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.
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.
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..”