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Cycling Beyond the Margins: A Gendered Perspective

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Yes, mobility also has a gender bias.

Artwork by Tanishk Katalkar

Gender is a pervasive issue and an important discussion in the mobility domain. Studies have revealed that women and the LGBTQ+ community are less likely to pick public transport as a method of transit owing to various factors, which makes Intermediate Means of Transport like bicycles a viable and sustainable alternative in urban settings.



Several factors play a role in why women choose not to use public transport, ranging from societal responsibilities to safety.

While there might be various personal reasons and preferences, the following are common in their experiences on public transport:

Social and Family Responsibilities

Women have traditionally assumed the role of caregivers in the family. Their responsibilities range from sending the children of the household to school to preparing meals. This puts them at a disadvantage and gives them constricted time windows for transport. Since tasks for several people dictate their time, they are not only time-poor but also need more resources and the opportunity to become financially independent.


Poverty

The lack of economic opportunity and dependence on the male members of the family complicate mobility options for women. Since public transportation runs on strict schedules that can turn out to be expensive, women find it harder to transit.


Safety

Probably the number one cause for women’s aversion to public transportation in urban areas is the lack of safety. Women and girls are not only more likely to face gender-based violence in the form of sexual, verbal and physical harassment but also have subdued voices when it comes to speaking out about them. An online survey in metropolitan areas in 2019-2020 by the Observer Research Foundation found that almost 56% of the women who used public transport reported being sexually harassed, which included catcalling, teasing, leering, touching, and groping.


Tackling unsafe behaviour on public transport is a very difficult ordeal because it involves changing the attitudes harassers have towards women and there is no easy way to bring women out of poverty and patriarchal norms. However, bicycles can create a world of difference and empower women to make decisions regarding their safety and mobility. A bicycle slashes daily commuting costs by eliminating the need to pay for bus and train fares and reducing the amount of time spent walking from different points of public transport. The walk from one point of public transport to the other, especially at night, poses many safety risks for women and end-to-end travel is a significantly safer option. For low-income families, owning a bicycle is more financially feasible than a 2-wheeler motorised transport or public transport because the cost of maintaining it is very low. Historically, bicycles have served as marks of women’s freedom; during the suffrage, bicycles helped women not just meet other women freely but also to plan political action.


In the current scenario, the impact of bicycles is no less. A study examining the effect of providing bikes to women in Bihar found that it increased secondary school enrollment rates. It showed an increase in girls' age-appropriate enrollment in secondary school by 30% and a reduction in the gender gap in age-appropriate secondary school enrollment by 40%.


Similarly, the LGBTQ+ community face many issues with their mobility needs. In addition to safety and poverty, the societal perception of their identities plays a big role in their mobility experience in the following ways:

Safety

According to one study, public transportation can be a place where transgender individuals are uncertain about who may be observing them. As a result, they may feel the need to constantly be vigilant, monitor their behaviour and appearance, and strive to appear less "queer" to avoid attracting attention. Their deviation from ‘typical’ gender norms often results in experiences of harassment and hostility while travelling.


Society

The binary nature of gendered entrances to most public modes of transportation makes them unfriendly and unaccommodating for individuals belonging to genders beyond Males and Females. Security screenings regulate access to public transport through frisking. In metro lines with security, there are separate lines for men and women, with female security guards responsible for conducting pat-downs on women and male security guards on men. Transgender and non-binary individuals may be questioned about which line they should be in, leading to public harassment based on their gender identity or forcing them to conform to the societal expectations of their gender.


Poverty

With gender identities that don’t conform to the boolean perception of gender still being unaccepted and ostracised, people belonging to the queer communities pay an economic cost for stigma. While it is impossible to accurately describe the economic status of the queer community in India, due to demographic diversity, studies have indicated that queer individuals in India may encounter discrimination and other barriers that can negatively affect their economic status. Examples of such barriers include discrimination in the workplace and when seeking education and other opportunities. This puts them in the same position as cisgender women who are trapped in poverty.


Can bicycles solve these problems? Maybe. But they can act as a means for people belonging to queer communities to feel empowered. Autonomy of mobility can serve as a powerful instrument of self-determination. With the use of bicycles, queer individuals can take control of their safety and also their identity by avoiding situations like those faced in public transit. Being able to travel on their terms can provide a sense of independence that is often robbed from them.



While gender and public transport might be the more visible problems, another issue commonly faced by both women and queer communities is the ownership of vehicles, owing not only to their economic status but also the question of their abilities. On more than one occasion, women have been the butt of sexist jokes about their driving skills and the ownership of auto-mobiles is usually with the patriarch of the family. Another concern might be pollution and environmental degradation. A study in America found that for queer communities, the environment plays a big role in their choice of means of transport. The study revealed that men in same-sex relationships were on average 69% more likely to walk or bike to work and that the environmental preferences of gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents were around 10% stronger than those of heterosexual individuals. The choice to be green and commute in public are at odds for them, which makes bicycles even more important, not just from a mobility point of view but also environmentally.


Historically and currently, bicycles have served as symbols of dissent and nonconformity to the norms and rules of society. In November 2021, hundreds of protestors gathered in central Delhi along with several other women, workers, students, youths, teachers, and artists to raise their voices against undeterred inflation by becoming a part of a cycle rally. Similarly, in July 2021, The Youth Congress demanded a rollback of fuel prices by riding on bicycles in front of the Congress Bhavan.


Such instances of the symbolism of bicycles cannot be ignored because they indicate a power beyond freedom of mobility. Bicycles can manifest themselves as rudiments of resistance, particularly in social and political movements, by empowering people to stand up for themselves and other causes. For example, in some contexts, biking has been associated with environmental activism or sustainability, and individuals may use bikes as a way to protest against car culture or other forms of pollution. Public transit needs to be changed and reformed in the direction of human rights with a focus on similar experiences for all individuals, irrespective of gender and economic status.


It is time we make space for all genders in our transportation and eliminates the binary lens we so often use. To make cycling inclusive and make a change in the social infrastructure around cycling, sign this petition.


References


Approaches for Gender-Responsive Urban Mobility, Sustainable Urban Transport Project


Fiala N, Hernandez A.G, Narula K, Prakash N (2022, May 19). Wheels of Change: Transforming Girls' Lives with Bicycles, Retrieved from


CYCLING TO SCHOOL: INCREASING SECONDARY SCHOOL ENROLLMENT FOR GIRLS IN INDIA, Working Paper 19305


Is Public Commute Gender Inclusive?: Access, Safety, And Utility Of Our Transport Infrastructure, Feminism India, 6 June 2022


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