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Bikes, sexism and Australia

This was going to be an article about sexism, cycling, and Melbourne roads. Having returned to this city after an extended period overseas, I was going to start with this admission of my naivety:

I was totally unprepared for the level of violent hatred Melbourne drivers have for cyclists, especially female cyclists of my body shape. Germany has its fair share of sexism, but in seven years of biking in Berlin, not once did anyone ever scream ‘You fucking fat slut!’ or ‘Fuck you, you fucking BITCH!!!’ at me just for riding a bike and obeying the road rules.

My article was going to document how, within my first two weeks back on the road, I had been verbally abused on the basis of my body shape and gender no fewer than five times. I wanted to point out that in a majority of cases, it was middle-aged men in expensive cars, but that even a carload of young women had deliberately tried to scare me off my bike. When I knocked on their window at the next set of lights, they told me, ‘Fucking get over it, BITCH!’ and sped off.

To bring it into relief, I was going to do a little compare and contrast between Melbourne and Berlin. I planned to explore some of the reasons why my treatment as a cyclist could be so different in these two cities, which might have ranged from the better integration of cyclist awareness into the compulsory four-week driving theory course for prospective German licensees to differences in speed limits (30 km/h on many smaller Berlin streets), to the sheer numbers of cyclists on the roads in the more compact European city which itself must mean drivers are more accustomed to accommodating them, to the far more extensive network of both on- and off-road bike paths there.

None of this would have explained the particularly sexist character of antipodean abuse. But it might have gone some way towards explaining the level of aggression and violence evident in my Melbourne confrontations: perhaps tensions more easily explode in a higher-risk, higher-pressure environment. Some published accounts show it can easily tip over into terror tactics and victimisation.

Others have also noted the particularly gendered nature of cycling in Melbourne, with a survey of women in April 2013 noting that 60 per cent of respondents would ride more often if cycling conditions were safer. Bicycle Network Victoria has been documenting increased numbers of women cyclists since separated bike lanes were introduced. In Australia generally, moral panics about irresponsible mothers on bikes, and a macho atmosphere in the whole cycling scene, has become a bit of a ‘thing’, warranting published tips for women on how to assertively pedal their way into public acceptance.

To back all of this up, I thought I would offer some anecdotal (read: Facebook) evidence from friends who have ridden bikes in both Melbourne and Berlin. For example, the friend currently in Berlin who sent me this in a private message:

Berlin observation #27: No abuse or shaming of me as a fat person exercising/riding a bike.

Another friend with cycling experience in both cities said:

Yep. I’m really enjoying not having sexist abuse shouted at me on a regular basis. Every country I’ve been to provides relief from street harassment compared to Australia.

Another wrote:

Kate – I forgot about this, but now I’m remembering all that verbal bullshit.

And yet another recalled that:

[I]t’s totally on another level in Aus – wouldn’t want to be dealing with it.

One friend’s experience in Brunswick – ‘I had a full glass bottle thrown at me when I was riding on Albion St once when I was still presenting as female’ – reminded me of the time many years ago, while riding down Sydney Road, a carload of twenty-something men reached out their windows and tried to grab my backside as they sped past, laughing maniacally.

The consequences of all of this were made clear in this friend’s palpable dismay:

Wow, makes me rethink riding! Just as people were starting to convince me I’d be alright!

That is, sexism on the roads makes women not want to ride bikes.

Many friends offered advice on how to respond, such as ‘spinning chariot blades on your wheels’ or the astute observation that ‘that’s what bike locks with chains are for…’ But a ‘hollaback’ approach is not always feasible, as in this example from another male friend:

I chased them with the intention of rectifying their homophobia with the progressive end of my bike lock, until I came to my senses.

A far happier and less bloody strategy focused on generating solidarity between cyclists and drivers:

I suppose these are what you might call ‘traffic trolls’ – jerks who get a perverse thrill out of abuse for the sake of it. Makes me want to yell out of my car random compliments just to even things up a bit ‘Love your cadence!’ or ‘How cool is that basket!’ etc.

In this vein, my article was then going to marvel excitedly at initiatives like the Pushy Women discussion event at Melbourne Bike Fest earlier this year, which has led to the launch of a four-week feminist, participatory cycling extravaganza tour, starting on Sunday 27 October. Or the grassroots initiative Frocks on Bikes from across the water in NZ, which now has a Melbourne chapter. Such initiatives are clearly needed, and need our support.

In my article, I was going to link all of this together with the general atmosphere of sexism, which seems to have been running rampant in Australian public life of late, but also join it to more material and economic issues, like the car politics and road-building lobby dominating Victorian politics at the moment. This is obvious in the debates over bike-lane infrastructure, but also in the proposed $8 billion East West Link motorway which has so far trumped an extension of the public transport system for half the cost and the retention of vital green lungs like Royal Park.

I was going to write all this and I was fired up about it. Sexism! Cycling! Melbourne! Rah!

So there I was, riding home after a lovely picnic dinner in Fitzroy Gardens, thinking about my article (which I was supposed to write the week before). But as I glided down Flemington Road, pondering with bitter sadness how much pleasanter it would be to ride through Royal Park (while we still have it) and how as a woman I would never do this alone at night, my reverie was brought to an abrupt end when I stopped at a red light.

Two pedestrians stood at the curb shouting at a taxi. ‘Not working?! Slack bastard!’ The driver had turned down the fare, explaining that he had finished work and was on the way home after a long Sunday shift.

Green light. I slowly moved off, and the taxi had too, when the male pedestrian ran onto the road and started kicking the vehicle. The taxi driver stopped immediately and got out. ‘I told you I’m not working!’ This prompted a torrent of abuse from the curb. ‘Fucking black cunt!’ The pedestrian woman pulled what looked like a long, sharp, metal object from her bag and made towards the driver: ‘Typical, not working, Paki bastard! Go back to where you came from!’ And then, with all the menace she could muster, ‘YOU FUCKING NIGGER.’

Was I about to witness the next racist hate crime? I had to intervene, foolhardy though it felt.

I don’t mind admitting that my intervention left a lot to be desired: ‘Hey’, I yelled. ‘That’s racist.’ Bam! That’ll show ’em.

It wasn’t the most effectively communicated critique, under the circumstances. But who cares? The message was one of solidarity, and its intended recipient was the taxi driver, not his attackers. I didn’t want him driving off and sliding into demoralised despair because, yet again, no one had stood with him in the face of racism, with his only consolation being that he had stood up for himself and said something in his own defence. Hollaback. It’s not much to hold on to, not when you’re trying to cling to the hope that human society can be something other than a cesspit of insult and oppression (a feeling of isolation I have felt too many times when confronted with sexism or homophobia).

Naturally, the pedestrians turned their attention on me. ‘Mind your own business!’ In a rush of adrenalin I threw all caution to the wind. ‘Are you going to bash me now?’ Yes, screamed the man in so many words, moving towards me. But his companion got to me first, screaming repeatedly in my face, topped off with the stinger, ‘GET BACK ON YOUR BIKE AND MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS YOU FAT BITCH.’

The taxi driver was long gone. Traffic continued to stream past, oblivious.

Luckily for me, two sporty looking joggers paused their inner-city fitness routine to look on. Outnumbered, the pedestrians slinked away. ‘We couldn’t just leave you here alone,’ said the joggers. ‘Good on you for standing up to them.’ I thanked them for sticking around.

As a parting gesture, in an aside full of the most lustrous of golden intentions – though tragically missing the act of pure irony she was about to commit – the female jogger turned to me with a sympathetic smile. ‘You’re not fat’, she whispered.

 

Three lessons I have learned:

1) Bike lanes are important, but it’s going to take more than some cycling-friendly infrastructure to end sexist abuse on Melbourne streets.

2) The weight and power of a motorised vehicle cannot protect other road users from racial abuse, so the roads aren’t the key problem there either.

3) Solidarity is important, and it can be surprising and unexpected, but should be exercised with caution.

 

Kate Davison lives in Berlin and writes on the topics of racism and religion in Europe.

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Comments

  1. Just out of interest, what are the laws about riding on pavements in Victoria these days? In the ACT this is legal. Plus we have more bike paths, although some are inadequate and unsafe.

    I don’t see why the author won’t ride through the park; obviously that would be much safer than the road in terms of possible injury. The fear of sexual assault should not override the fear of morons in cars; in my opinion, that’s the more likely damage.

    • It’s actually not so much fear that keeps me away from parks at night as a sober desire not to tempt fate. Parks are often lonely deserted places at night. During the day, I make the most of the fantastic bike paths in Royal Park. But that’s more because I want to enjoy the park. It’s not because I personally feel scared of the road. I had been wearing down Melbourne bitumen with my treadly for almost ten years before moving away, survived an overnight hospitalisation, etc. In comparison, the roads are infinitely more safe than they were back then.

  2. Penelope – there are plenty of parks you are not actually allowed to ride through in Melbourne, or you get a fine. From distant memory, this includes sections of Royal Park. Also, you know, for people who have actually experienced either being flashed or assaulted riding in parklands in Melbourne (ah the joys of Darebin parklands bike tracks), your advice just doesn’t ring true. Personally, I prefer the verbal abuse over the attempted assaults, but you know, each woman makes such calculations as part of the daily awesomeness of gender relations every day. Thanks for the focus on the ongoing nightmare of cabbie work, Davo. I remember once being in a cab with a few mates when we saw a bunch of white dudes get out of a cab down the road in front of us and gathered around the driver’s side, like they were going to attack him. We asked our cabbie if he would be okay with us all jumping in to rescue the other cabbie. As we started to pull over, planning our heroics, the cabbie-in-danger sped off and we hightailed it too, giggling about how badly the whole thing would have gone down if we had actually got out of the car (the guys surrounding the other cab were all giants, from memory). We shared a moment, however, in the mean streets of Clifton Hill, and it was good.

  3. As far as I’m aware you can ride on the footpath in Victoria if you are under 12 years old or accompanying a child under 12. Otherwise it’s illegal.

    Riding through parks would be wonderful if they got me anywhere near where I needed to go in a reasonable time frame. As it is there are almost no bike lanes in the outer suburbs, and frequently few good alternatives to riding on major roads.

  4. I’ve been yelled at, had drinks hurled at me, had idiots try to push their mates in my way at high speed (cos a bicycle-pedestrian pile-up full of broken bones, gravel rash, concussion and ensuing ambulance trip would be totally hilarious!), had cars sidle up alongside me and drivers patronisingly tell me what I should or shouldn’t be wearing while I ride, and I’m regularly the outnumbered by men at a ratio of about 1:10 in the peloton at the Footscray Rd traffic lights on the commute to and from work.

    Having said all of that, I feel safer on my bicycle than I do on public transport. Go figure. (I ride at night through Royal Park – but only if my front light batteries are new. That place is DARK.)

  5. Good article – as a male cyclist I don’t get this abuse; those experiences sound horrible.

    I liked your act of solidarity with the taxi driver. It didn’t sound stupid to me! I think it’s better to offer words and social support than violence, especially in a situation you can’t win.

    That would point to a better way to deal with the white young men at the cabbie’s window in Liz’s incident – don’t plan a violent confrontation, go in and ask quietly what the problem is, and try to diffuse the situation, misdirect some attention while engaging in a conversation. Obviously this approach depends on the situation, though – if they are too drunk and angry it’s still dangerous.

    I like the idea of building solidarity between different road users. This can be anything from basic courtesy on the road to offering to help a cyclist who’s fixing a puncture.

  6. on a slightly different note (though I share similar experiences as those above), I’ve been running a tally of the times I pass an apparently male cyclist only to have him speed up and try to pass me again. It’s astonishing, but my current experience strongly suggests that a woman performing some kind of physical activity (other than domestic) faster than them is just unbearably emasculating.

    • I think you’d find the same behaviour if you were a male. People are always racing on the commute to/from work and when they are passed it’s not unusual for them to try and pass back

      • Jimbob I think you’re half right. I’ve seen men practising oneupmanship with one another. But have you observed many women instigating this sort of thing? The point here s not to give women a moral high ground, but to recognise very real gender dynamics.

        • It’s certainly possible that some male cyclists may feel emasculated, but the perception of passing as being an aggressive act of oneupmanship also needs readdressing/contextualisation. As someone who rides and runs, the notion of pace-setting and mutually beneficial competitiveness is pretty ingrained. You overtake me and give me incentive to ride faster to overtake you, and vice versa in an infinite feedback loop. Think of the slipstreams of the Tour de France, the rabbits of the greyhound track. If you don’t like that behaviour, if you don’t want to partake, fair enough. But suggesting that it’s a purely gender-based exercise precludes the potential common-ground here.

        • No doubt there is gender at play, but how much of a role it plays is anyone’s guess in the absence of anything but anecdotal evidence…

          On the other hand, it is a fact that riding behind someone, a.k.a. drafting, is far easier than setting the pace out in front. I ride a rather heavy hybrid with panniers, but when a racer passes me and I get in his/her slipstream, I can usually keep pace quite easily. Coast, even. It is actually then easier to overtake them as I have been conserving my energy.

          Then I get left behind again as he/she does the same. It is not a case of one-upmanship at all, although I can understand how it may appear that way.

          As for whether women would do this, I don’t know Kate. I ride in Sydney, where the sight of two consecutive female riders on the road is, in my experience, very uncommon. And as a man, I can’t use personal experience to inform my opinion.

          But personally I suspect it is more dependent on the type of rider. Two cyclists in knicks and jerseys riding carbon road bikes would invariably play road tag with each other regardless of gender, I would think. Why else spend several grand and through fashion to the wind, if not to satisfy the ‘need for speed’?

  7. good on you, you did the right thing helping the cabby. call out what you see in plain speak.

    as for moving back to australia – that was the wrong thing to do. i’ve only been back in australia two years and already i want to leave. no matter how ‘cosmopolitan’ we think we are, australia is pretty fucking backward.

    and fuck it, ride the footpath. i ride the footpath on albert st where the cycle path vanishes. no one in east melbourne walks!

  8. Bikes and bike infrastructure seem to have become the site of a real distortion in socially acceptable standards of interaction.

    I ride (very casually) to and from Fremantle train station every morning – it’s about a ten minute ride. I usually don’t wear a helmet, but I’m also a cautious, sedate cyclist who obeys traffic signals and so forth.

    I’ve had abuse hurled at me quite a few times from passing cars on this leg of my commute: “Put on a fucking helmet!”, “Get off the road!” and so on, just riding along in the bicycle lane well out of the way of traffic.

    At the other end of my train commute, I experience the next rung in the hierarchy. A sloping mixed use path connects the station to my workplace and despite considerable efforts to signal cyclists to slow down and respect pedestrians on the path, I’ve been verballed several times this year by passing cyclists. “Get out of the fucking way ya retard!” was the most recent – bearing in mind I’m just walking along on the footpath over to the left as I’m supposed to be.

    The common threads in all these incidents: the abuser is a man, the abuse is unexpected and there’s no opportunity to respond, the abuse is pretty much unwarranted, and the abuse involves a route shared with bikes. I wanted to raise this because there’s an ungendered dimension to this phenomenon as well as the horrendous sexism described in the OP.

    I do think there’s an argument to be made that multimodal transport infrastructure contributes to commuter stress and risk – whether it’s bikes sharing with cars, or bikes sharing with pedestrians. I think perhaps the privilege-inflected moral high ground associated with cycle commuting could be set aside when thinking about it too.

  9. Oh – also should add that at 33, I have not yet owned or driven a car: me and my kids all rely on bikes for transport. …the taxi driver incident – or similar- happens to us everywhere. But I still feel this article is a bit much.

  10. Hi Maxine,
    Is that a response to the article or the comments above? The point of the article was precisely to say that it is not just women on bikes who face abuse. That’s why a taxi driver being attacked by two pedestrians was so striking. My article argues subtly but clearly that the “cycling” part is not the key issue, but I also wanted to acknowledge that women on bikes do seem to attract a type of sexist aggression and vitriol that stands out.

  11. I do agree with the article. I was just saying that Australia is generally sexist and racist, and people (generally men) often feel free to direct verbally violent racist and/or sexist and/or homophobic vitriol to strangers going about their business, every single day WITHOUT the high pressure situation…and if your experience of that level and ferocity of vitriol and abuse is unique to riding a bike, I truly do envy you.

  12. Hi Maxine – I didn’t see this when it came out so thanks for reposting. I won’t say I’m shocked by your account cos it is depressingly familiar. Working with cabbies and international students years ago was the first time I realised that this really violent and terrifying shit actually happens every week or even several times a week to some people in Melbourne, which puts me squarely on what someone referred to recently as ‘the fun side of colonisation’. I knew a couple of Indian international students in Frankston who, not once, but twice, around the corner from their home, were violently assaulted by white dudes they didn’t know, with baseball bats, in the space of 12 months.The second time, the assailants tried to run the students and their friend over in a car, jumped out with the baseball bats and started beating the guys to a pulp. The assault only stopped when one victim literally yelled out “I am Australian”, which was kind of amazing in itself. Thanks for the perspective and sorry for the horror.

  13. Hi Kate, your’s is a terrific article – thanks. I ride a bike too and can empathise. Linking your bike riding experience to bigger questions of the eco-system of Aus was engaging, insightful and funny [in parts!] – thanks – you got me thinking without feeling either admonished or preached at. Hang in!

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