Women On Bicycles
In June 2017, I will be joining the second rendition of #RoadtoCACUSS which consists of a 475km, 5 day bike ride from Toronto to Ottawa. As an avid cyclist, there’s nothing I love more than hopping onto my bike and exploring the city, but as I prepare to cycle this city-spanning adventure, I have to stop and reflect—I didn’t always feel that way.
My first day living in Toronto I almost got hit by a cyclist. It was my fault for stepping on to the street without taking a shoulder glance first, but as I heard the cyclist swear under his breath, swerve quickly out of the way and zoom off into the distance, I thought to myself, “Who would want to bike in a city like this?” The idea of sharing Toronto’s narrow downtown streets with cars, trucks, and other cyclists seemed absolutely ridiculous and frankly, a bit like a death wish.
For a long time, I felt that biking wasn’t for me. I was a PFL—Pedestrian For Life. I’m the type of person who wears lots of skirts and semi-uncomfortable-but-stylish-heeled shoes. I didn’t have any desire to get onto a bike and sit on a teeny-tiny, firm seat. I didn’t want to get sweaty. These were my excuses. I continued my life happily bike-free, confined to the safety of the sidewalk.
As a woman living in the city, it’s clear that I wasn’t alone in my risk-averse anti-biking behaviour. A recent study done by Ryerson’s Transform Lab entitled “An Exploration of Cycling Patterns and Potential in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area” found that women in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) only make up 30% of cyclists on the roads. There is a huge potential for more women to cycle since currently, more women make trips that can be potentially cycled (54%) compared to men (46%). As a woman, I find these numbers disappointing, however, I understand well the intimidation of cycling in a city like Toronto.
There is limited knowledge on women’s cycling behaviours, but the findings from the report states that safe cycling infrastructure is the key to increasing cycling among women. Compared to men, women are less likely to ride on roads without some form of bike lane. In addition to this, cycling shops and clubs tend to be dominated by men which can add to the general unease for women. (It’s great that there’s community initiatives like the Bad Girls Bike Club to assist in remedying that!) I also believe that some of the reasons women choose not to cycle are superficial. I’ve seen men in full suits riding to work. A pencil skirt? Not so easy.
My attitude towards cycling all changed when I met my partner who is an avid cyclist. Throughout our courtship, wherever we walked, his bike always trailed alongside him. He dropped subtle hints here and there about how I should get a bike. I answered him by pointing at my shoes and making many other excuses. After 7 months of politely walking with me everywhere, he snapped:
“Cathy, you have to get a bike. Walking is sooooo slow.”
“I’m too scared!” I said, the truth coming out.
“Trust me. It’ll be fine. I’ll bike with you.”
I warmed to the idea, but as a student I didn’t have the money to buy a bike so, much to my relief, I knew I wouldn’t have to get on the saddle anytime soon. (un)Fortunately for me, a wonderful friend I used to work with, Santana, just so happened to have a free bike she was looking to give away. My partner’s eyes lit up. There’s no getting out of this now, I thought.
It was April. It was still cold, but the sun was shining. Santana met me under the Kerr Hall West arches and handed over this not-cute black and green mountain bike. The first bike ride I ever took was from Ryerson, west on Gerrard Street and up through Queens Park. I vividly remember my partner turning to look back at me every now and then to see that I was following (and alive). I remember smiling nervously. Luckily for me, I never looked back.
If you are a woman living in the city, get a bike. I repeat: get a bike (or at least a bikeshare membership). As someone who lives in downtown Toronto, I have no idea why I was so reluctant to get cycling. The city shrinks. By that I mean, everything feels more accessible. That 45 minute walk to my favourite west end restaurant is now a 13 minute bike ride. The first summer I had a bike, I got to explore the city in a way that I hadn’t been able to before. I didn’t have to worry about waiting for a streetcar or a bus. I didn’t have to pay for parking. If I wanted to get somewhere quickly, I just pedaled faster. I had total control. Not only was it free, but it was freeing.
For the distance commuters in the GTA reading this, keep your eyes open because the city is taking steps to address the “Last Mile” of your commute, the distance travelled from a major transit stop to your home. One of the proposed solutions being more biking infrastructure.
Financially, I have saved thousands of dollars by not purchasing a monthly transit pass. I did eventually make the investment and buy my own new bike, but it paid itself off in less than 4 months. If you maintain your bike well, it can last you decades. My first used bike was 10 years older than me. Cycle shops offer a wide range of services such as annual tune ups, tire changes, cleaning, etc., but a lot of this can be done on your own. There are also volunteer bike repair locations like bikeSauce where you can learn how to fix your own bike with tools supplied from the store. Once you get into it, you’ll find yourself wanting to upgrade parts and customizing accessories like handlebars, seats, and literally bells and whistles.
Beyond that, the well-being and health benefits of biking are undoubtedly the best part of being a cyclist. Being able to get to work quickly without dealing with traffic or a crowded TTC streetcar does wonders for your energy and outlook on the day. Trying to achieve that natural glow/flushed look that beauty blogs are always talking about? Try biking instead. I know some women say that they just don’t like the idea of getting sweaty. It’s true, sometimes on a hot day you can arrive at your destination with a slight sheen, but I’ve grown to love that kind of sweat. Why is sweating considered a bad thing? It’s natural and healthy. As someone I know once said, “My sweat stains aren’t my problem—they’re yours.”
It’s easy to dismiss the idea of cycling, specifically for women, as a form of enrichment, but not so long ago it was said by prominent feminist Susan B. Anthony that cycling had done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world during the Suffragette Movement. Riding bikes during that time gave women physical movement and political power that revolutionized feminist attitudes. In Irving A. Leonard’s book, When Bikehood was in Flower, cycling was described as “a general intoxication, an eruption of exuberance like a seismic tremor that shook the economic and social foundations of society and rattled the windows of its moral outlook.” I don’t know if I would put it that intensely today, but I definitely feel the echo of that spirit every time I hop on my bike.
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