Why Bike Safety is Still an Issue for Women in Toronto

Torontoist

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Why Bike Safety is Still an Issue for Women in Toronto

New club aims to address sexism on two wheels.

Women in Toronto explores the issues that women in the city face.

Claire McFarlane and Lavinia Tanzim of the Bad Girls Bike Club. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Claire McFarlane and Lavinia Tanzim of the Bad Girls Bike Club. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Two months ago, Claire McFarlane and Lavinia Tanzim were sitting in an empty bicycle store after-hours, waiting for participants who never showed up. It was the pair’s first run at hosting a bicycle club for young women in the city, and they had hoped some of the customers they’d spoken to over the past weeks would show up to their “information night.” But at 6:30 p.m., the store was empty.

“We were completely discouraged when that happened,” says McFarlane, who works alongside Tanzim as a sales associate for Sweet Pete’s bike shop. (Full disclosure: McFarlane is a former Torontoist contributor.) Their idea for the cycling club had arisen over drinks at a Christmas party a few months earlier. McFarlane and Tanzim bonded over their frustration at friends’ reluctance to bike in the city because it was “scary and unsafe.” But the two young women also shared a deeper connection: both have experienced a form of sexual assault within the past few years.

When it happened to McFarlane, she found she had no community to fall back to—she was dismayed to realize there was no support in her circles for someone like her. So, she and Tanzim decided to make a club that not only taught young women how to be confident bikers in the city, but could also serve as a support group for young women to “talk about who you are and who you want to be.”

“It’s about badass women having a good time on bikes,” McFarlane says. “We’re fighting the patriarchy one biker at a time.”

McFarlane, a 20-year-old student from Brockville, Ontario, didn’t bike much when she was in high school. She only started to ride when she moved to Toronto and could use her sister’s old bike. As a “broke student,” McFarlane jokes that biking is her obvious choice. But it also changes her mood, she says—she noticed that biking to work or to school had a substantial positive effect on her day.

McFarlane started biking on the main lanes in Toronto (she’s excited about the recent addition of bike lanes on Bloor Street) and, as she got more comfortable, made her way into the heart of the city: the side roads, the busy intersections, and everything in between. Now she gets almost everywhere on her skinny black bike. She understands why some might be scared to try—cars are often aggressive, cabs will make last-minute right turns, passengers forget to look when they open their doors, and bike lanes are a rare commodity—but McFarlane insists that those potential hazards are manageable most of the time.

Still, it’s true: biking in the city can be dangerous. In 2010, Toronto had the highest number of cycling accidents in Canada (which makes sense, since it is also the largest city). While Toronto has made improvements on city biking infrastructure since then, advocates for two-wheeled safety say that fatality numbers are still too high.

Being a young woman in the city is even more precarious. A 2014 ranking [PDF] of the best places to be a woman in Canada listed Toronto as number six; its lowest score was in “security.” In 2012, the year of Toronto Police’s latest crime report [PDF], there were almost 3,000 sexual assaults in the city—the equivalent of about 55 assaults every week. And that’s just the number reported to the cops; by now, we know the reality is much harsher.

Women’s safety and biking are more interconnected than some might think. The “cycling gender gap”—the idea that women make up a disproportionately low fraction of bikers and that the reasons for this underrepresentation have to do with safety and greater gender inequality—is not a new concept. Though there’s little hard research for Toronto on the subject, we know that the gap is established at an early age: research last year found that high school girls in Toronto had “less access to a bicycle, less comfort or confidence in riding, [and] more fear associated with cycling.”

It’s not that women are irrationally scared of biking; in today’s Toronto, many girls simply don’t grow up thinking of it as a viable option. McFarlane and Tanzim want to help girls and young women realize that biking is a very real opportunity, one that offers independence, confidence, and—as McFarlane is quick to point out—a chance to just have fun. And though their first launch wasn’t so successful, the two students aren’t ready to give up just yet.

Bad Girls Bike Club had its second opening a couple of weeks ago. It has hosted three meetings since then, every Saturday after Sweet Pete’s closes its commercial doors at 6:30 p.m. Meetings include a one-hour guided ride on routes featuring bike lanes specifically chosen by Tanzim. Soon, participants will also be able to access free workshops after the ride to learn about bike maintenance and regulations.

Attendance has been low and progress is slow. But this time, at least, the young women have received lots of media attention. Things are looking up for McFarlane and Tanzim from that empty store two months ago.

There’s one downside: with the press shining a spotlight on the club, some things can easily get misinterpreted. Among them is the reason that the club is a “girls” club at all. “We got flak from people who thought that we were saying that women are ‘especially fearful’ of biking,” McFarlane says. “That’s not it at all.”

Others have told them online that the club isn’t inclusive, that it should also invite men. But those people are missing the point, McFarlane says. They can just form their own “Bad Boys Bike Club,” if they want, or join any cycling meet-up in the city. The Bad Girls Bike Club is meant as a safe space, one where the feeling of women’s community is just as important as the actual two-wheeled activity involved.

It’s not a perfect plan. Reaching out to younger women has been tough (the two organizers changed the age range recently to make it more inclusive), and they seem to have a hard time articulating the exact aim of the club. It’s an initiative in progress, and it will likely go through a few more changes before it really finds its place in the Toronto scene.

But this group is just the kind of thing that will help Toronto women. We can get together and support each other. We can talk about sexual assault or we can talk about whatever else, without making it the centre of discussion. Sometimes, it’s nice to just have fun and bike safely around with friends.

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