after a year in Australia and , frankly, find it irresponsible for cyclists of any age or gender to ride without a helmet. My experience is also that women wear helmets almost systematically, even if it means a pony tail. So, for me, whether down Pirie Street or up Mount Lofty or Mont Ventoux, I’ll wear a helmet. As they come in so many different styles now. It’s just regrettable that one needs a law to convince people to wear one.

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All this talking about helmets why aren’t you talking about improving the roads and paths we are riding on!!

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We are talking about helmet laws because they cause a reduction in female cycling participation. This was the topic. We also want an improvement in roads and paths. We can have both.

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The biggest drops in cycling after helmet laws were in small regional towns that were perfect for cycling. I rarely ever see other cyclists on the segregated cycle-way, only pedestrians. Fewer cyclists means less safety in numbers so even safe, quiet routes are less safe than they used to be. Given that most people won’t cycle on safe, quiet routes because of helmet laws, it’s hardly likely that building cycling infrastructure in big cities will enable cycling to recover to the participation rates (and consequent safety in numbers) that we enjoyed before helmet laws, let alone the cycling participation rates enjoyed by the Dutch.

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I wonder if all of these helmet naysayers would be as stoic and dogmatic about it if their partner or child died from a head injury sustained while cycling without a helmet? Their brazen answer would probably be ‘Yes’ until faced with the tragic reality.

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Practically none of the Dutch wear helmets, amazing they aren’t nearly extinct, right?

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The Dutch are also fortunate in that their cyclists enjoy a much superior infrastructure. Cyclists are most at risk here from collisions with motor vehicles, including the opening of car doors. Our main road cycling paths consist of a white line and all the broken glass, stones and other debris that lie on the edge of the road while the Dutch system uses many more discrete cycling lanes that are physically separate from most traffic streams. The likelihood of car/bicycle collisions is far less. If we had the same here, it might be more likely that helmet laws were reviewed. However, we couldn’t even get the Frome St. situation right so I don’t see a resolution in the near future.

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That is patently false and nothing more than hyperbole. The Netherlands system isn’t completely segregated and many a Km travelled is on roads shared with traffic. No where in the world is perfect and it’s standard to encounter all sorts of debris on any type of path anywhere in the world. Plus, we have plenty of separated bike paths and can now also ride on the footpaths if need be. There’s plenty of safe options out there. Essentially, Cycling is no where near as risky as what you’re framing it to be and helmet laws are a complete farce. If mandating helmet usage was a good idea, the rest of the world would have caught on by now.

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I didn’t say that the Dutch system is completely segregated. If you can’t grasp what’s in a brief paragraph, I can’t help you. I stand by the statement that their infrastructure is superior to ours. If you think that’s false you need to go and have another look. Using helmet laws as an excuse for not cycling is a lazy cop-out. I have commented elsewhere regarding the ACT considering relaxation of helmet laws for certain car-free areas but as long as cyclists share the road with cars, there is an obvious risk factor and even you should know who usually comes off second best in a car-bike collision. If you have children or grandchildren and would happily send them off anywhere on their bikes-road, path,footpath, anywhere, without a helmet,-you would be very negligent.

Enforced helmet laws have consistently caused substantial reductions in cycle use in Australia. Laws or not, individual cyclists will sometimes choose to use helmets, either for confidence or because of the type of cycling they are doing, however, it’s ultimately up to the individual to decide, but people shouldn’t feel under any pressure to wear them. Km for Km – the the slim chances of being killed whilst cycling are about the same those for walking. The health benefits are huge and outweigh the risks. The rest of the world understands this which is why they don’t think mandating helmet usage is such a great idea. For the sake of our countries health, it is more important to encourage people of all ages to cycle, than to make an issue of whether they use a helmet when doing so.

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Helmet hair!! what more do I need to say.
No female wants to suffer from helmet hair at work. There is also the consideration of lack of shower facilities once you arrive at work.
Re the safety issue, I believe that if them dedicated an alleyway of side roads to bicycles and local traffic only, that would make a huge difference to both drivers and riders.

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