Might the pandemic have had unexpectedly positive effects on our lifestyles and traffic patterns in the city? With what benefits for women’s mobility?
We conducted our study on the use of shared bicycle fleets, Velib’ in Paris, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, the City of Paris, like many cities in France and around the world, drastically developed its network of bicycle paths. A response to the needs of users who have changed their habits, preferring soft mobility to public transport, and thus escaping the promiscuity of full cars and the fear of contamination.
Dubbed “COVID tracks”, and initially temporary, the network has been made permanent and continues to expand to meet the ever-increasing demands.
According to the permanent cycle track counts carried out by the City of Paris, “the number of cyclists in July 2020 has doubled compared to July 2019“.
Further information on the City of Paris website states: “Other cycling improvements carried out in recent months could also make life easier for cyclists. For example, work has been carried out on rue Vaugirard (15th arrondissement), the longest street in the capital, to install a temporary two-way cycle track from rue de Rennes to Porte de Versailles. “
According to Charles Dassonville, director of the Fédération des usagers de la bicyclette, “It’s very clever to test these facilities at this time, because the cities are almost entirely empty of cars. In normal times, it is more difficult to make traffic lanes commonplace. “In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the creation of new bicycle lanes redistributes public space, and thus allows everyone “to move around while respecting social distancing“.
To remain in the Parisian context, the new lanes are not limited to the city centre. Many tracks have been developed in neighboring cities. These new infrastructures have had several positive effects. On the one hand, they have erased the borders between Paris and its Metropolis, and on the other hand, they have opened up new mobility opportunities for people who are often isolated or far from public transportation.
It seems that these elements have been decisive in facilitating the use and practice of cycling by women. During our study, many of them expressed their satisfaction with the new infrastructure, which has had multiple safety effects: better continuity of the paths, safer paths in relation to car traffic, improved crossing of squares and crossroads, slowing down of cars and other motorised two-wheelers, etc.
These are all key elements that encourage cycling by women who are sometimes afraid to take the plunge.
In fact, risk is part of the male normative construction. Very early on, young boys are encouraged to dare, to take risks, whereas girls are encouraged to be wise, to be careful, not to go out just anywhere, in any manner, at any time. This social construction has damaging effects on the occupation of public space by girls and women.
Cycling in the city, especially in Paris where there is a lot of traffic, is often experienced by women as a challenge they do not always dare to face. Thanks to the new infrastructure, they expressed their satisfaction at being able to cycle more easily, in a safer context. For some, it was a trigger to venture out on a bike for the first time in Paris.
Gaining self-confidence is a key element in women’s reclaiming public space. Once they have overcome this hurdle, they all admit to finding greater freedom of movement, a heightened sense of security in the face of the street harassment many of them experience: “With a bike, we can leave more quickly if men harass us!”, the possibility of returning home late at night in all independence “I prefer to jump on a bike at night rather than wait for the bus“.
In addition to the infrastructure, numerous initiatives have been taken to encourage women to ride a bike, such as training and repair workshops with days reserved for women. Women from underprivileged neighborhoods have come together to learn how to ride a bike and discover new ways of getting around.
The other interesting effect of the COVID period, which may seem contradictory, is that the travel restrictions (set at 1km in France during the first confinements, and 10km during the third confinement) developed a need and a desire to explore one’s territory. On their own or in groups, the inhabitants left their usual routes in an attempt to stay outside for longer within the authorised limits. This quest for freedom in spite of the constraints imposed on them was vital.
This process allowed people to question their local territory and its resources. Within the framework of the 10km, this means going to the woods or to the canal more easily and more regularly, for example. Will this pursuit of freedom continue once the pandemic is under control? We certainly hope so, as in this context many women who are not cyclists have discovered cycling as a leisure activity. Once this period of learning and exploration is over, one can imagine there will be no turning back.
The challenge is to ensure that the supply of bikeshares expands (and that the stations are filled), and that the infrastructure continues to develop to offer, as in Denmark for example, tracks that are wide enough to allow the circulation of cargo bikes and other alternative vehicles, and to ensure that this practice is accessible to all.
Chris Blache, an urban anthropologist, co-fonded Genre et Ville in 2012 – an Urban-Gender Innovation Think and Do Tank – with urban designer and planner Pascale Lapalud. An accomplished business and socio-ethno consultant with proven success and expertise in international market research and business innovation she is actively involved in women and LGBTI rights since 2008. Coordinator of Genre et Ville, she manages the organization and the projects.
Pascale Lapalud, co-fonded Genre et Ville in 2012 – with urban anthropologist Chris Blache. Graduated in political sciences, geography, geo-architecture and urban design, with proven expertise in interior design, furniture design, creation of visual campaigns and animated exhibitions or interactive perfornances. President of Genre et Ville, she has co-directed her own « urban design / interior design » creation and consulting agency for 15 years, before joining.