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How do we get more women to embrace the cycling commute?

Catherine Carter

Canberra prides itself on being a cycle-friendly city.

We have an extensive network of bike paths throughout the Capital, designated bike lanes on our arterial roads, a range of bike-friendly cafés and a year-round calendar of cycling events.

Whether you’re hitting the trails of Stromlo Forest Park or pedalling leisurely around Lake Burley Griffin, there’s something for everyone. But is this really the case?

Few women will strap on a helmet to drop a convoy of kids to school before cycling into the office. Even fewer will cycle down to Coles to do the weekly shop. And though there may be some, I personally don’t know any woman who would jump on a bike to get to a business meeting.

Women are often considered the ‘indicator species’ for cycling. Women tend to be risk averse, which translates into increased demand for safe bike infrastructure as a prerequisite for riding. Women also do most of the household shopping and childcare, which means bike routes need to be practical. And they may also be less enthusiastic about getting sweaty or helmet hair.

But a study undertaken by the government-funded Norwegian Institute of Transport Economics has discovered that people – particularly women – are more likely to embrace cycling if they have access to electric bikes.

The study’s test group outlined a range of barriers that prevented them from cycling, from the lack of safe infrastructure and the need to carry cargo to the problem of getting sweaty. Women reported these barriers more often than men.

But once they had access to e-bikes, participants took more bike trips and the overall distance they travelled increased. They spent less time behind the wheel of a car, which reduced their carbon footprints. And because they took longer and more frequent trips, the riders’ health improved.

But most interesting of all, I think, is that the female e-bike riders in the study took far more trips than male riders did.

This is why I’m excited about an Australian-first electric bike sharing program in a residential apartment development that is just getting underway on Northbourne Avenue.

Art Group has signed with Bykko to install 10 electric shared bikes at its new On Forbes development in Turner. The new apartments come with a free twelve-month e-bike share subscription for residents.

Art Group is looking to lighten its carbon footprint, and get people out of their cars and into a sustainable mode of transport.

But could electric bicycles encourage more women to embrace the cycle commute? Monica Zarafu thinks so.

The founder and CEO of Bykko, and a champion of bike sharing as a transport system, Zarafu says e-bike sharing is easy to implement, environmentally friendly and cost-effective.

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“Research has found that by overcoming barriers to cycling, electric bikes could encourage more people to cycle and existing network users to cycle more.

“People need to move fast from A to B. They need to be multi-tasking, highly productive and adaptive to change. They will choose the fastest, cheapest and most convenient travel mode,” she says.

Bykko’s approach is not just about the bikes. It also includes a bike reservation system, integrated docking and battery recharging system, and a one-swipe checkout system.

Zarafu says electric bikes – sometimes called power-assisted bikes or pedelecs – can address the gender imbalance in cycling “as more women will be attracted to a sweat-free and effortless ride”.

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Cities like Milan, Madrid, Copenhagen, Stuttgart, Oslo, Zurich have already opted for electric bike share systems with great results, Zarafu says, but even small-scale schemes can have great results.

“We’ve run a small trial in Newcastle and we had users from pregnant women to people with serious health issues riding the Bykko bikes.

“With all the negative discourse around cycling in Australia, we have forgotten how fun and liberating you feel on a bike,” Zarafu says.

Cathy Bussey, the author of The Girl’s Guide to Life On Two Wheels, says breaking down the barriers to more women cycling means showing them “how they can cycle to work and still look presentable for a meeting with the boss at 10am”.

“We need to show we understand that issues like showering and changing, helmet hair, transporting makeup and cosmetics to and from work and having somewhere to plug in a hairdryer aren’t just superficial ‘vanity’ but really do matter to many women – not all women, granted, but many.”

E-bikes may not be the silver bullet to more women cycling. But they’re a good start.

Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now heads up a boutique consulting firm, Indigo Consulting Australia, where she retains an interest and focus on urban environments, community building, and diversity. She provides a range of specialist business and communication advisory services to a number of organisations including development and construction companies, law firms, and the Canberra Glassworks, and sits on a several boards including Music for Canberra, the National Association of Women in Construction ACT Chapter Council and the Ministerial Advisory Council on Women. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010. More about the Author