Photo by Jason Harrell
Besieged by testosterone-fuelled Neanderthals ruling the road and a bike market aimed only at young men, Carrie Hampel says it’s time for Berlin to start supporting women cyclists.
Testosterone increases our physical strength and ability to take risks. But large quantities of it should not be a prerequisite for using public streets. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against testosterone. For a woman, I probably have a shitload of it. I’m 185cm, I weigh 95kg and I’m an adrenalin junkie with the reflexes of a lobotomised duck. But with good balance and good choices I manage to cruise through the streets on my bicycle with a sense of freedom, speed, and yes – finesse.
When I had a discussion on helmets with an equally bike-obsessed male counterpart, (he wears one, I don't), he said he had broken almost every bone in his body in bike accidents, whereas I have broken none. Not more than a graze in 35 years of intense bicycle riding. So there may be something feminine about my level of risk-taking that makes the difference in my safety as a cyclist. And being a mother has probably increased my empathy for other road users.
But I also have an advantage: I have an unusually low and loud voice – something most women, elderly people and children don’t have. I remember reading a report on how women get more involved in traffic accidents because they don’t yell or, if they do, are not loud enough. I can yell REALLY LOUDLY before a clueless turning truck driver smushes my intestines. And I physically take up more space with my size and look like I could throw my bike through any window if sufficiently pissed off. But frankly, YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE TO BE ABLE TO BELLOW LIKE A BIRTHING COW AND PUFF YOURSELF UP LIKE A TURKEY to stay safe on the streets. In the end, the streets belong to everybody, don’t they?
And, yes, the (male) aggression on the streets around me is rising. While all the people who've died this year from bike accidents have been men (including the dearly departed David Solomon), women are more likely to be involved in accidents where drivers break or ignore the law. That road rage is paid forward: this year has already seen shocking accidents causing the deaths of two pedestrians by cyclists. What’s going on? Why are we having to use testosterone to get from A to B?
The key to safer streets isn't women yelling more loudly or wearing more safety equipment – it's fewer cars. Germany purports to be taking initiatives to convince people to switch from cars to bikes – but their efforts are predominately male-focused. Take the growing field of e-bikes and pedelecs. These sustainable, electric motor-powered two-wheelers (e-bikes, like Vespa scooters, must be driven on streets and used with a helmet; pedelecs can be driven like regular bicycles) could be the key to making cars on inner-city streets obsolete. But you wouldn’t know that from German electric bike marketing lobby groups, who are aiming pedelec and e-bike products at young men who don't have to carry anything but their own unused muscles.
This struck me at first during the Berlin Bike Week, when I was giving bike tours on pedelecs. One leading e-bike manufacturer was only represented by men and apparently only manufactured and marketed to a youngish male target group with stunningly sexist advertising (picture the glistening breasts and bottoms of scantily clad nubile young women placed near men’s cycles). Not only did they fail to aim their products at women, they actually successfully repelled them.
On one tour I had a couple of guests belonging to that same target group who were mostly just interested in the next tech toy-to-have, zipping through the traffic while hardly raising a sweat, feeling powerful and efficient. We had fun. But as we cruised by a woman slowly riding a cargo bike full of shopping and kids, using all her own muscle power, I asked myself: who could really benefit from an electric bike, them or her? Are we really aiming some of our most promising technology at less than 30 percent of the population?
I’ve seen some pretty laughably macho e-bike marketing around. One current campaign of postcards around Berlin shows four guys with muscly torsos and skinny legs proudly showing off their sporty e-bikes. It’s kind of funny, but not when you think of the market being missed. And sadly hilarious that they didn’t clock that having weak legs is not something any sporty man is likely to want to show off.
Another e-bike ad I saw a while back showed a woman in a red dress in high heels all wet from having gone through the car wash with her super macho-looking bike, which she could not have ridden without getting her heels and dress all mussed up while showing half the city her undies.
And most painfully: a big fail got aired on Twitter in an online advertising campaign aiming at getting more car drivers to ride bikes. This is where promoting pedelecs, e-bikes and electrically assisted cargo bikes would really make sense. Though the intention was definitely the right direction, the ad actually managed to be offensively sexist to both men and women, while remaining completely unconvincing to anyone at all. The ad portrayed a sexy female bike rider with plenty of shots of her ass in skimpy denim shorts while a dorky-looking man at the petrol station pathetically tries to impress her (men found this offensive, understandably). He twirls his car keys in a sexually suggestive manner, before they accidentally fly off into the air, meaning he can then get a lift on the back of the sexy woman’s bike?! Yep, it made no sense. None of the advantages of cycling were referred to at all (quicker, cheaper, healthier, better for the climate and all other road users). I wont say who put out that one. It’s too embarrassing (oh, alright then, it was the Federal German Ministry of Environment).
By neglecting women, e-bike companies are missing out on a seriously lucrative market. Women are actually more inclined than men to bike or use public transit, and they tend to use their bikes for a wide variety of tasks. Statistics from Copenhagen show that cargo bikes are being used by women in great numbers. Think about “the elegant donkey” – a bike that you can wheel through the city and load up with kids, shopping and belongings while wearing whatever delicate clothing you want, no Lycra required. With electric motors, trips over two or three city districts cease to become an effort, meaning there’d be no excuse not to commute to work by bike. And surprise, surprise, women are commuters too.
The well-earning 25- to 55-year-old man is going to have to shove over and make room for the rest of us. Because modern mobility in the age of the fourth industrial revolution needs to lead with the female perspective.
You can reach Carrie at her Twitter handle (@carrie_hampel)