Cycling matters: ‘Young women feel judged to be on a bike’

Women on Wheels call for segregated cycling routes as only way to foster ‘inclusive cycling’

Only three out of 10 people cycling in Ireland are women and about one in 10 teenagers cycling to school are girls, according to a recent study.

A new campaigning group, Women on Wheels is keen to increase these numbers in Dublin and started by asking why more women aren’t cycling on the streets of our capital city.

"It's not that women, or teenage girls, don't want to cycle but young women in particular feel judged to be on a bike," says Caitriona Buggle from An Taisce Green Schools initiative and a member of Women on Wheels. "They are subjected to intimidating behaviour from boys and men and they think it's uncool to cycle."

The group, which is part of the Dublin Cycling Campaign, says that there is a huge drop off in teenage girls doing sport and cycling is considered a sport rather than a leisure activity or means of transport.


Young women tell us that they are honked at and verbally harassed on their bikes

Safety issues with the Luas lines and the lack of joined up cycling lanes – particularly in residential areas between people’s homes and local shops and schools – are other deterrents for many female cyclists. And some public parks don’t even allow bicycles, which puts off families bringing younger children on their bikes into the park to learn how to cycle.

Louise Williams from Women on Wheels says "young women tell us that they are honked at and verbally harassed on their bikes – particularly if they have their hair loose and they aren't wearing helmets". Williams, who lived in the Netherlands for many years says that proper segregated cycling routes are the only way to encourage "inclusive cycling".

“Fifty-five per cent of cyclists in the Netherlands are women and everyone there cycles – including older people, young children – and many of them don’t wear helmets either,” she says.

While helmets make cycling safer in places where accidents are more likely or when cycling as a sport, people who cycle in cities where cycling is the norm rarely wear helmets for short journeys.

Janet Horner, a cyclist in Dublin city and a member of Women on Wheels, says that most women say they stop cycling because they don't feel safe cycling in Dublin city, yet many of them would like to cycle. "Women recognise the freedom and independence of cycling but are frustrated by lack of connections between cycling routes. We need inclusive accessible cycling routes that everyone – women, children, older people and not just commuting cyclists – is able to use," she says.

They enjoy the sense of wellbeing it gives them, the feeling of being on their own

Horner is concerned that the new cycling routes planned by the BusConnects project in Dublin will focus only on arterial cycling routes into Dublin city centre. “Cycling lanes in quiet ways around schools and shops are what will benefit women, families, young and older people,” she says.

Women cyclists interviewed by Women on Wheels said that they look forward to cycling at the beginning and the end of their day. “They enjoy the sense of wellbeing it gives them, the feeling of being on their own and not being able to check their phones when they are cycling,” says Williams.

Both Williams and Horner point to the fact that there aren't many women on transport committees so their needs aren't always recognised when decisions about planning cycling routes are made. "The gender cycling gap is an observed phenomenon in Ireland and Britain but it isn't an issue in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, " says Horner.

Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, an urban anthropologist from Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA, partook in the Velo-City 2019 conference in Dublin in June. She explores the role of women in urbanism and says that "if you plan for women and girls, you plan for everyone".

Rachel Aldred, a researcher from the University of Westminster also spoke at the Velo-City 2019 conference in Dublin in June. She says that most people want to cycle away from motor traffic or in low level traffic. "We found that when you build on what people say they want – there is an increase in active travel even where there is high car dependence," says Aldred.

Brian Caulfield, Associate Professor of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering says that the biological concept of indicator species applies to women and cycling in cities. “When more women cycle in a city, it shows that the city is safer to cycle in,” says Caulfield.

James Carroll, energy economist at Trinity College Dublin found that about twice as many men as women commute to work in Dublin and throughout Ireland. "By studying the 2016 census, I found that the further women live from the city centre, the less likely they are to cycle to work but three times the numbers of women with third-level education cycle to work than men with higher-level education," says Carroll.

We're planning a social media campaign that girls can partake in

His study also found that people who live in apartments – and women more so than men – are less likely to cycle to work. "I've lived in three different apartment blocks in Dublin and none of them have bike shelters," says Carroll. Trinity College Dublin has also called for safe cycling routes for the 1,000 students who commute from Trinity Hall in Dartry to the city centre campus.

Making cycling parking facilities mandatory for new apartment buildings in cities could be one place local authorities could start to make it easier for people to store their bikes safely.

As part of their emphasis on active travel, the An Taisce Green Schools programme will encourage teenage girls back on their bikes in September. “We’re planning a social media campaign that girls can partake in. We’ll give girls a platform to talk about cycling. We want to normalise teenage girls cycling again,” says Buggle. In 1986, one in three teenagers cycled. By 1996, this figure dropped to one in four but by 2002 only one in 10 girls cycled to school.

And while Buggle believes a national campaign will be required to address intimating behaviour towards girls on bikes, encouraging girls to get back on their bikes will be a good start. “You cannot be what you cannot see – so we want to empower teenage girls to feel comfortable to be on their bikes again,” says Buggle.