What women want

What women want

Copyright AECOM photo by David Lloyd

Last week my colleague sold her bike. She said if there was infrastructure where she lives — like the floating suspension bridge in Eindhoven, Netherlands, or the proposed SkyCycle above London’s rail lines — she’d cycle. Until then she said, “our roads are too dangerous for women.”

It’s not just here in my hometown of Brisbane, Australia, that women are scared. The problem is the same in London too. Forty cyclists were killed there in 2012, the majority by heavy goods vehicles.

I interviewed women in Australia to find out why the bicycle was the ‘elephant in the room.’ I wasn’t surprised with the answers I heard at coffee shops, yoga classes, and at workplaces: women didn’t ride because of the lack of separated cycle infrastructure. What women wanted was complete separation from all parked and moving cars.

In Copenhagen, a city of 560,000 bicycles, 521,000 people, and 35,000 cycle parking spaces, 85 percent of residents own a bike; 70 percent cycle all year round; and 60 percent use their bikes every day. A quarter of all families with two children own a cargo bike. In Denmark, cycling is chic, stylish, and sophisticated, but Copenhagenites don’t only cycle because it’s good for their health or their environment. They cycle because it’s the fastest, safest, easiest, and most convenient mode of transport — because their city has a network of separated bikeways.

I’ve visited 21 ‘cycling cities’ — the famous ones in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany, as well as the lesser-known icons, such as Bogota, Colombia — to discover firsthand what infrastructure had transformed a city into a ‘cycling city.’ What I found was that each city had its own unique network of bikeways, but there were common themes: four to five metres of usable cycling space, complete separation from motorised traffic, a consistent level of service, as well as high-quality streetscaping and signage. All of the cycle routes in all of the cities were designed with cycling in mind — they were direct, quick, and traffic free. They were lined with cosy cafes, enticing boutiques, and townhouses with window boxes. Above all, they were beautiful.

Here in Australia, like in the U.S. and U.K., we have a problem with width and protection. We have some cycle lanes, but they are skinny, unprotected, on-road cycle lanes on busy highways full of big trucks, and often less than one metre wide. ‘Normal’ people — women, children, seniors, families, tourists (not the self-labelled ‘lycra clad roadies’)  — don’t ever consider riding a bicycle because it’s just too dangerous. In an attempt to ‘get more people cycling more of the time,’ councils build more skinny, unprotected, on-road cycle lanes, and not surprisingly, the vicious cycle of people not riding bicycles continues.

In 2010 I launched my Cycling Super Highways concept: a vision for seven-metre-wide, six-lane cycleways (fast, medium, and slow lanes) – the highway of bicycling – that are completely separated from cars, and most importantly, designed for everyone, including people new or returning to cycling, sports cyclists in training, time-constrained commuters, kids with bikes with stabilisers, seniors on power-assisted bicycles, and mothers on cargo bikes cycling with their weekly shopping.

I know we can’t just go out digging up roads and knocking down houses to build Cycling Super Highways, but we can identify opportunities to reshape our towns and cities to make them safer for cycling.

The Los Angeles Department of Transport was right when it said, “for the bike to catch on we need a revolution in our bicycle infrastructure.” If we really want cycling to be a central part of our lifestyle, our transport system and our cities, we need a ‘separate infrastructure revolution’ because that’s what women want.



Rachel Smith is an internationally-recognised urban planner and commentator, and principal transport planner with AECOM’s Brisbane office. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter, or follow her blog here.

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  1. I very much enjoyed your article. I too enjoy bike riding, but do so only occasionally, when the weather is outstanding and sometimes on holiday. But I have a great affinity for biking and have for a long time – at a very young age I apparently asked my mom why police officers didn’t ride bikes (which of course they do now in many communities), and my first job as a planning intern supported the creation of a bicycle plan for a mid-size U.S. city (which is slowly building out its network). It is wonderful to see the progress that has been made over the years in cities in the U.S. and elsewhere, though it is truly marginal compared to the potential and what is needed. As you point out however, it is only with a truly safe bicycle network (and one that is also ubiquitous) that this will happen.

  2. Rachel, I really enjoyed your article. Here in Sacramento, CA we have miles of bike trails along the rivers and in to the downtown area, but they are narrow lanes, one each way, and in my opinion dangerous for a newbie rider like I would be and especially for my 3 young boys who would easily get plowed over by the “lycra clad roadies”. If it comes to a tax vote to create a Cycling Super Highway – I vote Yes.

  3. Nice article, reading it at the library in Amsterdam on a rainy day while my bike is parked in the underground cycle garage. Another theme you omitted, cyclists have right of way and cars must yield. How to develop the psychological infrastructure maybe a harder trick than the physical.

  4. Hi Rachel.
    A good read, but I am wondering why we can’t “just go out digging up roads and knocking down houses to build Cycling Super Highways”. In many places, Wellington for example, roads are too narrow for segregated lanes without removing parking (and potentially a house or two to provide off-street parking for those that remain). That is exactly the challenge Wellington City is grappling with – perhaps we need to be more bold to achieve a better end result for cyclists?

  5. Rachel, another aspect that impacts my decision to ride is season – but more for lighting than weather. I really only ride in summer time – during daylight savings – as I am uncomfortable riding in the dark. My concern is that it is that much harder for cars and other vehicles to see me, even with fluoro vest and lights – and much harder for me to see obstacles like parked car doors opening and pedestrians (often busy texting!) stepping out in front of me. So even if we have separated cycling paths, for me, they also need to be well lit.
    I love your work.

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