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The very white face of women’s cycling in Australia

In a recent interview on the Garrett Podcast, author Benjamin Law stated that diversity and representation aren’t only for films or literature: they are for everywhere. Yet how come I don’t see diversity and representation in the cycling community and industry?

I’ve been active for some time in Melbourne’s literary writing community and have joined slow bicycle rides with a cycling group called Freestyle Cyclists. It was with them that I attended my first public protest: in a show of solidarity, I joined the inaugural helmetless bicycle ride to repeal mandatory helmet laws in the state of Victoria. Subsequently, I attended a meeting about cycling issues for the Victorian state election.

In both places I observed a common pattern: the whiteness of structures and policies, which is also a position of privilege, and the continual failure to include the ‘other’.

As a woman writer of colour who slowly cycles in everyday clothes to literary events, to shops, on school runs, and whose first published artwork and essay were both cycling-related, I wanted to find out where the women who looked like me were. Why aren’t they on their bicycles, trikes, or cargo bikes?

In October 2017, in a first-ever west-side cycling forum organised by local federal MP Tim Watts, We Ride Australia – formerly the Australian Cycle Promotion Fund – gave a presentation that included a comparison between two councils. Yarra council – with its established, interconnected, on-road bicycle infrastructure – versus Brimbank Council, which, despite years of budgeted funding to build local on-road bicycle infrastructure, created roundabout cycle paths to parks and promoted cycling as recreation instead. I was drawn to the data which emphasised the difference in cardiovascular health of the residents living in the the two councils. I wondered if their research really showed that people living in Brimbank had a higher chance of having heart disease (19.1 percent higher than the expected Victorian rate) compared to people living in Yarra (30.9 percent lower than the expected Victorian rate).

I was one of three women of colour that evening. The other two were members of the local MP’s team. The audience of mostly white men was excited above all about the prospect of the first velodrome ever built in the western suburbs.

*

In March 2018, when the Maribyrnong council organised a ‘Family Bike Day’ along the Maribyrnong River bicycle track, I slowly cycled there on my trike. Despite many gaps in its bicycle infrastructure among its cluster of densely populated suburbs, Maribyrnong council is the lone bastion of on-road bicycle infrastructure in the inner west.

Enticing crowds with free coffee, sausage sizzles, and the chance to spin your own smoothie, the event also included brief talks by local bicycle experts.

One group of presenters caught my attention. Women clad in what looked like stretchy fabrics that hugged their bodies, wore wrap-around sunnies and regulation helmets used in  racing. They wore cycling shoes to match their racing bikes, which showed signs of regular, heavy use. One of the women grabbed the microphone and all I can remember her saying is, ‘it’s easy to ride a bike.’

It isn’t though.

I found two-wheeled bicycles difficult to balance. And I’m too short for Australian-sized, standard-issue bicycles. When I researched the cost of the accessories they wore, I estimated the amount would be enough to feed my family of four for a fortnight – a lot more if I were to include the cost of the actual bicycles.

No-one seemed to notice what was missing in the whole event. Equity is not about white women who cycle and dress like professional racers, nor is it about white men dominating anything cycling-related here in Australia. The structures within government, industry policies and practices have all failed at identifying barriers to making everyday cycling more inclusive.

The question that needs to be asked is so basic that only privileged women – white, wealthy and able-bodied – could have missed it: how could culturally and linguistically diverse, marginalised women acquire a bicycle of their choice? As I toured the exhibitors showing different kinds of electric bicycles – from e-cargo bikes to e-folders – I raised two questions: do you have financing for women, and do you cover repairs? They didn’t have any answers for me.

*

Michelle Cahill’s notion of Interceptionality came to my mind:

Interceptionality places pressure on the master narratives that co-author nationalism, capitalist enterprise, industry and coloniality, all of which continue to operate in alliance to requisition the production of knowledge. This is happening as multiculturalism and transnationalism is driven by industry in Australia and across national borders.

This is relevant to how I first got my cargo bike and trike, which led me to embracing slow-cycling as a form of everyday transport.

One day in late 2012 we were home-bound , after my toddler completed a round of chemotherapy when I realised that what I needed was an e-cargo bike. The Christiania model available from a local retailer cost $5000, as much as a second-hand vehicle. I emailed my social worker and paediatric oncology social services team. They linked me to different not-for-profit organisations, which worked closely with the Royal Children’s Hospital’s oncology department. Next, I wrote to various cancer charities. One of the charities – which preferred to remain anonymous – raised the money and bought the e-cargo bike for us.

The bike helped me bring my toddler to the local GP, to the paediatrician, to the local hospital for regular check-ups post-cancer, and later it allowed me to pick-up both kids at school. Our short trips were all less than five kilometres.

By 2015, I wanted something lighter for kid-free, slow-cycling. I had set my eyes on a Gomier trike that cost around $800, but as a carer I couldn’t afford to pay the full amount up front. Instead, I negotiated with the retailer – the same shop where we bought our Christiania. I emailed him a scheduled payment, which coincided with my carer allowance, until the tricycle was fully-paid.

Looking back, I was already practising Interceptionality without even knowing it.

*

At a recent meeting to discuss the upcoming state elections, I joined in brainstorming how people who ride bicycles could have a voice in the upcoming elections. Among the twenty people who attended the meeting, four were women. Of the four women, only one was a woman of colour. Me.

Could one voice make a difference and be heard? Could the white narrative respond to a dilemma as basic as sourcing grants or funding so that marginalised women could acquire a bicycle, trike or cargo bike? How many people realise that most women are unable to go on long bike rides which last for hours? In my case, as a carer, I feel I need to be on standby so I opt to slow-cycle within nearby suburbs.

Australia is changing. The latest statistics show that nearly half of the Australian population was born overseas or has a parent who was born overseas, while one in five Australians speak a second language.

How can the cycling industry adapt to the rapidly growing Australian population? And how could cycling communities be more inclusive? Our cycling organisations need to realise that what ordinary Australians need is for cycling to truly become a viable form of everyday transport. Incentives like community grants, procuring a bicycle, trike, or cargo bike as part of the NDIS to the disabled or those with mental health issues, and even interest-free loans with minimal repayments linked to Centrelink payments, need to be readily and easily available to the marginalised, single parents, carers, and women of colour.

The bicycle industry needs to work together with other industries, such as banking and finance institutions to make inclusion feasible. Decision-makers and policymakers, women who sit on the boards of cycling organisations or corporations, and the organisers of international cycling conferences need to add inclusion into their mission statements, policy manuals and employee handbooks.

Finally, all levels of government must promote active cycling as an option for everyday transport to address the needs of fast-growing populations in Australia’s key cities, accommodate bicycles into local and regional trains, and re-train and re-tool civil engineers and infrastructure designers to make cities more sustainable. Start building the much-needed bicycle infrastructure that would link schools to libraries, community hubs, and local shops.

To this day, I have yet to find a suitable grant or a bicycle retailer willing to accept staggered payments so I can purchase an e-folding bicycle. An e-folder would enable me to easily attend regional writers and literary events. This dream, a step-through e-folder which costs $2000, would be ideal for multi-modal transportation since my trike or cargo bike can’t fit on the train or the tram.

Meanwhile, as I look at the photos from the most recent national cycling awards, all I can see is the continuing failure to include the ‘other’.

 

Image: Brian Yap

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

CB Mako is an essayist, poet, and award-winning creative non-fiction writer. Shortlisted for the Overland Fair Australia Prize, cubbie has been published in The Suburban Review, The Lifted Brow, The Victorian Writer, Mascara Literary Review, Peril Magazine, DJED Press, and Writers Bloc. Find her on Twitter as @cubbieberry and on Instagram as @cb.mako.

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Comments

  1. Very interesting point. Bicycle riders sometimes look like a very exclusive group from a specific segment of society.

  2. I don’t understand what you’re asking for.

    You talk about the issue of bikes you wish to ride being too expensive and request either government assistance or that the industry provide financial solutions. Why not organise this yourself? There are numerous models already in place overseas that could be set up by yourself / others you know. Bikes are not expensive, especially second hand ones. Plus there are free workshops to get things repaired around Melbourne.

    Also, I don’t understand the “white face” of cycling. I’m sure if other people of colour want to ride they could, why this is important is not clear to me.

    The article just sounded like a whinge to be honest. But perhaps I didn’t understand the meaning?

  3. You might like to check out Aldi. They periodically have bikes. A friend got a fold up at a good price.

  4. I don’t get it. but then I’m mental. Was taught that the Western concept of equation colour to race is racist. Which it is. Like tagging people by earlobes. So now we have people going on about colour as an exceptionalism and all of a sudden it is correct to grade people by colour again.

  5. Thanks for the article! This introduced me to some concepts I was not entirely aware of. I’ve been buried quite heavily in the economics of car-orientated societies, and I think I might’ve missed the trees, for the forest to some degree in that process.

    My focus has been on determining the economic and social costs of people driving for full time work. Part of what has lead me in that direction is the readily available information about these people, either provided by the ATO, VicRoads etc.

    But this emphasis is likely to only demonstrate economic realities to people who are already doing ok, since full time work in Australia is generally well paid by international standards.

    What may be more important for all of us, is to improve outcomes for people who don’t fit that mould. People who aren’t commuting back and forth from 40 hour work weeks. As you pointed out; cardiovascular disease is higher in Brimbank. But 9 out of the top 10 causes of death last I checked can be mitigated by exercise … an active form of transport. And Western Melbourne doesn’t just suffer for cycling infrastructure. Much of it is less walkable. Has less public transport…

    Anyway … rant over. I’ve got a lot to think about.

  6. In order to be able to ride to work, you are automatically privileged. Try riding to work on freeways from the outer suburbs of most capital cities… Even if you can manage the 1 hour plus ride physically, it is incredibly dangerous.

    There are more important things to fight for than changing the “white face” of cycling

  7. What makes cycling unpleasant, dangerous and inaccessible as an every day mode of transport for the majority of people is the billions of dollars that are spent by governments subsidising and maintaining the 1950s model of car centric urban planning.

    The negative effects of car centred transport and urban planning (air pollution, climate change) impact humans in cities across the world, from Los Angeles to Lagos, London, Cairo, Jakarta and Beijing.

    We should therefore be campaigning for cities that are sustainable from the point of view of both the planet’s climate and human health. This means taking away the billions of dollars that are spent building infrastructure around cars and making neighbourhoods that are instead safe for everyone to walk and cycle.

    The evidence is that when there is safe and high quality cycling infrastructure, like in the Netherlands, factors like gender or ethnicity cease to be obstacles in the uptake of active travel.

    For example, in Kanaleneiland, a mainly Muslim area of Utrecht, in the Netherlands personal mobility looks the same as everywhere else in the city.

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