Putting her ‘pedal to the mettle’

Léa Ravensbergen on a bicycle in the winter
Thursday, April 19, 2018 - 11:04am
Carla DeMarco

For PhD candidate Léa Ravensbergen, getting around on two wheels is not only her preferred method of transportation, but has also served as the driving force behind her transportation-geography research for the past five years under the supervision of Professor Ron Buliung.

And thanks to urban pedaling’s popularity rising in the last few years, Ravensbergen, who in her work focuses primarily on gender and cycling, is not wanting for material to study.

“Newly-released 2016 census data shows that cycling is the fastest growing mode of transportation for Canadians, with stats indicating that the number of Canadians cycling to work has increased by 88 per cent over the past 20 years,” says Ravensbergen. “We see this trend is particularly prominent in Canadian cities, and the data shows us that in some downtown Toronto neighbourhoods, over 30 per cent of residents commute to work by bicycle.”

"One thing I have noticed, anecdotally, is how many more year-round cyclists there are now compared to a few years ago. I was encouraged by how many people were biking on the roads with me this winter!”

Earlier in 2018, Ravensbergen was featured on a Radio-Canada interview (in three segments cycling around with reporter Annie Poulin at 6:53, 7:56 and 8:55), as well as in a CycleTO article, for that very activity: winter cycling. She is a dedicated cyclist that is not deterred by rain, wind, or snow, and the CycleTO article talks about, among other things, the sturdy bike she built herself to better withstand TO’s wintery streets, as well as her participation last year in Toronto’s cycling mentorship program for newcomers.

“I spent last summer working in collaboration with an excellent program called Bike Host, which was created by CultureLink Settlement Services,” says Ravensbergen.

“This cycling-mentorship program pairs newcomers to Toronto, who are interested in cycling, with a Toronto-based cyclist for the summer. The newcomers are loaned a bicycle, lock and helmet, and spend the summer discovering the city by bike with their mentor. I performed interviews with many of these participants before the program began and then re-interviewed them at the end of the program. I also performed mapping interviews and bike-along interviews with many participants to shed light on how the experience of cycling is shaped by gender, class, age, etc. It was a busy and exciting summer!”

Ravensbergen came across a number of interesting findings including the fact that some people might associate cycling with low social status in adulthood, and that females who were discouraged from cycling as children felt less confident about biking as an adult.

“I was also impressed by how much the bicycle could have a positive impact on people's lives,” says Ravensbergen.

“Some women I interviewed learned how to bike through this program – an achievement they described as incredibly empowering. For them and others, biking provided confidence in their physical abilities, was a time-saving mode of transport or facilitated a sense of belonging in Toronto, their new home.”

Ravensbergen also came away with a great deal of respect for the Toronto-based organizations like BikeHost, Bike Pirates (through which she built her winter bike for less than $100), Cycle TO, and others who are working towards making Toronto a more cycling-friendly city. She feels encouraged by some of the cycling-infrastructure investments that have been made – though of course, she says, there’s always room for improvement.

Currently, Ravensbergen is analyzing all the interview data she has gathered over the last few months while winter cycling is becoming a distant memory, as her research has taken her to the warmer climes of Australia.

“I am fortunate to be doing my data analysis in sunny Melbourne, where I will be presenting preliminary findings at Monash University in April,” says Ravensbergen, who will take the next year to write her dissertation on the gender gap in cycling and how identity shapes the experience of cycling, with an aim to graduate from her PhD program in summer 2019.

Ravensbergen's work was covered in a profile on this site in 2016, Wheel of Fortune, when her work was recognized with two prestigious awards by the American Association of Geographers.