Everyday Cyclist: Why Don’t More Women Bike?

IT TURNS OUT THAT a strong indicator of the health of bicycle commuting is the number of women who participate in it. Women make up only about one-fourth of bike commuters in the United States. The percentage is higher in bike-friendly cities where there is greater emphasis on safe and practical bike routes. In cities like Minneapolis, San Francisco and Portland, women comprise 35 to 45 percent of people riding to and from work on a bike. By comparison, it’s 49 and 55 percent, respectively, in Germany and the Netherlands where there is greater focus on public bike infrastructure.

So what would get more women to ride? A couple years ago, the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (APBP) conducted a national survey and found the number one factor was convenience. This included weather conditions, time, shorter distances, tools for mapping trips, less congested traffic, and more bike-friendly traffic rules. The second factor was infrastructure such as improved bicycle accommodations, more investment in maintenance of paths and bike lanes, cleaning and plowing of bike lanes and shoulders, and segregated cycling facilities.

Katherine Widing works from home in Spokane and cycling is her primary mode of transportation. Her concerns echo the survey findings. “My personal challenge is the dreadful state of the road surface—cracks, ruts, potholes, ridges…and also debris/mushy leaves on edge of right hand lanes…where cyclists tend to ride, due to lack of city cleanup. I find that I wish there were more bike lanes, and often wonder why some bike lanes cease for no reason. I see potential for marked bike lanes on streets that are wide enough.”

Rachel Scrudder, a City of Spokane Bicycle Advisory Board member and a bike commuter for a number of years now, says investing in bike infrastructure would reduce traffic and wear on the road and provide a safer place for women and children to ride. “Until we have separated, preferably off-street bikeways, women, as a group, will feel intimidated to ride. We are less likely to take risks than our male counterparts.”

To its credit, Spokane adopted a Master Bike Plan in 2009 to help make the city more bike friendly. Last December it passed a Complete Streets ordinance so all users are considered during the planning, designing, building and operation of roadways. There have been some infrastructure improvements such as increased bike lanes and the use of sharrows that indicate bikes and vehicles share the roadway. It’s incumbent on all of us—drivers, pedestrians and cyclists—to monitor and encourage the city’s progress because we all benefit from it.

There was one survey finding in particular that struck me as significant. Only 11 percent of the women answered “yes” to the statement: “I am a confident cyclist.” I’m not surprised by that since from my own years of bike commuting I can relate to how the condition of the roadway, the amount and speed of traffic, the accommodation level for bikes, and even the weather and clothing can affect a person’s confidence level.

These factors are not entirely out of your control, ladies, and you can take action to boost your confidence and feel more comfortable while riding. But don’t take my word for it.

Three years ago Betsy Lawrence founded a group called Belles and Baskets (www.facebook.com/BellesandBaskets). It’s for women who are interested in commuting, running errands by bike, and other noncompetitive riding. One reason for starting the group was to help encourage and empower women because, from her own experience, Betsy understood why women can be hesitant to ride. From April to October, Belles and Baskets meets twice a month and the rides are a social experience that cover 10-15 miles and include a food stop. Several experienced members are happy to share route tips, clothing ideas, and more with those who want to expand their bike use. The group takes great satisfaction in new riders expressing pleasant surprise at completing a 15-mile bike trip for the first time.

Another alternative, although not just for women, is the Bike Commuter Program hosted by the Spokane Bicycle Club. Eileen Hyatt, a certified instructor for the League of American Bicyclists, is the leader and she has six volunteers helping her. Eileen says that although most of the participants have been experienced riders who are new to Spokane or former cyclists returning to cycling and want to bike commute, the program can be extremely helpful for new riders. The assistance can be as simple as a volunteer sending an email describing a route. Or it can be as involved as having a volunteer rider teach you how to spot check your bike, fix a flat tire, and ride your route with you. They can help you with basic maintenance, bike fit, helmet fit, traffic laws, riding safety and route selection. You can contact Eileen at spokanebikebuddy@aol.com.

Riding a bike involves fun and fitness. Go out with some friends or come out and make new ones. And if you’d like some encouragement with taking that first step before taking the lane, there are some avenues you can take to help you get there.


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