“The whole ecosystem is not built for women to cycle- but at least we are starting to acknowledge this!”
Interview with Dr. Anvita Arora and Parvesh Sharawat on gender equality and cycling in India
The SUTP-Team had the chance to talk to Dr. Anvita Arora and Parvesh Sharawat at the International Cycling Conference this year in Mannheim. They are leading researchers in the field of bicycle traffic in India.
In India, cyclists are mostly captive users – often, there is simply no other option. Due to the lack of infrastructure, the share of cycling has been decreasing since the 1980s. However, in the urban centers, it is being rediscovered by the middle classes – until now mainly for recreational purposes. The image is slowly changing to the better, and especially local governments are starting to consider biking in their planning agendas.
Anvita and Parvesh especially emphasize the importance of the bike for women, while those at the same time face severe restrictions to using it – including the high risk of gender-based violence. On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on the 25th of November we want to share a part of the interview here with you.
SUTP: What role does cycling play for women in India?
Anvita: Whether women use the bike or not differs around India. The status of women in different parts of the country varies, for example in the northern part, the society is more patriarchal, women are more repressed, they don’t have independent mobility. There is less participation in the workforce, women don’t step out that much, and therefore less women are cycling. In the southern parts, women are allowed independent mobility, and you’ll find more women cycling. Whether women are cycling or not is related to their larger status in society.
It is a patriarchal society. In those parts of the country that don’t allow women out alone, if the women do go out, walking or cycling, they get harassed even more. Independent mobility is therefore much more restricted, and women feel less safe going out, whereas in parts of the country where there is more equality, they feel safer going out, because they have the right to be out on the road.
The second part is of course infrastructure. Not only bike lanes and bike parking, but also just basic things like lighting, safe spaces to wait at bus stops, whether the city has active streets or it has dead walls, generally whether it is safe to be outside or not.
SUTP: What other reasons are there for women not to use a bike?
Anvita: I have done a lot of work with lower income women and if there is a bicycle in the house, the man uses it, if there is a motorcycle in the house, the man uses it. Typically, women tend to have access to slow moving modes, which are cheaper. This usually restricts them to walking, or, if they have to go long distances, to public transit. Even though they are time-poor and cash-poor, women are restricted to primarily walking and public transport.
Parvesh: That reminds me of recently analyzed demographical data in Pune. They found that women, when it comes to making a mode choice, actually consider how many people are there in the household, what is the household income, etc. The only significant factor for men is whether they have a car or a bike, or not.
Anvita: Cycling also has many other issues; taking care of bikes, having the training to fix them, etc. Additionally, there are not enough bicycles available that cater to women’s needs. Women’s bicycles are more expensive than the men’s bicycles, and they are limited to one or two models. With dresses like this (long Indian dresses-Saris), you need a step-through the bicycle. Moreover, most of them come in pink color - why would I want a bicycle in pink!? The whole ecosystem is not built for women: you don’t have safe bicycle parking in any place, and women often carry luggage or have their children with them, and the current bike models are not suitable for this.
While women would need that cheaper mobility, the whole design of the bicycle and the infrastructure does not enable women to move on a bicycle. This includes social and economic variables and reaches until anthropological and ergonomic variables of the design and the innovations around it. Many, many things become barriers for women to cycle.
SUTP: Are there any policies that try to address that issue?
They are coming into place. The acknowledgement of the heterogeneity of users, the different types of users and needs, and hence the need for different kinds of design is just slowly starting.
Gender is adding another layer to it, which is not very well understood right now. We are just acknowledging that there is an issue, what we are going to do about it is not yet articulated. It is not that simple - there is not one type of woman, there are multiple types of women, with different income levels, different work participation rates, after all different types of users with different needs.
We are still far away from understanding women’s mobility patterns, the way they would cycle. We have no research that backs those things up. At least we are starting to acknowledge that, yes, this is an issue, and we need to address it! We are at that point now.
Thank you very much for the interview!
(Photos by Santhosh Kodukula)