Babes on Bikes

There are many things mums give up in the pursuit of being a ‘good mother’. After a few near misses while riding with my son, cycling was one of the things I gave away even though I loved it and so did he. Many women never return to cycling after having children. After a career spent studying gender and cycling, Adelaide academic Dr Jennifer Bonham can confirm this. Between the greater domestic and carer responsibilities, and issues and conditions of travelling with children, her papers are full of accounts of women who find it all too overwhelming. But many mums feel the threat of global warming acutely, we are aware of the risks to our children if ‘we’ don’t act on climate change. Transport is the second biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Some of us just want to ride our bikes! Here I talk about the joy and sorrow of cycling with children in Adelaide and call on you to join me in a protest parade and/or sign a petition, urging investment in female friendly/family friendly cycling infrastructure and greater action on climate change.


Artwork of mother and baby on bike by Ink and Ruby Studios

Recently I attended my great aunt’s funeral, in her eulogy, her son recounted a story she had shared about the day her brother gave her his bike. The story was about the freedom and joy she felt in having a bike of her own, how it meant she could roam further than ever before. She paid for the bike in cups of tea brought to her older brother in bed each weekend, he knew how to make the most of this trade. Her brother was at the funeral, aged 100, and I sensed his smile hearing that story about his little sister, remembering it like it was yesterday.  

For many of us, riding our bike represents the first flourish of freedom. We feel strong and confident, and like the world is ours for the taking. I remember when I got my first big bike. That summer my friends and I did more kilometres than I could count. I suppose kids these days would have a watch that told them exactly how far they went and how many calories they burnt. But despite the smart watch, they probably wouldn’t be allowed to venture as far as I did on my bike. We won’t let our kids go very far these days, in fact a National Trust (2016) survey found children now spend half the time we did playing outside. 

There comes a point in many girls lives when cycling is no longer cool. It messes your hair, makes you sweaty and as you face puberty and high school, you’re more worried about how you look than how you feel. You give up the joy of your bike, in order to fit in. Later in life you might return to cycling, a workmate, housemate, or love interest rides a bike and suddenly you’re putting the helmet on once again. Cycling helps you stay fit, and it saves sitting in traffic for your morning commute.

Then maybe you get pregnant and have a baby. The ‘good mother’ doesn’t ride their bike while pregnant. The ‘good mother’ doesn’t put their toddler on the back of their bike. There are a lot of things ‘good mothers’ don’t do. Research shows that women tend to drive their children instead of ride, because they want to keep their kids safe. Adelaide researcher Dr Jennifer Bonham has undertaken extensive study on gender and cycling. The quotes from her research read like the thoughts that go through my mind and the minds of the mums I know, when they contemplate cycling with their children.

“Yeah I did have a little thing that goes on the back of the bicycle…but I was always worried that if a car hit us she’s made mincemeat”

Bicycling through the life course: the start-stop-start experiences of women cycling

I didn’t ride in my first pregnancy, I caught the bus to work and that was hectic enough. My February baby meant I was using public transport in 40-degree heat. On one trip the bus driver missed the turn for the route, and instead of doubling back he asked everyone to get out and walk to their stop, including me, eight months pregnant. I sat on the pavement and cried, then rang my mum to come and get me. Even carrying my own baby, I wanted my mum to rescue me, mothering never really ends.

I have a friend who did continue riding though, at six months pregnant she was hit by a car who ran a give way sign. Fortunately, both her and her baby were ok, her only injury a cut to the leg. Bonham’s research unearthed a similar story:

“Tracey’s description is a case in point – where, after being knocked off her bicycle when she was seven months pregnant, the motorist jumped out of his car and shouted abuse at her for the damage to his car”.

Bicycling through the life course: the start-stop-start experiences of women cycling

This story reminds me of a recent run in with an entitled male cyclist. My friend and I were walking along the foreshore path with our babies in the pram, her pre-schooler walking alongside us. It was a sunny morning, the first in weeks and the shared path was busy with mums pushing prams, kids on scooters, walkers and some easy-going cyclists. We were chatting as we walked when my friend’s son noticed some beautiful beach flowers, he rushed over to look at them, veering over to the right. In the process, this little boy was knocked over by a cyclist going too fast for a shared path on a busy morning, the kind of cyclist who makes all cyclists look bad. With the sudden braking, the guy went over his handlebars and fell onto the curious 5-year-old. The cyclist was indignant, he told my friend she should have had “her boy under control”. He didn’t ask if the child was ok, luckily no one was seriously hurt. As is often the case, other mums came to assist. One mum out walking with a very new baby stopped and made sure the cyclist was ok, she had nurse written all over her. Another group of mums with little ones consoled my friend, told her in no uncertain terms that she did not have to have her child “under control”. When he said that I thought to myself, “Have you spent time with a 5-year-old lately?”.  

Being told how to be a ‘good mother’ by old white men is not so unusual once you have children. Often, it’s while they make little or no commitment to change their own behaviour or support us in our mothering role.

When my oldest son was 9 months old, we bought a baby seat for the back of my bike. He loved it, he would even sleep sitting there if the timing was right. As he got bigger, I took him for day trips to the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, I would drop him off at childcare and once we rode to Womad. It was lovely to be sharing my love of cycling with my son. Then a few near misses happened, and I got really shaken.

The one that really sealed the deal was after the Christmas Pageant. We were riding home after a morning of festivities, and a car turned without looking. Fortunately, I was able to keep the bike upright and recovered quickly enough that my son was happy enough to stay on the bike for the rest of the journey home. But I was shaken, and I could see the image in my head had it been worse. I stopped cycling with my son after that. He was getting bigger, and now he rides his own bike, but we missed the years in between where we could have keep riding together.

My husband doesn’t seem to have the same worries about road safety, or confidence in riding with our sons. Perhaps he feels stronger in his body, perhaps he’s a man in a man’s body, using roads built by men. Men generally don’t have the same awareness of personal safety as women. Bonham’s research also found this, one participant said:

“My husband’s an incredibly confident rider and so he was fine taking my daughter. I just didn’t want to take her myself because… I just thought no I wouldn’t have the confidence”.

Bicycling through the life course: the start-stop-start experiences of women cycling

Since my second son was born and has grown big enough to sit in the baby seat, I have done a few casual Sunday rides around our local neighbourhood with him and the family. But I haven’t commuted with him, and now there is the added complexity of my eldest riding his bike.

My five-year-old loves to ride, he’s graduated to a mountain bike, and I see in his eyes the sparkle of joy we all feel when we first really master riding. Being one of the kids that rides to school makes him feel cool, it’s already part of his identity. My husband rides with him, they’ve had a few wobbly moments but so far, it’s been ok. However, every time my small son and I wave them off at the driveway I feel a pang of worry. Will he listen to his dad? Will a distracted driver veer over and knock him off?

I want to feel safe riding my bike, I especially want to feel safe riding with my kids.

Public health messages tell us we need to be more active, 30 minutes a day to reduce our chance of obesity, heart disease, stroke. Our roads are clogged between 8am-9am and 3pm-4pm, with parents picking their children up from school in the car. Our climate is warming, transport is the second highest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. I want to ride my bike! I want to feel that sense of achievement and aliveness you feel when you power yourself along.  

Yet, our governments still won’t invest in fit for purpose cycling infrastructure. Some pay cyclists lip service, they put up signs and splash paint on the road and call it a bike lane. Others invest in ‘cycling confidence’ courses for woman. I can tell you that paint and a sign will not save me or my children from being hit by a car or worse, nor will increased confidence. Riding on the footpath makes the trip feels ten times longer, weaving in and out of the crossing points, between pedestrians, and the increasing number of driveways present in our infilled suburb.

I want to have bike paths that separate my children and I from semi-trailers and provide a direct route to my destination. I want to reduce the time spent in the car and especially the time I spend trying to wrangle small bodies into car seats.

From 31 October- 12 November 2021, world leaders meet in Glasgow, Scotland to attend the 26th UN Climate Change Conference. The COP26 summit brings together decision makers, to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. After reading the findings of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, I want the Australian government and other world leaders to do more to avert the most damaging impacts of climate change.

For my part, I want to ride my bike, safely and with my kids. If you do too, join me for a protest parade called ‘Babes on Bikes’.

On Saturday 6 November, we’ll meet at 10am in the southern end of Victoria Square/Tarntanyangga. We will ride (or walk/scoot/wheelchair/push a pram) to outside Adelaide Oval, to urge more investment in female friendly/family friendly cycling infrastructure in Adelaide.  We will parade in solidarity with the Scottish hosts of the COP26 and urge our leaders to commit to greater climate action. Action includes but is not limited to, investment in walking and cycling infrastructure that makes it possible to reduce our reliance on cars.

We will wear tartan and bright clothes; we will have a bagpiper lead us, we’ll play Scottish pop bands of the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s from speakers in our bike trailers.

It’s kid friendly democracy, there won’t be any speeches on the day. There will be an hour of power and fun, to show our leaders we want action. If you can’t make it or even if you can, you can sign the petition here. It tells the government:

  • We don’t believe signs and paint on the road are enough to keep us safe, we need separated bike paths that provide an integrated and direct route to the places we need to go. We urge for investment in family friendly and female friendly cycling infrastructure in the inner suburbs of Adelaide and beyond.
  • We urge the government, in particular the federal government, to commit to greater climate action in the context of the IPCC Climate Report and the gathering of leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021 in Glasgow from 31 October 2021 – 12 November 2021. Action includes but is not limited to, investment in walking and cycling infrastructure that makes it possible to reduce our reliance on cars.

Babes on Bikes is a protest parade being organised by Middle Ground Motherhood in partnership with Bike Adelaide and South Australian Parents for Climate Action. For the purposes of COVID safe planning, we request you register to attend here.  

2 thoughts on “Babes on Bikes

  1. Thank you so so so much for this piece! I could identify with every point you made – I too just want to ride my bike, safely, in Adelaide, with my kids!
    I also love the interweaving of history, gender equality, the motherhood journey, and climate policy.
    Beautifully well written, thank you! 🤗💚

    Like

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