It’s been almost four and a half years since the Government launched the Bike to Work scheme, a tax-incentive initiative designed to get Irish commuters cycling rather than driving. That same year, 2009, Dublin Bikes were launched, allowing Dublin-based cyclists to pick up and put down a commuting bicycle at various points around the city, for €10 a year.
These are attempts at cultural change, to get us to embrace cycling as a way of life. But some have embraced it more than others. Seventy-three per cent of commuting cyclists in the country are male, while just 27 per cent are female.
Clare Flynn, digital marketing and communities manager of dublintown.ie, works in Dublin’s city centre and lives in Rathgar. She has been cycling to work, on and off, for four or five years. She thinks women are put off cycling by two factors: clothing and safety. “It’s easier for guys to cycle in their suits,” she says. “And maybe women are more aware that it can be dangerous to cycle in traffic.”
For Dr Mike McKillen, chairman of cyclist.ie, the national network for cycling campaigns, safety concerns rank high on the list of reasons women are less likely to cycle than men.
Jane Hackett, manager of Green-Schools Travel, has been cycling for about six years and goes to work by bike, she says, on most days. “I’d say it’s more about a perception of safety,” she says. “Sometimes cycling is seen as a little bit scary.”
For women, the usual hazards can be compounded by clothing factors; a stiletto heel caught in a pedal, for example, is not something from which one recovers quickly. “I wear heels cycling,” says Hackett. “I’d have no problem. And I have waterproofs, so cycling doesn’t really affect what I wear.”
For Clare Flynn, who cycles to work wearing her office clothes, the weather often puts a dampener on her plans. “If I wake up and it’s drizzling, fine – but if it’s lashing I’d get the bus. I don’t want to be sitting for the whole day in damp clothes. I have waterproofs, in case of an emergency, but they can really crumple your clothes.”
Waterproofs can leave a person feeling hot and sweaty. And although some offices have showers, this may be an easier proposition for men than for women. Guys need only shower and go; for many women, it can be a more involved process.
Flynn also acknowledges that, although it’s not something she thinks about too often, there is a trial-and-error aspect to dressing for the bike. “Mine is a man’s bike and it’s quite big, which probably doesn’t help – but I got dressed last week in quite a tight dress and found I couldn’t get on to my bike at all. It wasn’t ideal.”
McKillen suggests that “helmet hair” may also discourage women from cycling to work, or to any occasion where they want to look presentable.
Clare Flynn always wears a helmet, and says she doesn't worry about helmet hair. "My hair is quite straight, so it doesn't make a difference. But I do get a nice indent on my forehead."
Can't bike, won't bike
Ruth Kavanagh is PR and marketing assistant at Image magazine and has never cycled – nor does she have any plans to. "I live in Dundrum and work in Dún Laoghaire and I'd be absolutely terrified cycling with the traffic and the buses. I got a Dublin Bike once in town, and I was on for about five minutes before I found the nearest place and jumped off. I'm just terrified of traffic."
Kavanagh is not alone. A 2004 Melbourne-based study found that women preferred to use bicycle facilities with some form of separation from motorised traffic – in other words, women would be more likely to cycle if it could be guaranteed that they wouldn’t come into contact with cars, buses and trucks.
“I was in Copenhagen a few years ago and there were cycle lanes that were curbed off from the traffic. It was just such a nice place to cycle around,” says Flynn. “People don’t realise that cycling is one of the best ways to see a city.”