Regarding the participants’ sociodemographic profile, they had an age range of 18–44 years old, came from several Colombian cities and belonged to different socioeconomic strata. Except for one student, all were single and had no children. None of the women cycled to commute at the time of data collection. However, two had done so at some stage in their student life, which allowed establishing a point of comparison with those who had not. In contrast, all but one of the men rode bicycles every day (Table 2).
The open coding produced 55 codes, which were condensed through axial coding into four categories considered to be conditions for transport cycling. These categories were: perceived insecurity, use of convenience, positive meanings of bicycle users’ experiences and the transitional gender model.
Perceived insecurity referred to the students’ interpretation or judgment of a lack of safety in their environment based on their own experiences and influenced by the perceptions of their classmates, friends and family members, especially their mothers. Perceived insecurity can be classified into two subcategories: road safety, particularly traffic accidents, and street crime. The first refers to traffic accidents and the second concerns to robberies, particularly robbery and sexual aggression.
Regarding perceived road insecurity, the participants who came from outside Bogotá found traffic in the city to be more complex coand aggressive than in their hometowns. Their perceptions differed according to the route they travelled, which, in turn, depended on the area of their residence and destination.
The state of the cycling infrastructure was also a determining factor in perceived road safety. Dedicated roads with proper traffic signals and connected paths were felt to be safer. A lack of such networks during whole or part of a route required sharing the road and interacting with drivers using other transportation modes. When traffic rules were not followed, interactions were considered to be disrespectful and unsafe. This behaviour by other road users was mostly reported in the southern and western parts of the city. For the students, interactions with other road actors in these circumstances required good reflexes, coordination and balance. They also felt that development of these skills depended on frequent use and practice, resulting in self-efficacy.
In general, the students who frequently commuted by bicycle rated their skills as higher, while those who did not do so considered their skills to be lower and expressed a greater fear of biking. This low sense of self-efficacy was mainly evident in women and was found to be related to gender stereotypes. Accordingly, one participant stated:
Well, I know it's not like this much anymore, but you still think that sports are for boys, and you don’t see as many women in sports or biking, so these are things you think of as—no, they’re more manlike. (Female participant, focus group 3, 23/03/18)
The low uptake of bicycling was associated with gendered responses to injuries conditioned in the participants by their parents during childhood. One participant mentioned this point:
If a boy falls, also because of the same cultural tendency, adults say, ‘Everything is OK. Calm down’. But if a girl falls, then it is a mess, and the experience is stored as something traumatic because it is more alarming if a girl falls than if a boy falls. [...] It is because of parents’ parenting. (Male participant, focus group 2, 22/02/18)
Such parental responses encouraged men to build greater self-efficacy, and consequently, motor skills were not a barrier for them. Women’s fear of the road was partly related to distrust of their skills.
A perceived lack of safety was another factor that conditioned transport cycling. The determining factors of this perception were the route, schedule and journey, understood as the distance and time to move from the origin point to the destination. A long journey was associated with greater exposure to hazards. Regarding the timetable, the students considered very early and late trips to be unsafe due to the lack of light and empty streets that could facilitate delinquent acts.
Although street crime affected both men and women, both thought that women’s lower use of bicycles was associated with their perceptions of their vulnerability. One participant argued:
It is not a matter of gender that makes her vulnerable; it is more about her self-perceptions. I think that it [cycling] is not being done because there is an idea of vulnerability, and I think that this idea is badly influenced by our society. (Male participant, focus group 2, 22/02/18)
Women were considered to be easy prey, whereas men were viewed as stronger and capable of defending themselves against attacks. Although some participants related this difference to physical strength, they also linked it to women’s complex roles and travel patterns. The participants associated roles with the practice of risky behaviours by men due to stereotypes of masculinity that made them feel entitled.
Another component of perceived insecurity was sexual aggression, understood in this study as harassment and rape. This concern was found exclusively in women. Although two men mentioned being victims of harassment while cycling, they considered it to be an isolated event and not a problem, so it did not generate a fear of commuting by bicycle. In contrast, some women found the attitudes and comments expressed by men along the road to be a frequent annoyance that intimidated them and produced a negative attitude to cycling. The female students associated bullying with riding alone and wearing certain clothing.
In short, safety concerns were a major factor for many participants. However, the perceived risks to which the participants were exposed and their responses differed by place of origin, residence and gender. Insecurity presented a greater burden for women because they feared sexual assault, in addition to road fear related to their lack of self-efficacy and vulnerability to street crime. For those who manage to overcome the perception of insecurity, though, convenience of use was another important factor.
Convenience of Use
This category framed the factors that made commuting by bicycle practical or impractical, including the journey, equipment availability and weather. A long distance required more physical effort and had safety implications. Consequently, the students preferred other commuting alternatives or to live close to their most frequent destination, if possible. If their residence was very close to the latter, it was more practical for them to walk due to the logistics of bicycle use.
The students reported a need for more places to park their bicycles and for lockers and showers to prepare before work. The availability of this equipment was especially important for women, as discussed later in relation to the gender model. The insufficient availability of this equipment became a limiting factor. Variations in Bogota’s weather could also make commuting inconvenient. As factors related to convenience of use influenced the decision to bike, so did positive meanings of the cycling experience.
Positive Meanings of Bicycle Users’ Experience
For the students, bicycling offered a means to get around efficiently, saving time and money while exercising, improving their health and protecting the environment. These benefits resulted in a sense of well-being. According to the participants, this practice could be their best option for physical activity during the academic term due to the burden of their studies. The participants also associated this mode of transportation with a sense of control, freedom, autonomy and independence as it gave them the ability to decide when to ride, along with their speed and travel time. This empowerment was especially important for women as it increased their decision-making power and participation in public life. All these factors showed that the cycling experience was related to gender roles; the gender model of which these roles were part, therefore, was considered to structure the phenomenon.
Transitional Gender Model
The students found social constructs to be one cause of the low uptake of transport cycling among women. The students defined social constructions as social representations of how to be men and women. These representations influenced the construction of identity, so we identified them in a gender model. Within this category, three subcategories were identified: a traditional gender model, a contemporary gender model and a transitional gender model.
The last was characterised by the coexistence of notions from the first two models. Accordingly, the students found that traditional stereotypes persisted and associated the male role with being physically and emotionally strong, protective, independent and risky. In contrast, the female role was related to physical and emotional weakness, vulnerability, dependence, an impeccable personal image and dedication to caring for home and children. As mentioned by the participants, these attributes promoted risky behaviours in men and underestimation of women’s capabilities. The latter was evidenced in incidents in family and academic settings that included comments devaluing women’s abilities.
In this context, bicycling was associated with attributes regarded as masculine, such as strength, independence and risk taking. Accordingly, women considered the sweating and blushing caused by physical exertion when bicycling to be inconvenient because they felt that it affected their femininity. One participant stated:
I feel that it is welcomed when a man arrives on a bicycle, like, ‘What a sportsman. He is sweating! Oh, yes’! But it is different for women, and it should not be like that. [...] I feel that like going to the street on a bicycle or jogging, right, to her work, and things like that, like it does not fit the image that we have of a woman. It should not be like that, I say, but it is the way it is. (Female participant, focus group 2, 23/03/18)
In addition, cycling made the women visible in public spaces, considered to be inadequate and unsafe for women late in the evening. Consequently, they were afraid to use public roads, where they might suffer aggression. One participant commented:
The fact that you ride a bicycle is as if it makes you seen by more people sometimes because you go alone. [...] It is frowned upon or something like that or dangerous for a woman to be alone on a bicycle at around 10 o'clock at night any day in Bogotá. For my family, not specifically for me, but for them. (Female participant, focus group 1, 08/02/18)
Even as the students identified traditional gender constructs, elements of the contemporary model were also found. In this model, the female ideal was associated with a professional, economically independent, strong woman. Due to this image and the socio-economic context in which the female students were embedded, care for their personal image was very important, representing credibility and professional respect. The above connected to the idea of the impeccably presented woman, a symbol of femininity in the traditional model. In this scenario, blushing and sweating were again inconvenient, requiring logistics and equipment to counteract them. Although the students recognised the persistence of stereotypes that affected the meaning of the cycling experience, they aspired to an egalitarian model that broke schemes imposing gendered ways of acting. However, they thought that this model was changing slowly and required alterations in structural conditions.
Finally, the relationships of the transitional gender model, as a central category, with the three preceding categories were established. From the established relationships, emerged our conceptual framework of the socio-cultural significance of cycling for health sciences students at the University of the Andes.