In John Pucher‘s recent Transportation Research article, “The Bicycling Renassiance in North America,” (PDF) he provides some sobering statistics about gender and age disparities in the commuter cycling world, including the tidbit that almost all the recent growth in cycling in the USA has been among men between 25-64 years old, while cycling rates have remained steady among women and fallen sharply for children. Even here at GMTMA, a look at our admittedly small sample size of Bike To Work participants last month shows that most people who signed up were men.
So, what gives, ladies? Theories abound; the two most common are fear, and fashion. A widely cited 2009 study found that women are more likely to choose to ride on quiet residential streets, while men are more likely to choose direct routes even if they have heavier traffic. Professor Pucher has said in the past that women are an “indicator species” for cycling, and that cities can cajole greater women ridership by building safer-feeling bike infrastructure. Much is also made of another concern women often express in surveys — that cycling to work will impede one’s ability to conform to professional norms in clothing, makeup, and hairstyles. Nobody wants to show at work with a wicked case of Helmet Hair, right?
Yet, this gender disparity doesn’t exist everywhere. Although men’s cycling trips surpass women’s by at least 2:1 in the United States, this ratio stands in marked contrast to cycling in European countries, where urban biking is a way of life and draws about as many women as men—sometimes more. In the Netherlands, where 27 percent of all trips are made by bike, 55 percent of all riders are women. In Germany 12 percent of all trips are on bikes, 49 percent of which are made by women.
Many feel that a big part of the problem isn’t vanity, or even safety: it’s that women have a wider variety of stuff to do in their days. They’re not just going straight to work and returning directly home at 5pm. They’re als0 going to the grocery store, the daycare center, the school, the dry cleaner. In the U.S., most cycling facilities consist of on-street bike lanes, which require riding in vehicle-clogged traffic, which is a lot scarier and more cumbersome if you’ve got a bike trailer behind you with your kids inside. And, when cities do install traffic-protected off-street bike paths, they are almost always along rivers and parks rather than along practical routes that lead to the supermarket, the school, etc.
One answer is that we need to start using bikes, and bike equipment, that we can use to carry kids and cargo. But the other answer is that we just need to keep making it safer and easier to walk and bike to all of our destinations.
A few municipalities are beginning to implement strategies aimed at broadening the cycling demographic. In Portland, Oregon, they’ve started up a Women on Bikes program that targets such concerns as fixing a flat tire. The city is also building its first cycle track—a European-style bike lane that is separated from cars and pedestrians. Across the country state and federally funded Safe Routes to Schools programs are creating practical bike and walking routes for kids so they don’t have to be driven to school by their parents. Back east in New York City, about five miles of traffic-protected bike lanes have recently been installed.
So to our women out there: what would it take to get you to get on your bike more? We want to hear from you.