The fear of Covid-19 has led to a shift in modal preferences and commuter behaviour in cities. While more men are likely to move to private vehicles, fewer women have access to personal modes of mobility.

Daily travel budgets for women are also lower compared to men. The Covid-19 pandemic is posing a real threat of limited mobility for women in the city. Besides, there is a good chance that changes in transport behaviour during the pandemic might be permanent.

Public transport operators are battling with questions about providing public transport with social distancing norms. It is not surprising the cities are now looking to promote sustainable options like walking and cycling. Keeping this in mind, the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs launched the Cycles4change Challenge. The challenge is an initiative of Smart Cities Mission intending to inspire Indian Cities to develop cycling-friendly initiatives in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Besides the marginal traffic and relatively cleaner air, many urban inhabitants took to cycling in cities, a popular mode to commute during the lockdown. Particularly for women, walking and cycling have become a viable solution during the pandemic for short commutes.

However, cycling in cities has gendered effects too. Lack of infrastructure and safety on the road has been a primary concern of using cycling as a commute, coupled with social constructs. Multiple barriers prohibit women to cycle in cities.

Let us look at the three main gendered perceptions of cycling for women in Indian cities.

Individual behavioural factors

There exists a general disregard for cyclists on the road by motor vehicles users in our cities. However, on an individual level, cycling is influenced largely by an individual’s beliefs, preferences, including confidence in one’s ability to cycle.

These factors vary for men and women and depend on their experiences and perceptions as road users. Many female cyclists have been targets of bikers who swerve very close. Women are often stared at, honked at, catcalled and harassed while using streets to cycle and walk.

The frequency of these unpleasant instances has increased during the pandemic; this was also when frequent cyclists and first-timers ventured out to cycle and in their cities with relatively lesser traffic and cleaner air.

These instances are scary and frightening for women and profoundly affect their confidence to cycle on the road. As a result, many women have shifted cycling from early dawn to late mornings, changed routes from deserted stretches to riding on roads where there was more activity, restricted to weekend rides with other cyclists or have altogether given it up.

There exists a general disregard for cyclists on the road by motor vehicles users in cities. Photo credit: Punit Paranjpe/AFP

Physical-environment factors

Our city roads are largely car-centric. Cyclists have to manoeuvre past parked vehicles, vendors on the street, avoid potholes and navigate their way through pedestrians who walk on the side of the road, race at badly designed intersections – all of this while vehicles zoom past at high speeds. Lack of dedicated cycle lanes, over speeding motorists, safe parking facilities, unreliable emergency services are the basic amenities that constitute the physical-environment factors.

A study at the University of Minnesota from 2018 put forth data from their experiment where protected bicycle lanes are safer as they decrease passing distance and encroachments. Based on the gender of the cyclist, a female cyclist was 3.8 times more likely to be encroached upon.

Social-environment factors

The cultural norms of the community, patronising comments from other male cyclists and lack of presence of women in public space play a role in making the social environment conducive for women to ride.

Moreover, women’s mobility patterns differ from that of men. They tend to take multiple, shorter trips to cater to caregiving activities. While these are general notions, there is a lack of gender-disaggregated mobility data. Tasks are challenging to carry out on a bicycle.

India, like many other countries, has a stark gender gap in cycling. While it is primarily attributed to a lack of safe cycling infrastructure, cities worldwide have conducted detailed diagnosis to understand why women do not feel comfortable cycling and have fashioned corrective measures. We also need to do the same, and a one-way start would be to addressing these challenges through the Cycles4change Challenge.

On February 16, the ministry announced the list of 25 cities that were selected under the Cycles4change Challenge. These selected cities will now have work on the detailed proposal. The final shortlist of 11 cities will be chosen, which will receive rupees one crore bonus to put their plans to the task. Incorporating gender concerns of women cyclists will develop a much-needed inclusive proposal and has the potential to radically change the way we design transport in our cities.

Amit Bhatt is the Executive Director and Harshita Jamba is a Senior Project Associate at WRI India.