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Safe cycling is a feminist issue: Sam talks with David Isaac about cycling infrastructure and women riders

I’ve been enjoying my exchanges with David Isaac on Twitter. Like me, he’s got both the word “philosophy” and the word “cyclist” in his bio. We’re also both interested in the issues facing women cyclists. I’m just on the edge of the cycling advocacy community here in Guelph but David is quite involved in bike advocacy in London, Ontario, the city he calls home.

Here’s our recent chat about women and bike safety.

Hey, welcome to Fit is a Feminist Issue! Maybe we can start by you telling us a bit about your background as a cycling infrastructure advocate and also as a cyclist.

David: I have always been a cyclist – I’ve been riding a bike to work and school for over a decade in Kitchener-Waterloo and London. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve started to get more involved as an advocate. I’m a personal injury lawyer, and in my line of work it’s not uncommon to see cyclists who are hurt in collisions with drivers. As I started looking into why these collisions were so frequent, it became clear that infrastructure played a big role. Where proper bike infrastructure is in place, more people ride bikes, but collisions are less frequent. As I came to understand this better, I started advocating for proper infrastructure. A lot of that advocacy is just on Twitter, but I’ve also given a few talks and interviews about cycling. 

What’s the connection, do you think, between good safe cycling infrastructure and the goal of getting more women on bikes?

David: Research shows that where safe cycling infrastructure is built, more women will ride their bikes. “Safe infrastructure” generally means bike lanes that physically separate the cyclist from vehicles – the old joke is that “paint isn’t infrastructure”. It’s important to note that the research does not show that this correlation is due to a sort of evo-psych explanation about women being inherently risk-averse. Each person’s risk tolerance is different, and this of course intersects with race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc. 

Léa Ravensbergen, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, has done some excellent research into the differences between what women and men use bikes for. She uses a great term “vélomobilities of care” to describe the ways people meet their and others’ household needs using bicycles – for instance, by taking kids to school or running errands. She notes that because women take on a disproportionate amount of this work, the types of activities women use cycling for are often different for women than for men. So the location of infrastructure matters. If it only serves commuters, but doesn’t connect to a daycare or a grocery store, it will mostly benefit male cyclists. Protected bike lanes are the go-to example of safe infrastructure, but it isn’t the only thing that matters in getting women on bikes. Bike parking that is well-lit and safe is also important. 

Cycling has a reputation of being a male-dominated activity, and the discourse around cycling infrastructure suffers from this same problem. This can lead to issues in determining where cycling infrastructure is built. If cities only listen to advice about bike lanes from white men, they will end up building bike lanes that are primarily useful to white men. Viewing infrastructure through a feminist lens means building cycling infrastructure in places that benefit women, and making sure cyclists are protected from gendered violence. Again, it goes without saying that other identities play a large role in this. Bike lanes in wealthy neighbourhoods will only increase cycling among wealthy women. 

I’ve heard it said that women are the “indicator species” for safe happy community cycling. Countries with a big number of cyclists also have lots of women out on bikes–commuting, recreationally riding, etc. Why is that, do you think?

David: I think there are probably two main factors at play here. The first is that those countries generally have a large network of bike lanes, which are more likely to connect to places that women are more likely to cycle to. The other is if you are a woman who wants to ride, and there are lots of people riding, it’s easier to find other people to help you get started. Ravensbergen noted that trips that are considered difficult by bike (such as a grocery shop or taking children to school) can be made easier if you have mentorship opportunities to teach you how to make those trips more easily. 

Why is safe cycling a feminist issue?

David: People who cycle regularly have significantly improved health outcomes compared to non-cyclists. This applies to both mental and physical health. Cycling can save you money and is better for the environment. Plus, it’s fun! It’s important that these benefits are available to everyone, not just men.

Safe cycling is also key to creating healthier, more interconnected communities. If people live in disconnected places, they can’t access things they need like social connection, fresh food, healthcare, or child care. Safe cycling infrastructure can make cities more equitable. 

David and his cargo bike
Winter riding

David Isaac is a personal injury lawyer and cycling advocate in London, Ontario. He specializes in helping pedestrians and cyclists who are injured. He tweets about cycling, law and philosophy at @DIsaac8.

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