Greening the Ways We Get Around: Why Attitudes Can Be As Important As Infrastructure

tehran iran bicycle woman photo

Street scene in Tehran. Photo: kamshots / Creative Commons.

In the latest example of how tough life can be for would-be women cyclists around the world, the new police chief of the Iranian city of Esfahan has decreed it a crime for women to ride a bike or roller-skate in public -- an infraction he said would be "severely prosecute[d.]" It's little wonder, then, that twice as many Iranian women as men are obese.We've written before about restrictions on women cycling in India, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, but reading a story by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty about the Esfahan announcement right after writing about the increasing obesity problem in Turkey and Iran really brought the issue home for me.

I have it easy in Istanbul, of course, though even here it can be a bit intimidating for a woman to go out and get some exercise. I sweated through the summer running in long pants and a T-shirt, trying to make myself inconspicuous, and it's taken me a while to feel confident that the men who stare or call out at me largely seem to mean no harm. (Friends who've tried to run in more conservative parts of the city have had a harder time.) If running or biking was more frowned upon -- much less outlawed -- I could easily see how staying home and being sedentary would seem like a pretty good option.

Changing Minds and Cities
The bigger issue, though, is perhaps not just about women's freedoms or places where they're restricted -- as important of an issue as that is. When it comes to trying to get people to live healthier, more environmentally friendly lifestyles, the decree in Iran is in some ways just another example of how changing social norms is as important as building infrastructure for walking, biking, or public transportation.

A city can establish all the bike paths it wants, for example, but if parents are scared to let their kids use them, they'll keep driving them to school. A shiny new bus-rapid-transit system isn't much good if people see public transportation as a haven for criminals and a drain on property values. Or if they agree with William Lind of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, who told Grist in an interview this week that trains and streetcars are better than buses because "where public transit is heavily used by minorities, everybody else is going to avoid it." Addressing such concerns in a positive manner is probably a slower and more complicated process than, say, getting more buses on the road, but one that seems just as crucial.

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