Time to Close the Gap

Look no further than Spokane streets, bike shops and riding clubs for evidence of the massive gender imbalance across the nation in bicycling. Why don’t more women ride? Well, it’s complicated. Yet, it’s everyone’s problem. When fewer women bike, public health, the bike industry, infrastructure and all cyclists’ safety suffer.

The most oft-referenced study on why women bike less than men comes from, believe it or not, the Evergreen State. In 2012, Anne Broache published her University of Washington Master’s thesis in urban planning exploring barriers to riding for women. “Even in Seattle, which has earned accolades for bikefriendliness [sic], men compose more than 70 percent of bike commuters,” writes Broache, who now works on communications projects for the Washington State Department of Transportation at public relations firm PRR. In survey responses from 365 Seattle women — about two thirds of whom rode daily — 79 percent cited safety concerns as the primary barrier to riding.

Broache’s study echoes data from other Washington bike groups, national studies and big-city bikeshare programs: U.S. women represent only a quarter of total cyclists. Far more women bike for recreation than for transportation, reifying accounts of road hazards like distracted driving deterring commuters.  Portland planning professor Jennifer Dill found that just like adult women, girls stopped biking due to safety concerns at around 11 years old. Even then, safety concerns top the list of barriers.

A different study co-authored by Dill found women’s actual bike routes were similar to men’s, indicating they weren’t more likely to go out of their way to avoid dangerous routes. That may mean girls and women are simply more likely to articulate safety concerns than their male counterparts, and the actual reasons for gender disparity in bicycling lies beneath the surface.

A lack of biking companions came second in teenage girls’ concerns — and though that’s not often mentioned for adults, the dearth of other female riders in cycling groups and on the road makes anecdotal sense. Other factors, like expectations for women’s physical appearance, kid-shuttling and grocery shopping responsibilities, street harassment, and economic disparity all arise in Broache’s and other studies on why some women don’t ride. Women are twice as likely to hold minimum-wage jobs, introducing additional challenges like access to bikes and irregular shifts that require commuting at odd hours.

Data from the Netherlands shows responsibilities like child care and road safety can impact women’s ridership numbers. It’s the bike-friendliest country on Earth, and also one in which kids become independently mobile at a younger age. In the Netherlands, more women ride bikes than men.

The League of American Bicyclists offers five “C’s” that need improvement to get more women on bikes: comfort, convenience, consumer products, confidence and community.

Increasing comfort means creating more bike paths and bike lanes. “Bike facilities and low-stress roads, like bicycle boulevards, can play an important role in this transformation — with pronounced impact on the number of women riders,” according to the League’s 2013 “Women Bike” report. And it works: Portland increased its female ridership by 10 percent from 1992 to 2012 by investing heavily in bike infrastructure.

Convenience and consumer products go hand in hand. The report identifies availability of cargo and kid-toting gear as a key factor in the Netherlands’ high rate of women cyclists. While only five percent of bike trips in the U.S. are shopping trips, a quarter of rides in the Netherlands include shopping. In an industry dominated by men, women report feeling less welcome in bike shops, and most bike-related companies are owned by men. More and more, women are taking bike fashion and function into their own hands, creating products that meet their needs, but that’s not enough. Women comprise nearly 40 percent of bike-related spending, and that number increases every year. Failing to include women in the industry as a whole continues to stifle its money-making potential.

Creating better communities for women cyclists, and thereby boosting their confidence when it comes to skill and safety, starts with women-specific resources. Skills classes, riding groups and women-only races provide an approachable entry point to the sport. But for lasting change, all bicycling spaces — from shops to bike clubs to the street — need a culture shift. //


Unfortunately, this will be Erika’s last Everyday Cyclist column for the foreseeable future. Look for longtime OTM contributor Hank Greer to once again take over the EDC reins later this summer.

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