Taking on the dark

Darkness. We’ve got alot of it right now in Scotland, about 16 hours a day of it to be precise. If you don’t go out in the dark or the rain during the winter in Scotland you might as well go full squirrel and hibernate. Darkness is hard to avoid but the experience of darkness is not the same for everyone.

The fears associated with being a woman in the darkness, alone, in both the built and natural environment was a theme running through an Urbanista event I attended this week and resonated with my own experience. Many women fear walking alone in their own neighbourhoods during the day, and it feels like this concern is endemic for women when it comes to walking, running or cycling in the darkness.

This fear is reinforced by others (see the charming example below to adventurer Jenny Tough), leading to men encouraging women to arm themselves for their own safety rather than addressing the real issue. Perhaps we should just all stay home and embroider things instead?

I’ve cycled home regularly from Edinburgh in the last year, mainly after work with a friend in tow. I’ve loved the last part of journey as the sun sets behind our quiet lanes; the opportunity to catch a glimpse of bats in the fading light and the owls a little later. Increasing my weekly mileage has made me feel stronger in every way, with the 30 miles slipping past with less effort each time. What felt like epic in March was enjoyably normal by November.

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Until this winter I’ve rarely cycled in the dark, away from street lights and peopled city streets. I avoid off road cycle paths, parks and quiet routes in the evening that I would always take in daylight. I choose the statistically more likely danger from people in cars and cycle on busy roads rather than the unlikely but emotionally compelling risk from people on foot in quieter places.

Infrastructure and urban design plays a part in how we assess risks, and a well lit, well used path with good sight lines in an open space is asking to be used and narrow, poorly lit canal side paths are deserted in the dark evenings. Or are they? Perhaps they are teeming with fearless cyclists, laughing in the darkness at those of us who are dicing with death on the roads. Am I at a greater risk as a woman, or do I just have the fear because I’ve been conditioned into being scared? Whatever the cause, we should all be able to travel without fear, and we need our urban environments to be designed in inclusive and creative ways to ensure that we all feel safe to walk, cycle and use public transport alone at any time.

 

sunset

Last month I found myself at a dark crossroads, literally, as my cycling companion needed to get home a more direct route. Do I take the fast, unpleasant and busy road route in company or the quiet, dark road home alone? I pulled up my big girl pants, waved goodbye to my friend and cycled into the night.

In the absolute darkness of the country lanes my fear fought my exhilaration, a heady rush of emotion that fuelled the first few miles. I had 10 miles of complete darkness around me, with few houses and just my own breathing for company. The trees looked beautiful in their dark silhouette forms and my headlight created a small tunnel of brightness that kept me on the road.

As I relaxed and enjoyed the cold night air I felt sorrow that my fear had prevented me from experiencing this unique sense of solitude before. I resolved to have no new year resolutions this year, but I am going to take some advice from an Urbanista I met this week and ‘get off the path’ and go exploring in the dark some more. As the modern philosopher Lady Gaga says “All that ever holds somebody back, I think, is fear. For a minute I had fear. [Then] I went into the [dressing] room and shot my fear in the face..”

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11 thoughts on “Taking on the dark

  1. Cycling at night is a wonderfully unique experience. I love it! But I also know some fear when doing so, and I can only imagine that a woman might have additional fears. I commend you for your adventuresome spirit. I’ll make a bold statement here, and only hope that it is helpful. It seems to me that many cyclists, when dressed in their “gear”, look rather gender neutral. I’ve often come upon cyclists thinking I was going to see a man, when it turned out to be a woman–and the reverse is also true. I think that might work in your favor if you are fearful of being attacked. Also, some heavy-framed eye protection can help to disguise a face. I always ride with a bright headlight, a bright taillight and reflective clothing and ankle bands. Peddling movement while wearing reflective ankle bands is actually more noticeable and effective that lighting. Best wishes to you! Be safe. Have fun. and keep riding!

    1. On a long ride I certainly look like a ‘cyclist’, but I’m also 5’5 so feel I look more vulnerable anyway because of my size

  2. I have always ridden at night. Love it. And feel safer on a bike than walking. I do make judgements about which routes to take. I live in London and won’t use some of the unlit traffic free paths after dark, or the canals. I wouldn’t use them at night if I was a man alone either! Riding in the countryside at night feels far safer. I recall riding down from Achnasheen to Torridon, one late October night, around midnight. Beautiful.

    1. Absolutely! I had no idea how useless my city lights were until I got a good headlight.. Couldn’t ride here without it.

  3. I have decided that I had to change my cycle route home for my commute with the dark evenings here in Scotland for my safety. Now I avoid my usual route through parks, along Rivers and along Canal towpaths as they are unlit and littered with (ninja) joggers, unleashed dogs and often have patches of unseen ice. All of these risks seem unavoidable not matter how bright my light is or how slow I go. So instead I now take the well lit road route (until the light returns) which although it is shorter in distance takes exactly the same amount of time to travel because of traffic.
    BTW Squirrels do not hibernate 😉

  4. All very well if you live in quiet countryside but if you live in dark narrow Somerset with fast drivers who are mostly drunk after dark I find hibernation safer. Particularly when our roads do not have ditches to dive into, you can end up very flat very fast. The south west has the highest rate of cycling injuries in the U.K. Ride in daylight and take the car at night. This from someone who cycled back from shift work on a mine in Namibia.

  5. My best night ride was coming back from a 7:84 performance at Findhorn and riding to Inverness along the long straight ‘yellow’ road to Nairn. the night was clear to the East with a full and bright moon, so bright that as my eyes acclimatised I was able to turn off my headlight and cycle through a monochrome version of real world v1.0 To the west however there was rain and I had the wondrous sight of a full ‘moonbow’ – again the monochrome version of a rainbow. I totally agree about the wildlife and having a bat brush your face as it misjudges your presence as a moving object is a ‘special’ experience

    When building the Loch Venachar path we had around 20 volunteers camped out in the Tennant family big house, and often walked the 5 or so miles to the pub in Callander, with the residual light from stars and occasionally the moon, sufficient to see our way, with the added benefit that the lack of light pollution meant you could spot several satellites passing over as speeding pinpoints of light above.

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