There are many gender gaps in life (and in my life): it’s not exactly the moment to rant about how a subject with such a female-heavy intake as Modern Languages at Oxford still has the statistical anomaly that men are significantly more likely to get a first (is it the girly handwriting that does for us?), but I am becoming increasingly aware of one in my day to day life at present. The cycling gap. At any given set of lights on my morning commute there may be a dozen or more cyclists waiting. I will often be the only woman. This is not a piece of feminist irrelevance.
Google ‘women cyclists London‘ and you are offered a range of news articles about the deaths of women cyclists, and why they are more likely to be involved in fatal collisions than their male counterparts. The most recent of these incidents happened last week, at Bank, in morning rush hour traffic, and it involved a HGV. A lot of ink has been spilled about this, so much so that a previous, apparently similar, incident, was described as having ‘all the hallmarks of a “typical” London cycling death – a woman cyclist killed by a tipper truck turning left’. No amount of inverted commas can excuse the way that phrase normalises an unnecessary and horrific death, and, whether or not this was the intention, how it allows for the implication that women, really, ought to know better.
Cycling has become another one of those areas where we need to look after women, because they can’t look after themselves. The Evening Standard article from last week quotes the cautious advice that the problem might actually be the lorries rather than the people (which is surely basic logic: who drives an HGV across London in rush hour anyway? Surely that’s just common sense?), but midway down, after rehearsing the usual arguments about a slower average speed, being more likely to hug the curb, less likely to run a red light, more ‘cautious’. The kind of casual generalisations supported, in fact, by the photos chosen to illustrate its article, which is headed by a photo of the latest cycling victim in her wedding dress, and then shows a selection of ‘cyclists at junction’ in which one woman appears, dressed in blouse, skirt and patent black shoes. The men around her (other than that one bloke in the beigey jacket with no helmet) are sporting a variety of sportswear. This, I think, is the image many people, many journalists, many drivers, have of The Woman Cyclist. It’s what we see here (note skirt, hair drifting around, cardigan), and it’s what allows us to suggest that the problem is somehow with being female, unavoidably associated with that second X chromosome, rather than being something we, you know, maybe ought to stop. I read a wonderful article the other day (and you really should too), but I somewhat object to the assertion that a six foot tall and, in his own words, ‘surprisingly hairy’ man is able to establish that women are given more room by passing cars simply by putting on a long wig. Are our assumptions about gender really that straightforward? (I’m not even going to comment on the quote in the BBC article about how women are less likely to cycle because they may be cooking, looking after their children or carrying shopping, or the comment that men have better spatial awareness and are more likely to be familiar with HGVs than women. I ask you this: in what century are we living?)
I think, in short, what I’m trying to say is this: I despise gender generalisations, and I think using them in the cycling fatality context offers the dangerous opportunity to apportion blame rather than admitting that our roads and other road users are a danger to cyclists. Yes, I see women heading to work in flip flops and frilly skirts, hair blowing everywhere, handbag over their shoulder. Yes, I see them hugging the curb, ‘pootling along’, as one article puts it, being slow and indecisive and annoying and potentially dangerous. I also see them whizzing past me, helmeted, like me, on drop handlebars, with clipless pedals and All The Gear. And I see wobbly men in suits, with headphones in, refusing or unable to look over their shoulder to check for oncoming traffic, a briefcase balanced on their handlebars. I frequently overtake men and am overtaken by women, which shows that the theory of going at 8mph or slower being more dangerous than going at 12mph or faster is all well and good, but more or less gender irrelevant (your age, your bike, your fitness level, the length of your journey and how fast you want to go are a lot more relevant in gauging your speed than your gender). There’s a wonderful ring to phrases like ‘Being highly visible in public spaces is something women are going to be less comfortable with than men’, but it doesn’t actually mean anything, doesn’t help with anything, does nothing but basically say that women have no right to be on the road, that if we don’t get ourselves killed it’s only thanks to good luck and the indulgence of male drivers who forgive us our traffic-delaying sins.
Cycling is ‘too young, too male, too middle class’, but the way to improve that situation is not to create a climate where every time I tell someone I cycle they wince and tell me to be careful (trust me, I don’t go out of my way to be reckless). Easy generalisations will not stop cyclists, male and female alike, being killed in traffic incidents involving roads not fit for cyclists (because, quite frankly, the cycle lanes of London are not fit for purpose. Superhighway? It’s a bloody blue cycle lane, and nothing more.), and they will not help to create a culture in which cycling is the norm and every investment in improving infrastructure and saving lives does not have to be justified.
(PS. Google ‘man on bike’. Then Google ‘woman on bike’. Then tell me our society doesn’t make unfounded gender generalisations.)