“A woman riding a bicycle - What a scandal! What next? ”

We could easily hear such a phrase if we were living at the end of the 19th century. The bicycle was booming as a means of transport, but there was a debate about whether women should be able to use this fashion.

However, some were clear that they were not going to be any less. This was the case of Frances Willard, an American suffragist who, at the age of 53, did not hesitate to learn to ride a bicycle. Such was the sense of freedom she experienced that in 1895 she published a book in which she expressed her disobedience to social convictions.

Another suffragist from the same time, Susan B. Anthony, believed that "[the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world". From the US to the UK, a small act such as riding a bicycle became an instrument to challenge the sexist barriers of the time and pursue greater changes.

Frances E. Willard
Cover of a reprint of A wheel within a wheel¸ the book in which Frances Willard recounted her quest for freedom as a woman through cycling.
Source: United States Library of Congress.

Understanding the link between mobility and gender is a first step

The simple defiance of Willard and many other contemporaries was a significant act because it reclaimed women's ability to have equal access to a means of transport popular at the time and, by extension, positioned mobility as a space for feminist demands. This is the view of Susan Hanson, who opens her dissertation in one of the most cited academic works on sustainable mobility with Willard's example. Inspired by the suffragette's impetus, Hanson argues that gender and mobility are issues that subtly and profoundly influence each other, so a proper understanding of this relationship is necessary to address complex social problems. Therefore, Hanson argues, the quest for sustainable mobility would not make sense without this perspective. Thus, as a policy note of the CIVITAS network concludes, women's mobility is closely linked to women's empowerment, equal opportunities and independence.

The study and understanding of this link is the first of the five principles proposed by the Women Mobilize Women network, promoted by TUMI and the German government to address the issue of women in transport (next poster). There are initiatives that demonstrate how gender can be mainstreamed and respond to the other principles, such as the case of night buses with flexible stops in Bilbao and other cities (principles 2 and 3), the Nocturnes project on the risks of night workers in Barcelona (principles 1 and 3) or a European Commission’s platform to promote the presence of women in the transport sector (principle 4). Moreover, the fifth principle of raising awareness about this issue, to which this post aims to contribute.

5 Principles for Women and transport
Various actions around 5 main principles in relation to women and transport. The poster with better resolution is available here.

Let's try to see it with an example

Some clues can be found in the film Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016), which vindicates the role of Katherine Johnson and her colleagues in some of NASA's most important milestones. Johnson's calculations were decisive in getting the first American into space. But her talent and effort were not enough. Her recognition as a woman was blatantly secondary, unable to sign the reports even though she had done the main work herself. In addition, her status as an African-American in the early 1960s severely compounded her disadvantages as a worker. Among these circumstances, the film includes Johnson's difficulty in finding a bathroom for herself.

This is not the best example because it is undeniable that racial discrimination is a major factor in this story. But it helps to powerfully illustrate how having to travel extra distances, with the time and burnout that this entailed, was detrimental to her ability to keep up with the pace of work and do her best. In the end, the reality was that the layout of the space and the distance to the destination, coupled with the lack of means (she could not even use the bicycles available at the facilities!) inevitably left her behind. Taraji P. Henson's interpretation below reflects how it is only by speaking out that her boss began to be aware of the problem and take Johnson's perspective and needs into account.

Let us now imagine these barriers on a large scale, not in a building, but in a city and its periphery or a rural area. Let us imagine them for average working women and how urban and transport planning that has not taken into account their realities can deepen the gender gap. As we had already discussed in #Beyondcompetitiveness, incorporating a gender perspective into sustainable mobility development is complex, but crucial to reduce social exclusion and enable equal access to opportunities. According to a report by the World Labour Organisation, this is especially evident in areas characterised by poor transport infrastructure and services, where women's aspirations remain equally poor.

From local to global through small gestures

The first thing to underline is that effective sustainable mobility has to take into account the needs of citizens in all their diversity. But as it has been studied for decades, the gender perspective has traditionally been one of the most undervalued aspects of transport planning. As the world's population and the rate of urbanisation continue to grow, particularly in emerging economies, this lack of attention needs to be generally acknowledged and SDG 5 should be positioned as a driving force for a universal conception of sustainable mobility, with sufficient flexibility to be adapted to the realities of local populations.

Making this premise universal is necessary because, as Johnson's example shows, gender inequality can easily be linked to racial discrimination, as well as other factors that also require attention, such as membership of the LGBTI community or economic and socio-cultural status. The combined effect of several of these factors can be devastating for vulnerable women in many parts of the world.

However, there has undoubtedly been great progress in terms of awareness and political will. At Orkestra, we were able to see that digitalisation and new business models in sustainable mobility have a great capacity to integrate gender and other perspectives, although we must warn that there is the possibility of evolving towards the opposite effect.

For me, the important thing is that there is something inspiring in the passion of the suffragettes on bicycles or Katherine Johnson’s tenacity. They showed us how small gestures can, in the end and over time, lead to big changes. And as the fifth principle of the previous Women Mobilize Women poster tells us, we can all take the initiative in the means of transport and on the streets of our community to act in a gender-sensitive way.

How? For example, by telling your experience. When in early 2021 Zahara released her song 'Merichane', in which she tells that (walking down the street) "I was there with the keys in my hand, speeding up the pace, pretending to talk to my brother" and other experiences, the #IWasThere hashtag (originally #YoEstabaAhí in Spanish) was generated on social networks for women to tell their own experiences of harassment and male violence. We can do the same and inspire others to speak out against bad practices and demand measures for sustainable mobility for women.

Jaime Menéndez

Jaime Menéndez

Jaime joined the Institute as a Predoctoral Researcher at the Energy Lab in 2015. He has worked on the following projects: “Energy and Industrial Transition” and  Technology, Transport and Efficiency.

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