Episode 128: Women’s Freedom to Ride

Doug Gordon: Hey, everyone. We just wanted to give you a heads up that there’s some language and descriptions of harassment and violence in this episode. If that might be difficult for you to hear, go ahead and skip this one or come back to it when you feel ready. Thanks.

Aaron Naparstek: As a 15 year old growing up in Edmonton, Linda Young used to ride her bike to school. One afternoon, she came out of class eager to ride home, only to find that her front wheel had been stolen. Now most people would just kind of curse, kick the dirt, walk home, and that would be that. But not Linda. Her stolen front wheel started her on a lifelong mission to develop the ultimate bicycle security solution. She founded Pinhead in 1997.

Aaron: We met Linda at the Winter Cycling Congress in Edmonton back in February, and pretty quickly realized Pinhead is the perfect War on Cars sponsor. It is a small, ambitious, woman-owned business that is obsessively focused on designing great products for people who ride bikes. Pinhead is different from other bike locks because it secures every part of your bike with one key. You can lock up your wheels, your seat post, saddle, headset, frame, everything with the same key. And with Pinhead’s new tag box, you can track your bike no matter where it goes. Pinhead locks are sold and installed in bike shops all across North America, so you can walk into your local bike shop and ask for it, but you can also order online and War on Cars listeners get a 15 percent discount. Just go to Pinheadlocks.com, and when you check out, enter coupon code WARONBIKETHEFT. Again, that’s pinheadlocks.com, coupon code, WARONBIKETHEFT for 15 percent off.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: A complete stranger walked up behind me and slapped me on the ass. It was so hard it bruised through my clothing.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: He blocked our path. My kids and I couldn’t pass. His face was contorted and furious. He screamed at me that I was disgusting for putting my children at risk.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: He stopped in front of me and then he said, “Get out of my way, you fucking old cow.”]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: I was riding to work.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: I was cycling my kids to school.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: I was cycling to meet a friend.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: We’re calling for this to stop now. We want freedom … ]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: … to ride.]

Sarah Goodyear: Welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Sarah Goodyear. The voices you just heard belong to women who ride bicycles in London. The advocacy group London Cycling Campaign recorded them as part of a study they did looking at why more women don’t cycle in London and what can be done to bring the numbers up.

Sarah: These women’s experiences are hard to hear, but it’s important to listen to what they have to say. And if you’re a woman who rides a bike, they may not come as much of a surprise. Among more than a thousand women surveyed by the London cycling campaign, nine out of ten said they had experienced verbal abuse and aggression while biking. 93 percent said drivers had used vehicles to intimidate them. One in five said they had given up riding permanently or temporarily after they had been harassed. And when women reported incidents of aggression to the police, the cops almost never followed up.

Sarah: As a woman who has been riding a bicycle in New York City and elsewhere for my entire life, I’m not shocked by these results. I’ve experienced plenty of the same. That’s why I was so glad to hear that the London Cycling Campaign has been rallying people to fight back against the epidemic of misogynistic abuse. On March 3, about a thousand protesters took to the streets of London to raise awareness and to demand a systemic response from elected officials and the police. A few days later, I spoke with Kate Bartlett, one of the campaign organizers, about why this is such a crucial issue to address.

Kate Bartlett: I think it really started with a number of us who are women and members of the London Cycling Campaign thinking about why more women don’t cycle. We were aware that actually in London, only a third of journeys that are cycled are made by women. We are all people who cycle, cycle for leisure, cycle every day just to get around the city. We enjoy it. We see the benefits of it for ourselves and for society as a whole. And we just thought we’ve got to get more women cycling. So we began to think about how.

Kate Bartlett:  And I think our collective experience told us that safety was the biggest barrier women are facing. Either it stops them cycling completely, or it maybe means they don’t cycle as much as they could. By safety we meant physical safety, you know, not wanting to be hit by cars, but also what we would term ‘social safety,’ not wanting to be intimidated, abused while on the road. We also thought that women made more journeys in their local neighborhood and wanted cycle infrastructure that better supported that. So that was our kind of collective set of thoughts, but we realized that we might not be completely right and that we should really seek some confirmation from a much broader group of women with different experiences. And that is really how the survey was born, and also to get some of the kind of richer experiences of exactly what it is that women were encountering on the roads. So we got cracking with it.

Sarah:  What were some of the most important findings?

Kate Bartlett: I think I’d say first of all, we were shocked as we started seeing the results come in. We had been aware that women were given a difficult time on the roads by other road users, but there was no way we expected quite so much and quite such extreme findings. So I think the biggest thing was that nine out of ten women said that they’d experienced abuse from other road users while cycling. And in fact, 63 percent of those said they’d experienced that abuse at least once a month. So they were not isolated experiences. That really did shock us.

Kate Bartlett: And I think behind that, the actual nature of some of that abuse shocked us. Really vile sexualized language, physical threats, and at times actual violence—pushing people, spitting at people, those kind of things. So yeah, I think we were shocked by the level and the unpleasantness of the whole thing and saddened by it.

Sarah: This is not just something that happens occasionally, this is part of the cycling landscape for women.

Kate Bartlett: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that those of us who’d organized the survey also realized reading these results, that we had actually, through the amount we were cycling, tuned out what was really going on. I remember the day after I’d listened—I’d seen some of these responses, I went out for a ride and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m just ignoring this stuff!” And obviously women should not have to ignore this stuff. And the result of these things going on is that lots of women’s bikes sit in their garages and never go out. And we just really wanted to change that situation.

Sarah: Tell me those figures about the proportion of women cyclists in London, and how that compares to places with a more robust cycling culture.

Kate Bartlett: Yeah. So London, it has a cycling culture. Cycling has increased in London. About 4.5 percent of trips in London are cycled, but less than a third of those are cycled by women. And that is very different from countries with a much more established cycling culture. I guess the Netherlands is the case study for this. Cycling trips form 27 percent of all trips in the Netherlands, and interestingly, there 54 percent of those trips are cycled by women. That kind of picture is pretty similar in other countries. I think probably the top four are Japan, Germany and Finland, and they all have pretty much 50 percent of trips being made by women. So it is possible.

Sarah: It is possible. And why would you say that it’s an important thing to concentrate on? What does the presence of women in such numbers mean about cycling in a country?

Kate Bartlett: I think—I mean, it is important. If you are not able to attract 50 percent of the population, you’ve got a problem. You’re not really going to drive cycling up. And I think it is just incredibly important for anyone. It’s important for women. We use the word ‘freedom; in our campaign and I think that really resonates. Cycling is about freedom. You can just get on that bike, and particularly in a city, you can be on the other side of the city in no time at all. We want women to have that freedom. That is important.

Kate Bartlett: We want more people as a whole to cycle. For the individual, it’s about fitness. Actually, it’s also about convenience in a city. If you cycle a journey, you know how long it’s gonna take. You can get to your meeting on time or—I still sometimes fail, but hey.

Sarah: [laughs]

Kate Bartlett: But also it’s great for your health, your physical health, your mental health. And then there’s the impact of reduction of pollution from more cycling journeys and the climate impact in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So, you know, it’s just so many good things. And if you can’t attract women to cycling, you’ve got a problem with growing cycling. And also for all these good things, cycling is fun. I want people to enjoy it.

Sarah: We’re gonna take a quick break and we’ll get back to the conversation in a minute.

Doug: Okay, so Sarah, right before we started recording, we were sitting at the coffee shop across the street, and we had to make a beeline for the studio because it started to rain.

Sarah: Yeah, it was raining and I didn’t expect it, so I didn’t have my Cleverhood with me.

Doug: I normally have mine tucked into a bag on my bicycle, but I walked here today, so I didn’t have it. So we both made a huge mistake.

Sarah: Yeah, we did. Because these days it seems like it could rain at any time. And you should have your Cleverhood with you whenever possible.

Doug: Yeah, we now get these, like, afternoon bursts that make me feel like I’m living in Miami and not New York City. I think we were reclassified as a subtropical climate. Thank you, climate change. So wear your Cleverhood. It’s a really good way to beat the climate change blues, I guess.

Sarah: Yeah. And this month, which is Pride month, there’s a new coupon code for Cleverhood in the War on Cars store. You go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, and you enter the coupon code OVERTHERAINBOW. Very seasonal.

Doug: I have the Rover Rain Cape in red. My son has it in yellow. You have it in a really bright pink.

Sarah: Pink.

Doug: I think Aaron has it in green. We just need a couple more people, and we’ve got, like, an incredible pride display for the Brooklyn Pride parade, which is happening this coming weekend.

Sarah: Awesome! Go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, coupon code OVERTHERAINBOW.

Sarah: So tell me about the rally that you just had the other day. How did it go?

Kate Bartlett: I think it went pretty well. We were there to celebrate women’s cycling, and get people out in central London enjoying cycling. But absolutely we were there to draw attention to the barriers to cycling, the things I’ve talked about, that women need to feel socially safe, physically safe, and they need the right kind of infrastructure to enable them to make their journeys safely.

Kate Bartlett: In terms of those three points, that the big thing in the rally was that we had the mayor of London’s cycling commissioner at the rally, and we presented him a petition asking the mayor to address those three asks. It may not sound like a lot, but I think actually for this kind of petition it was pretty good. We were very pleased to get 5,000 signatures and 1,000 people at the ride.

Kate Bartlett: I mean, there was just a very positive atmosphere, a very friendly atmosphere. And I think—I mean, diversity is sometimes an overused word, but when I looked around, we saw diversity. All sorts of people from different parts of London, different types of cycles, some people with hand cycles, other kinds of cycles like that, all sorts of different kinds of backgrounds of people who were there. And just everybody was there having a nice time. I mean, that was certainly my impression, and I believe from the feedback that that was the case. So I think we absolutely achieved our aim of having fun celebrating women’s cycling.

Sarah: You’ve talked about fun, about joy, about the enjoyable nature of cycling. And it strikes me what a contrast that is to the vitriol that cyclists so often experience from drivers. And that was one of the things that surfaced in this survey. Why are drivers so angry? Why do they feel a need to talk this way?

Kate Bartlett: I’d say a few factors come to mind. I think one thing is, I can certainly say in London, we seem to have developed this kind of idea of cyclists versus cars. And I think that it’s a busy city, it’s a congested city, people get angry when they get delayed, and it may not be rational, it may not be the kind of behavior that they would exhibit unless—I mean, quite frankly, some people are in a tin box that protects them and dehumanizes the people outside the tin box. I think that’s some of it. And we need to encourage all road users to think of all other road users as human beings.

Kate Bartlett: And I think quite frankly, we’ve lost that kind of respect for other road users. Not everybody has, but in London we see a lot of that real lack of respect. You wouldn’t say those things face to face with somebody, but you will when you’re perhaps driving and somebody’s on a bike. But I don’t really have all the answers. You know, there’s an anti-cycling element, there’s an anti-woman element. Those two probably magnify the impact, but it is shocking that this happens. And I think the mayor of London also has a big campaign which is simply about preventing violence against women and girls. That’s not specifically to do with cycling, that’s to do with general life in London. So unfortunately, it’s a reality that we live with, and it certainly manifests itself when women are cycling.

Sarah: Yeah. And I think, too, about what you said earlier about how when you’re cycling and you cycle a lot, you tune things out, and how women from a very young age have to learn how to tune things out.

Kate Bartlett: Yeah.

Sarah: When we’re younger and we’re getting catcalled on the street, and men are saying, “Why don’t you smile?” Or, you know, all of that. And we learn how to go about our business. What do women lose when they’re forced to either tune things out, to harden themselves, to sort of put a shell around themselves, or the other alternative is to withdraw from public space to the extent that they can? What do women lose?

Kate Bartlett: I think you’re right in saying it causes people to travel less, to become potentially more socially isolated, just miss out on a lot of what’s out there in the world. And I think it just chips away at, yeah, your confidence, your self esteem. And whether it’s an experience on the road or whether it’s being cat called on the street, those things happen, and we probably all try not to, but you carry them with you the rest of the day, the rest of the week. Some people carry them forever, and I think it just chips away at you.

Sarah: Do you have personal experience with this kind of harassment on the street as a cyclist?

Kate Bartlett: Yes, it absolutely does happen. A simple thing that happens pretty frequently is just very close to where I live. It’s not a very big road. It shouldn’t be a major through road, but people find it handy to get from one major road to another road. There have been attempts to narrow it and slow traffic down, which are partially successful. But it’s the beginning of pretty much every bike ride I make. What happens is some cars are fine. It’s not possible to overtake me. I’m in the middle of the lane in a kind of narrow street. You don’t want to create space to tempt people to overtake you unsafely. I’m in the primary position. Somebody behind me—actually, the day before yesterday, this happened. They’re impatient. I can sense them, I can feel them really unsafely close behind me. I can hear the engine revving, and I’m just kind of waiting for that quick dash around me. And it happened. They were much too close to me, you know, maybe two feet, something like that, away from me.

Sarah: Wow!

Kate Bartlett: So I mean, that wasn’t verbal abuse, but that’s just—I’ve just been really uncomfortable here. And then you start thinking, “Oh, it’s gonna happen again.” You have to just forget it and move on. But that’s not always possible. So that’s something I’ve experienced.

Kate Bartlett: I mean, another comes to mind is we often have what’s called a ‘cycle box’ at the front by a junction. The idea being that cyclists can get into this space, then they can get off quickly at the lights without the other traffic around them. Sometimes the challenge is getting into that box. And I remember on this occasion I made my way to the front. When I got there, the box was half filled by a van. But I was like, well, I’m getting in that box because I haven’t got anywhere else to go at this point. But I thought, you know, for my own safety, I need to kind of plonk myself right in front of this van, and then I turn around to make eye contact to make sure he really had seen me. I think my making eye contact, which again, is a kind of recommended safe behavior, seemed to light a bit of a fuse in the guy and he started screaming and shouting about how he paid for the roads and I didn’t and I should get out of his way. The lights changed, and I made a hasty retreat along the road.

Sarah: Yeah, I think there’s often that sense that people who are driving feel that they can really bully cyclists and pedestrians into making accommodations for vehicles, even when the motor vehicle doesn’t have the right of way or doesn’t have the primary position, shouldn’t have the primary position.

Kate Bartlett: Yeah.

Sarah: It’s interesting to me because, you know, there’s this thing that, oh, women should be treated with, you know, a special respect or, you know, on the train, sometimes people will offer seats to women, older women, women who might be pregnant or with children. Yet when a woman gets on a bicycle in certain places, including New York and London, it sounds like all of that chivalry, shall we say, is proven to be just as hollow and false as—instead they just sort of focus on your weakness and use that as something to push on.

Kate Bartlett: Yeah, I think you’re right. I think the other thing which came out in our survey, which is very interesting, that the attitude towards women cycling with children is kind of unbelievable, really, that some drivers take this attitude that you’re a terrible mother for placing your child in this danger. Another perspective is you’re a terrible driver if you’re going to put this person in danger. [laughs] But that I find very, very curious, and I think almost this sort of sense that it’s too dangerous, so we shouldn’t be there, then somehow allows some of this behavior because we’re doing this thing that’s wrong and dangerous, but it’s sort of completely self-fulfilling.

Sarah: Yeah. And I think if you go back a hundred years, you would find women in cities who were being told that they were, by definition, somehow improper or not behaving in a correct way as a woman if they were on the street, walking down the street as a woman.

Kate Bartlett: Yeah.

Sarah: And so to me, it’s just sort of part of this continuum of policing women’s behavior and women’s independence. And as you say, the focus of your ride was freedom. Perhaps allowing women that kind of freedom, which has always been something that women have gotten from bicycles and has long been a controversial thing that women have gotten from bicycles, it seems to really trigger some people.

Kate Bartlett: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right.

Sarah: Also, I know that there’s been a lot of stuff about women’s safety going on in London, you know, with that terrible case of the police officer who murdered that woman. And it seems like the atmosphere on the street for women in London is a fraught one anyway. So maybe you could tell me a little bit about how women are feeling and how women are acting to take that space for themselves.

Kate Bartlett: Yeah, I think it is somewhat fraught. As I said, the mayor recognizes there is this big issue, and unfortunately, the Metropolitan police force has been recognized as being basically systemically misogynistic. And that’s a difficult atmosphere to be in. I think women are speaking out about it, but I think women are also modifying their behavior to keep themselves safe.

Kate Bartlett: And I guess what our campaign—you know, we’re speaking out, but absolutely, we are aware, you know, even ourselves, that we modify our behavior, cycle routes that are in dark, isolated places. You don’t go there after dark, even if that’s the most direct route home, and you may have to go on a much busier route. People want it to change. There was a huge reaction to the death of Sarah Everard, who you mentioned. We are getting a lot of support for our campaign. The mayor’s representatives have recognised the validity of what we’re raising, but I think it’s going to take a long while to change it.

Kate Bartlett: I think there are two—I guess, two real routes of change. One is looking at it particularly from a cycling perspective, if you have better infrastructure, that can design out some of the conflict, even if somebody is predisposed towards those kind of attitudes, that simply if you’ve got some good segregated space that enables you to make the most of your journey, you’re going to be better off. But we’re aware that infrastructure can’t be the total cure for this. There has to be some changes in attitude. We’re certainly kind of hoping to influence that approach, which in London there is work to educate young boys, et cetera, right up to change those attitudes, and we’re looking to get involved in those kind of things. But yeah, it’s not a great time.

Sarah: So what gives you hope?

Kate Bartlett: I think really what has given us hope is first of all, quite frankly, that people have been shocked and told us they’ve been shocked by our report. They haven’t ignored it, they haven’t told us it’s wrong. And if you don’t even acknowledge that a problem exists, you’re not going to solve it. So absolutely hope that people are accepting that this is a problem. And that really has been quite widespread in terms of a lot of London-level politicians, the more local politicians, there’s been a recognition of what we’re raising. There’s been a lot of acceptance on social media, and I think that’s a kind of good bellwether. There haven’t been too many people telling us we’ve got it all wrong.

Kate Bartlett: A slightly different kind of hope, but the fact that so many women came on our ride, and the determination of those women to cycle in spite of, you know, some difficult environments for cycling, and I think that it would be great if we could all just step onto some nice, safe roads. But I think if women continue to battle, get on the streets, speak about it, I’m just hoping we will be heard.

Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thank you so much to Kate Bartlett and to all the women in London who are sharing their stories. Thanks to our sponsors, Pinhead Components. Lock up every part of your bike with one key. Go to Pinheadlocks.com, enter coupon code WARONBIKETHEFT for 15 percent off.

Sarah: Also, thank you to Cleverhood, the best rain gear for biking and walking. Go to Cleverhood.com/WaronCars, and enter coupon code OVERTHERAINBOW for 15 percent off.

Sarah: Also, if you don’t already, please support us on Patreon. You can go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us“, and pitch in at $3, $5 or $10 a month. We’ll send you stickers, and you’ll get discounts on merchandise and access to dozens of bonus episodes. Plus, you’ll be able to listen to regular episodes ad free.

Sarah: We want to thank our top Patreon supporters, Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and the Parking Reform Network.

Sarah: This episode was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Russell Gragg does our transcription. I’m Sarah Goodyear, and this is The War on Cars.