Female and Male Harassment while on bicycle

A scary thing happened a few weeks ago to a friend of mine.  An avid cyclist , she was riding home from somewhere when a driver got irritated and became enraged leading to an assault while riding.  The driver used their vehicle to force my friend to move over toward oncoming traffic and then yelled and berated her.  When she finally was able to yell back, the driver seemed to be taken aback by her voice (instead of what he seemingly presumed was a male on bike) and sped off.  My friend was able to continue her ride home unaffected, but once the shock of the whole event caught up with her at home, of course many negative emotions came flowing out.  Since then, she’s slowly hopped back on the bike and continued commuting and recently riding to a few other places.

I wasn’t surprised so much by the bicyclists being harassed.  There’s many a tale of bicyclists and motorists unable to share the road peacefully.  That in and of it self is quite sad to say that a public space cannot be shared without some violence happening.  Something that did strike me about this altercation was that the driver reacted differently based on the perceived gender of the bicyclist, evinced by the change in action once he heard her voice.  Also, at a dinner party, I heard friends of mine saying that while on bikes, they experienced different levels of harassment based on the composition of the group on bicycle.  One friend often rides solo to work and she experiences little to no harassment on a regular basis.  Once she starts riding with her fiance, however, they experience much more harassment when riding in a group — male + female.  Her fiance also mentioned that he has been harassed often while riding on a bicycle and that this has led him to choose different modes based on this experience, thankfully we’re all in public transit heaven (and sometimes purgatory or hell) that is known as Boston and he has the option to choose public transit.  However, effectively, bicycling is pretty much out of the picture for him as a regular mode of transport.

This made me interested to find out what’s going on and if there has been any academic work on vehicular assault incidence and whether there is a gender component.  This video of a guy recording his unpleasant ride home hit the interwebz hard.  There’s several points where I can’t even watch or listen to the video because I’m cringing hard.  Also, I’m apparently not the only one who’s interested about this topic as I found a few blog posts about it, with perhaps the best one here.  One study from the NIH’s library cites self-reported harassment and finds no statistically significant difference in rates of reporting vehicular harassment while on bicycle.  However, in reviewing the percentages given, there is a general skew toward higher proportions of males reporting harassment or assault.  One study out of the UK noted that women experience higher rates of fatalities from HGV (heavy goods vehicles, in American parlance — 18-wheelers).  That particular study was cited in a book on gendered journeys, which examined the different modes and choices that people make based on their gender (and perceived gender).  Generally, the thought put out there is that males on bicycles in the US are 7 times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than females on bicycles. On the other hand, there’s incidental reporting of people in cars and on bicycles peacefully coexisting, if the ones on bicycles can approach regular speeds of approximately 20 mph.  That does, however, preclude most of the general population who would rather ride comfortably, but at a much lower rate of speed.

Somewhat famously, there was a study from a researcher at the University of Bath that experimented with a sensor-equipped bike and measured the passing distance that people in cars gave to people on bicycle, while in traffic.  The conclusion was that people driving gave less space to a person on a bike wearing a helmet and more space to people wearing a feminine-appearing wig.  Though, at first this might be in jest, quite literally the strongest conclusion from the data is that English people tended to provide better driving conditions if the person on the bike was perceived to be female.  The DOT in Florida conducted a similar study using videotaped passing incidences and also reconfirmed this finding — males on bicycles tended to get less passing space than female.  The BBC also threw its hat in the game with a pop psychological theory on why people in cars even get upset at people on bikes.    That being said, there have also been recent news reports of females experiencing street harassment (catcalling) while riding bicycles.  This type of harassment also extends to queer, transgender, gay, and lesbian people as well.  This problem is also being addressed in areas where it is noticed acutely; however, street harassment is also something that may affect females on bicycles very acutely, with reports of physical sexual assault on bicycle, while in motion(!).

That being said, it seems generally harassment for people in bicyclists from people in cars comes in two generally gendered forms:

* males (or those perceived as male) are more likely to get a much more aggressive harassment in the form of vehicular assault

* females (or those perceived as female) are more likely to experience sexualized harassment in the form of catcalling

This leads me to my next thought. What’s an appropriate response to this kind of aggressive behaviour?  I’ll leave it up to others to decide what direction we go, but it is beginning to feel as if there are some clear physical separations that need to be made between people driving and people on bikes, once that happens, though there may be friction, it would be something that is momentary or fleeting in stead of consistent and potentially deadly.

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