Guess why women avoid cycling in our city

When women cyclists speak of safety, they are not only talking about accident-risk, but about harassment. Urban design should factor this in.

“The number of women that appear in the public realm, during the day and and especially at night, is an indicator of the health of a society and the safety and livability of a city” — Smart Cities Dive

Bengaluru roads are unsafe, but they are even more so for women cyclists who have the double disadvantage of gender and their chosen mode of transportation. The number of women cyclists in the city are far fewer than men. 

Women cyclists I spoke to complained about dug-up roads and inadequate safe parking spaces for cycles. “I’m always paranoid that someone would break through the chain and take my cycle. I don’t have the same security that comes with parking my two-wheeler or car,” says 27-year-old Archana M V. 

Payoshni Saraf, 37, says that roads in her locality, Whitefield, are extremely narrow. While she respects the space of pedestrians and vehicles alike, that is not reciprocated when she rides, says she. 

While such concerns are shared by male cyclists too, factors like street harassment compound the problems of women cyclists. 

Archana, who had been cycling in Sahakarnagar and North Bengaluru, recounts how she was once stuck at a signal, surrounded by motorcyclists, and someone tried to touch her from behind. “There was no place for me to move. That is one of the reasons I feel very insecure wearing my (cycling) gear,” she says. 

While appropriate cycling attire entails biking tights, shorts or jersey, Archana says she cannot always wear it in the city. “I compromise on my comfort and wear at least two layers of clothing,” she says. Also, “I have to remain vigilant in isolated streets, and keep looking back to see if someone is following me.”

Payoshni, who used to regularly cycle to her office in Banaswadi, says she would ensure that she leftwork early and reach home before dark. Shefali Girish, 22, shared similar concerns.

Shefali was fond of her solo travels at the break of dawn, but too many incidents of sexual harassment compelled her to start later in the day, when there are more people on the streets. She has had BMTC buses brushing extremely close to her early in the morning, and there would be no one around to help. 

Not only in Bengaluru

Sathya Sankaran, the Bicycle Mayor of Bengaluru points out that women cyclists are less than 10% of the total number of cyclists who have registered on the platform in India.

In most global cities too, fewer women cycle compared to men use a bicycle as their mode of transport. Literature from these cities suggest that this imbalance is aggravated by the lack of dedicated cycle lanes, gendered harassment, lack of surveillance and other safety measures.

In Mumbai, deserted roads during the COVID lockdown compounded street harassment to the extent that many women even had to stop cycling.

A gender policy report titled ‘Bicycle, Gender and Risk’ featured a field experiment in Minnesota, US, which analysed driver behavior while passing cyclists. A finding was that drivers were 3.8 times more likely to encroach the personal spaces of women cyclists as compared to men. But the experiment showed that instances of encroachment were rare on exclusive bicycle lanes.

But in cities like Copenhagen that have robust cycling infrastructure, more than half of cycling trips are made by women. Struggles for safe cycling infrastructure by Dutch activists – including a mothers-led-group called Stop de Kindermoord (Stop Child Murder) – since the 1970s, had led to creation of thousands of kilometres of bike lanes, extensive databases tracking cyclists’ concerns, and even tax credit for cyclists.

Next to nil infrastructure

Author Anne Broache in her paper ‘Perspectives on Seattle women’s decision to Bike for Transportation,’ found that installation of bike lanes was more important to women than men. Her study found that while men opted for the fastest route, women chose paths that were well-lit and had proper signage.

“Pop-up cycle lanes or segregated lanes for cycles are essential for traffic-heavy roads,” says Sudeept Maiti, Senior Manager, Sustainable Cities Program at the non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI) India. He says these lanes are necessary to reduce the risk of cyclists meeting with fatal accidents, and emboldens even the inexperienced to try cycling.

Sudeept is part of the WRI team that is supporting the DULT (Directorate of Urban Land Transport) in building pop-up cycle lanes on ORR (Outer Ring Road).

However, the existing cycling infrastructure in the city is close to nil. Even the pop-up cycling lanes on ORR, which was supposed to be ready by the end of the year, are not ready.

Currently, the city has less than 10 km of completed and fully functional cycle lanes, Satya says. Also, these are confined to Cubbon Road, Residency Road, Church Street, Vittal Mallya Road and St Mark’s Road, some high-income neighbourhoods in the city centre.

He points to the lack of adequate parking spaces as well. “Companies have allotted parking spaces for cyclists, but there is no safe parking in public spaces.”

Satya has earlier pointed out that the proposed cycling tracks envisioned in the Comprehensive Mobility Plan are only on 174-kms of Bengaluru’s roads, while they could in fact be built along over 1500-km of roads in the city.

Safety perspective for infra projects

Safe access to cycling infrastructure is also essential. Archana believes the cycle lanes as of now will only benefit those living around the IT corridor. “I will probably have to take a bus to get to them,” she says. Payoshni concurs, adding that the accessibility to good cycling infrastructure is geographically skewered. 

Sudeept further says that future plans on infrastructural undertakings – such as the CMP – need to include a safety perspective. Law enforcement needs to be planned alongside infrastructure to ensure: that there is always help at hand; passive vigilance by the community; visibility of public spaces. 

The presence of street vendors, for instance, makes streets safer, says Sneha Visakha, Research fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Echoing this, Archana says she feels more secure when there are at least one of two vendors on the streets who make the spaces more accessible and gender-neutral by sustaining community interaction.

The Directorate of Urban Land Transport along with WRI facilitated a round table conference in October, 2020 to discuss opportunities and challenges faced by women cyclists on safety and infrastructure. Suggestions to better the experience of women cyclists on the road were discussed. Issues pertaining to better street lighting to help evening and night riders; safe parking and facilitating a network of cycle tracks were also some of the issues that were flagged. “The participants suggested that cycle clinics be set up where cyclists are taught to fix punctures, etc. so that they’re prepared for issues on the road” said the transport body. DULT plans to address these issues in future projects at the design level itself. 

Imagining an equitable city

Cost-effective transport modes like cycling can further women’s freedom and improve their socio-economic status, but city plans and urban infrastructure today are designed for able-bodied middle-class men, says Sneha.

She proposes a ‘feminist city’ as an alternative design theme; where infrastructure is planned around everyday people, their travel patterns and mobility needs. “Feminist urban planning processes are not only about women, rather the end goal is an equitable city that accommodates the needs of all identities,” she says.

For example, well-lit pathways, wider streets, prioritising pedestrians or cyclists, clear signage and maintaining clear sight lines to public spaces would encourage women to come out more. These would benefit the majority of the poor and marginalised who rely on walking and cycling for transport, she adds.

Greater public participation and women’s representation in planning is essential to achieve this, Sneha argues. Women geographers, urban planners, architects and sociologists need to be at the helm of planning in order to yield a relatively inclusive city.

According to the Constitution, Urban Planning is a mandate for municipalities. In Bengaluru, however, it is the Bengaluru Development Authority and not the BBMP that oversees it.  “The former is a parastatal agency with no adequate representation”, notes Sneha, proposing that the municipality should spearhead planning.

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