Sunday, 15 June 2014

UK Women's Cycle Forum

On Saturday I made a rare trip across the central belt to our eastern neighbours in Edinburgh to attend the inaugural UK Women's Cycle Forum - the first of it's kind in Britain (unless someone can prove otherwise!). You might say to yourself "hang on, aren't you male?", the answer to which is "of course"*, in which case your next question might legitimately be: "why did you go to a cycling forum for women"? That's a good question, and one I probably can't adequately answer, other than to say "it sounded interesting".

To expand a little: in the last few years, I've been reading more about the politics of feminism; everything from the Patriarchy and masculine hegemony, Fourth Wave and Intersectionality, to the more radical approaches of the Separatist movements**. I don't really know a good reason for me to be interested in this other than being a person living in the modern world; I believe you have an obligation to keep yourself informed and to ignore the female perspective is to miss half the picture. I was brought up in the 80s and 90s in a single parent home by my Mum (although Dad was around). I don't think my mum is "radical" with a capital "R", but she is one of the baby-boomer generation who went to college and carved herself a career in special needs education, all whilst maintaining a household with two kids and assortment of pets. I've always been surrounded by strong female figures, including my sister, my maternal grandmother and aunts (formidable people who all went onto senior roles in their chosen fields). In addition, we were always brought up with a sense of social conscience and an awareness of our privilege. But I dare say whole swathes of men my age had similar upbringings who don't know their Dworkins from their de Beauvoirs.

Perhaps a more pertinent question might be: "Should you go to an event aimed at women?" Well, that's another point I don't really have a good answer for. Part of the motivation for the organisers in creating the event was the lack of representation for women at cycle-related events. There aren't many dedicated spaces for women in the cycle world it seems and it might seem churlish for men like me to insist on being involved at some level. In mitigation, I haven't been at this cycle advocacy game for very long and - other than Pedal On Parliament - I'd never been to anything similar; the forum seemed like a good opportunity to get involved in the conversation in some way, although I recognised the limited contribution I could make to it. I saw my "role" (in as much as I had a role) was to listen and to understand. In addition, the organisers had indicated that "all were welcome", it was only a fiver and food and drink were being provided (!) - what's not to like? I think the only circumstance where I'd have considered declining would be either if it denied access to other women (through a shortage of tickets) or if other attendees felt uncomfortable discussing issues around men. I certainly did not get the impression that I was not welcome, despite some gentle teasing by the hosts! :-)

Getting there

Given my previous problems getting to Edinburgh, I was determined to make it through on the bike. Interestingly, just getting to the venue presented some of the problems we all face. My train arrived at Waverely around 20 past 5 on Saturday afternoon - peak weekend traffic time, with Princes Street being filled with tourists, shoppers, buses, trams and taxis (so many taxis!). The area around the junctions with North Bridge and Leith Street is particularly bad, with narrow footways on the southern carriageway, taxis and coaches loading and unloading outside The Balmoral Hotel and a gaggle of pedestrians laden with suitcases and shopping bags. Given that I'm usually a positive road cycle user, I was surprised at how intimidating this small stretch of Edinburgh (Scotland's "Cycling City", remember) really is - I ended up walking my bike halfway down the St. James Centre before I felt confident enough to take to the road.

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After going through the two busy roundabouts at the top of Leith Walk and a short jaunt up a be-cobbled hill, I arrived at the venue, Edinburgh's "Ukranian Club", replete with yellow and blue flags and ambiguously-signed toilets (люди or жінки?).

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The Panel

I'd arrived a little early, helped myself to a complementary Irn-Bru and picked my seat in the middle of the room by the wall, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible (quite hard for a 6'3" bloke with a slightly scruffy beard). As the room filled up, it became clear that there was a fairly broad spectrum of people - there were young folk, more mature people as well as some mothers with kids and handful of men, most of whom seem to be with female friends or partners.

The panellists lined up behind the desk at the front and were prompted to introduce themselves and to talk about their expertise, passions and (varied) experiences with cycling. All of the panellists gave superb introductory speeches, although the highlight for me was probably Sue Abbot's (a.k.a. Freedom Cyclist) sinister, absurd but hilarious telling of her travails with the Australian justice system over her refusal to adhere to their moronic mandatory helmet law. 


Thereafter, everyone was encouraged to circulate around the room and form loose groups, to which members of the panel were assigned individually. I sat in on the small group that convened around Jayne Rodgers, a CTC officer who works with and advocates for the needs of disabled bike users. We were joined at the group by a woman who has some form of neuro-muscular condition and who is a trike user. It was a really eye-opener to hear of her experiences as well as the great, useful work Jayne is involved with. We discussed the problems with many cycle routes which form unnecessary barriers to disabled users - bollards, fences, A-gates - anything that reduces the effective width of the path and therefore excludes trikes or quads (incidentally, the variety of cycles that can be provided to meet people's needs is startling - it's a travesty that these aren't more widespread). We also discussed the merits of using cycles compared to other mobility aids such as mobility scooters and wheelchairs. I was reminded of As Easy As Riding a Bike's recent blogpost about mobility, and how dutch-style infrastructure helps many different types of road users, including people on bikes.

Indeed, it was striking the apparent consensus in the room regarding the need for high-quality, dutch-style separated infrastructure as the clear way forward - I wonder if we would get the same level of agreement at a similar event with a majority male presence?

Nosh and Networking

After the group discussion ended, we got down to the proper business of the evening, namely the buffet! You can tell its a posh do when there's cheese on the go. This also precipitated the main part of the event, the post-talk networking. Being a little introverted, I'm often a bit wary of this sort of situation, and I'll tend to move to the back of the room - I think mainly because I'm afraid of being found out as a slightly dull person without much to say. As such, I probably only have myself to blame for not fully engaging with the panellists, even though I was keen to hear more from the likes of Rachel Aldred, and Jo Holtan from Cycle Hack, with whom I'll no doubt speak to next week!

(I was however approached by Lee from the City Cycling Glasgow Forum who revealed that she reads this blog, which was rather gratifying - I have at least one reader!)

Without doubt, the event was a resounding success. With that said, I have a couple of points to make: 

Q and A?

I think the event maybe missed a Q and A element. I knew the format was fairly open, but I had expected something akin to "Question Time", with the panel fielding questions from the floor. I guess there just wasn't time for this - the group discussions took up the majority of time and as I've said above, this was in the end more of a networking event.

Scottish Representation

Okay, it was admittedly called "The UK Women's Cycle Forum", but I felt it was notable that there weren't many Scottish accents on the panel; Claire Connachan from Belles on Bikes was the de facto "token" Scot :-). I think this is more a comment on the state of cycle advocacy in Scotland than on the efforts of the organisers - in my (limited) experience, there are a lot of non-natives who seem to be driving things north of the border. I wonder if this is just my impression or if it's genuinely reflective of reality. Do we need others*** to get a better perspective of how cycling could be?

Minority Representation

I was really pleased that there wasn't solely white faces in the room, but I'd be interested to know how people from different races and backgrounds could be encouraged to come along to another forum. I live in Govanhill; quite a diverse area (for Scotland), with concentrations of different immigrant populations from Ireland, South Asia and Poland as well as recent arrivals from the Roma communities of Slovakia and Romania.

Car usage appears to be quite low amongst the latter groups, particularly the Roma, with a lot of people relying on their feet to get around. Despite the name, the area is pretty flat and features many quiet, mostly non-through route, residential roads and a lot of local shops and businesses to visit; it therefore should be quite good for cycling about in and yet I can't recall seeing anyone other than the children of these communities on bikes. What are the barriers for these women? Is their experience substantially different to their (white) peers? Would they be interested in giving cycling a go if given the opportunity? I'm genuinely not sure how best to approach this to be honest - but it's worth asking the question.

I should stress that these are small points of order and shouldn't detract from the excellent work done by the organisers, the panellists and the participants. I hope this will be the first of many such events - and I'll be happy to turn up again, even just as the token bloke with a beard.

(*) weekday evenings and weekends excluded
(**) Admittedly, this mostly involves "reading about it on Wikipedia" - I don't claim to be a particularly dedicated scholar!
(***) I don't want to come across as a Little-Scotlander here - in my view everyone should have the freedom to be wherever they want to live. I probably should point out that my father is an "other" too, being originally from Sheffield but who has lived in Glasgow for most of his adult life and still speaks with a yorkshire accent - at what point are you considered "native"?