TEDxAUCollege | The Underlying Significance of The Bicycle
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The Underlying Significance of The Bicycle.

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It’s likely to find Amsterdam as one of the host cities for the annual bicycle film festival in 2016. The festival consisted of three days with various events that aim to showcase the global impact of the bicycle. The second of the three nights was held at Pakhuis de Zwijger, a conference and meeting space in Amsterdam’s center. The theme for the night: Women on Wheels.

Women on Wheels was a night dedicated to short movies that reflected on the role of the bike in women’s lives. It featured documentary-style movies about describing how the bike has influenced various female riders. While I only attended the Women on Wheels screening at Pakhuis, this was the first time I overlooked the practicality of the bike as a convenient tool for transportation, but instead as a symbol for social and political movements.

Georgina Terry was one of the six women featured at the Women on Wheels screening. Terry spent years researching for the perfect model adapted to the anatomy of a woman’s body. She has successfully developed racing bikes that target the main concerns for female cyclists – small frames for a more comfortable standover height, short top tubes to bring the bars into reach, and properly sized components fit for the female body. Based on her evidence, Terry acknowledges that the anatomical differences need to be compensated for in the model of the bike. Her contribution is that she wants to be part of a movement where women can think for themselves from an intellectual standpoint and not an emotional one – constructing bicycles allowed her to speak up against one of the constraints challenging women when it comes to riding. 

Terry wasn’t the first woman to point this out however. Back in the Victorian Eras when bikes were mainly used by young boys and men of higher social classes, women were consistently striving for wardrobe alterations in order to gain the same opportunities. During the 1880’s the most popular bike model was the velocipede, which consisted of a small back wheel and over-sized front wheel. Since it was hard to maintain or control, many women didn’t feel safe riding it. Additionally, their daily attire of long skirts or dresses stood in their way of riding and ran the risk of getting tangled in the chains and gears. Around 1887, a new bike model came on the market, known as a “safety bike”, similar to a modern day city bike. Since this revamp, riding increased among men and women, and ‘the bike craze’ carried on throughout the 1890s.

This newfound ability to ride came with a cost. The morality of women cyclists was a continuous point of contention. Doctors believed that the design and positioning of the saddle was a danger to the pelvis, potentially leading to ‘dangerous practices’ (a.k.a self-pleasure). Moreover, there were strong beliefs that women who rode were reckless and would develop ‘unfeminine’ characteristics. Before the design of the drop-frame bike, people were appalled at the sight of women mounting and dismounting a bike in their skirts or dresses. Despite small changes to the bike frames, riding in long garments was still problematic. What followed was a series of changes to women’s clothing, purely for the sake of riding a bicycle. Women’s rights advocate Amelia Bloomer was among the first to wear bloomers, a form of baggy, full-length pants. Next, was the development of a special bike corset designed to allow for easier breathing. While these may seem merely as adaptations to a new lifestyle, for women it was a chance to break apart from social constraints, be assertive, and speak up against immoral reasoning.

Today, most people wouldn’t second guess a woman’s attire while cycling. But how does the popularity in bike riding, more specifically, the popularity among women, say anything about the cities we live in today?

It’s believed that cities with a low percentage of female bike riders reflect a hostile traffic environment. An article from the Guardian mentions that UK city planners are aiming for a more egalitarian street environment where not only race cyclists, but women, the elderly and young children can occupy roads. Unfortunately, women have faced a major amount of bike fatalities in the UK- If they don’t feel safe riding the streets, they are unlikely to do so with children, or have them ride independently. Within countries known for a popular biking culture like Germany and Denmark, the Netherlands has the highest number for female cyclists (56%), and 49% of the children ride to school. Meanwhile, only 2-3% of children in the UK ride to school.

Safety is not the only reason for a lack of female cyclists. In the USA, it has been partly blamed on the large burden of domestic chores on women – getting groceries, driving children, and housework. Conversely it’s been said that the Dutch culture allows women more time for these errands. Paternity leave and family-friendly policies enable a more equal division of work between parents; additionally, the Dutch working weeks are shorter than in the USA. In truth, it’s that Dutch women are still able to complete the same amount of workload, but whilst riding a bike, which exemplifies the independance that this two-wheeled machine has provided them.

Many believed that bicycling played a central role in the feminist movement. For women, it led to the liberation of long garments, corsets, but also the liberation from social norms. Nowadays people are fixated on the numbers proving the endless benefits the bike has on health, the economy, and the environment. But the numbers fail to reflect the underlying value on society when not just women, but everyone is given the freedom to ride. Living in a city like Amsterdam helps to emphasize the value of a bike, but to understand the deeper significance, maybe imagine running the same errands while wearing a corset – I’m more than confident that almost every person would pass this opportunity.  

– By Diana Ghidanac