Close the Bicycle Gender Gap

Women don’t ride bikes. That’s the sad findings is a recently released reported titled “Women on a Roll” by The League of American Bicyclists. The Washington-based organization compiled data about women bicyclists from dozens of sources and found a gender gap on two wheels.

In 2009, only a quarter of American bike commuters were women. Male bike riders outnumber females three-to-one.

Even in the best bike city in the nation, my hometown of Portland, Ore., men outnumber women about two-to-one.

Some other nations have parity. In places like the Netherlands and Germany, women and men split about evenly among bike commuters.

This is not about the geographic realities that confront American commuters. America always will have lower overall ridership compared to smaller nations because in many places the distance between home and work or other destination is too great.

Too many Americans also seem to have an inbred love of the car and dislike for bikes. Bicycling is too “European,” whatever that means. What’s next, socialized medicine?

As a result, elected officials see little political gain in funding infrastructure like bike lanes and trails. They refuse to install traffic calming measures that might make things safer for cyclists and pedestrians at the cost of slowing cars. Transportation means one thing: Pavement to serve the internal combustion engine.

That sort of short-term thinking cannot last. As gas prices rise and Americans accept the terrible environmental cost, alternative transportation modes must become more attractive.

And bicycling is about as attractive as it gets. It is faster than walking, more convenient than taking the bus for trips of a few miles, and has tremendous health benefits.

So what gives, ladies? Ridership might be low, but why are you lagging?

My wife, herself a bike commuter as long as it isn’t raining, speculated that reluctance has to do with women not wanting to mess up their hair under a helmet, carry a change of clothes and get all sweaty.

Surely, I thought, modern American women have moved beyond such concerns.

They have not. The bike league’s report cited a survey of women in Seattle — another bike-friendly city — that found that more than a third do not ride for just such reasons.

Among other reasons are inconvenience, inability to find gear customized for women, worries about safety, and the sad fact that bicycling still feels like a men’s thing, especially when going into a bike shop.

The League’s next step is revealing changing those perceptions.

Carolyn Szczepanski, the report’s writer and the League’s director of communications explained that they will work with other advocacy and professional organizations to launch campaigns geared specifically toward encouraging women to ride. A key element will be sharing information that biking really is not as difficult as some women think.

“[Biking] doesn’t have to be something you do to get exercise, but to get from place to place,” Szczepanski said. “There’s a notion that when you’re on a bike, you have to go fast. That’s fundamentally not true. If you ride more slowly, you might get there a little later, but you won’t sweat.”

She suggested that commuter bikes that encourage upright riding and allow the rider to wear work clothes are a good option for women. She also pointed out that retailers and designers are beginning to recognize an untapped market among women riders. Gear designed specifically for their needs is hitting the market.

“We want to shift the paradigm from niche athletic pursuit to something that fits into the life of a professional, a mother, a grandmother and the full spectrum of women,” Szczepanski said.

The smart, multi-modal transportation system of the future should serve everyone, regardless of sex.

Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.

Image Source: Extra Zebra via Flickr.

  • Amy McVay Abbott

    I am in the process of getting a new bike. Things are very different at this point in life. I enjoyed biking so much in my youth but now there are other concerns, a bad knee, safety, and getting a good-looking safe helmet. Really wish more communities would make safe bike paths. My town is working on it and the trails are really wonderful. Great article, Christian.

  • Mary

    I just recently started riding again. At first the ride was so uncomfortable I nearly quit. After researching saddles and realizing I needed assistance on seat height and frame size, I now am a happy comfortable rider. The fatigue is non-existent and it is fun. I owe thanks to my persistent husband and some great bike shops here in Houston.

  • Tina

    While I love to ride, the “sweaty and icky at work thing” is very real and not something to be blown off casually. Like it or not, appearances matter at work, a lot, and showing up stinky, sweaty, and with helmet hair in a lot of jobs is a serious issue. Looking good at work means people (many of them men) will take a woman seriously. Looking like crap says “I don’t care” loud and clear. A locker room with a shower in a workplace would make a huge difference to womens’ willingness to commute by bike. Another issue is safety–not just traffic safety but riding in the dark (morning and evenings in the winter) is a safety issue in a lot of neighborhoods for women.

    The truth is that men have more freedoms culturally than women do–freedom to be a little stinky, freedom to have a very short no-fuss haircut, and the freedom to be out after dark alone.

    Great article, and I think things are improving, but those two issues are big ones.

    • Mary

      Well said Tina.

  • Christine

    As someone who used to live in Denmark, where more people ride bicycles than have cars, especially in the city, there are a lot of attitude differences. People there have safe bike paths everywhere, women in general experience very low threat of personal safety day or night, and there is an ethic about the environment we still lack. And, women’s clothing choices here still reflect an odd obsession with 1950s and 60s impracticality. Of course, we have the automobile choice and it isn’t much more expensive for us, since we must have them anyhow (outside of some major cities). I finally got an office near where I live, and when it cools down (Arizona) I am considering buying a bicycle. However, neither my apartment complex or my office has a place to keep it.

    • Dana

      And that’s another issue. Bicycles are easier to steal than cars. Even when you lock it up they can just use bolt cutters, and it doesn’t matter whether you live in a low-crime area.

      A good bicycle that is less likely to tear up your body costs money and there isn’t much recourse when that bicycle disappears. You must spend half a grand, minimum, all over again, just to replace it.

  • Dana

    Believe it or not, being sweaty *when you are commuting* IS a big deal and you’re not shallow if you worry about it. If you’re commuting, that means you’re going to work. If you show up at work all sweaty and nasty, no, that will *not* make a good impression with either your boss or your customers.

    So I should think that particular issue answers its own question. Do you really believe employers will install showers next to the employee bathroom just so employees can bike? Maybe a few will, but most of them?

    Also, in some areas of this country we have this interesting season called “winter”, where snow happens? Ever tried bicycling when it’s below freezing outside? Or when the roads have been plowed? Did you know it leaves huge snow banks on either side of the street that are a hazard to walkers? Well, they’re not any better for bicyclists, either.

    Also, if you have kids, it’s difficult to get them around on a bike when they’re in a certain age range. Guess which gender is more likely to have kids in tow.

    So there are some reasons right there.

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