(Re)Producing and challenging gender in and through urban space: women bicyclists’ experiences in Chicago

Megan E. Heim LaFrombois

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Heim LaFrombois, M. E. (1). (Re)Producing and challenging gender in and through urban space: women bicyclists’ experiences in Chicago. Gender, Place & Culture, 26(5), 659–679. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0966369x.2018.1555142

[street harassment] , Bicycling , gender , gendered space , public space , urban space , women cyclists

This research, which uses an intersectional feminist methodological approach, explores the relationships and intersections among women, public urban space, and bicycling, and the gendered processes through which the use of space is claimed, negotiated, and constrained. It builds on the existing scholarship on the gendered nature of public space, and uniquely uses bicycling as the site of inquiry. Drawing primarily from interviews with women cyclists in Chicago, this article explores how gender and other social identities are constructed, challenged, and constituted through an interaction with public space, urban processes and structures, and societal expectations and attitudes. It brings to the forefront and centers these narratives and empirically contextualizes them by linking the scholarship on the gendered (and raced, classed, and sexualized) nature of public space with the scholarship on women’s participation rates and barriers to bicycling. This research examines, through the everyday lived experiences of bicyclists and their multiple subject positions and privileges, how the gendered nature of public space affects the participation and experiences of women cyclists; how public space is negotiated and constrained; and how gender can be both (re)produced and challenged in and through urban space via women bicyclists’ actions. In particular, the research findings explore how women bicyclists must demand and negotiate public space; how their movement and activities are constrained in public space; how gender roles and social reproduction issues intersect with bicycling; and how social, quasi-advocacy group bicycle rides are used as a strategy, with mixed results, to address barriers to women bicyclists’ mobility.

Main finding
This article discusses the bicycle as both an instrument of liberation for women and a gendered machine. Four themes were identified: women must demand and negotiate public space, gender roles and socially reproduced issues intersect with bicycling, women experience constrained movement and activities, and social groups ride together and address barriers to female bicyclists. Almost all the women interviewed reported aggressive behaviors, street harassment, and safety issues when riding in the city. In contrast, these issues did not come up in a gendered way for the male cyclists (men did not report street harassment, but aggressiveness from drivers towards cyclists in general was cited as an issue for male cyclists). Bicycling requires the demanding of public space, which many of the participants saw as an aggressive, and thus uncomfortable, activity. Demanding space is difficult for women, as they are often socialized to take up as little as possible or no public space at all. Constrained movement and activities relate to the ways women alter their behaviors and riding habits, such as dressing “bulkier” at night to appear like a male cyclist or avoiding certain areas of the city. The women reported mixed results about safety in numbers when riding in groups. The author recommends cities act to involve women and other underrepresented groups in the public planning process for bicycle infrastructure and other public spaces to help address these issues.

Description of method used in the article
The research focused on interviews with 13 female cyclists in Chicago, Illinois. In addition, 13 male cyclists in Chicago were interviewed, and an online survey with 81 Chicago cyclists was conducted. An approximate total of 100 cyclists participated, with some overlap between interviewees and survey respondents. All participants were recruited from multiple online forums and Chicago-based bicycling Facebook groups. The online survey was conducted in February 2015 and the semi-structured interviews in June 2015.

Policy implications

Organising categories

Crime and Aggression Recreating/Exercising
Interviews Survey
Urban Planning
Physical types
Geographic locations