On this International Women’s Day, I thought I’d address one of the skeletons in the room when we discuss bicycle-friendly infrastructure and the interested-but-hesitant cyclist: A pretty good portion of that 60% is female.
Data suggests that men outnumber women on bicycles in the United States by a ratio of two-to-one. In many European nations, the ratio is far closer to one-to-one.
One reason for a lower incidence of women on bikes: Women generally have a greater share of responsibility for care of children. Women do more of the household shopping. The study in Scientific American suggests that bicycle routes need to be structured around “practical” destinations to support this gender role behavior. It’s hard to see a lot of average suburban moms hitting Costco on a bike. As I’ve said before: I get it. You won’t be bringing home diapers for two kids, a turkey, and several gallons of milk on a bike while also caring for a child regardless of infrastructure. (SA suggests this can be addressed via education. What?)
Another reason for women to bicycle less than men: Safety concerns. Women are typically found by studies to be more risk averse. The Association of Pedestrian & Bicycle Professionals did a survey in 2010 about women on bicycles. The report is very clear that the sample was not representative of population and also self-selecting — which is to say drawing strong conclusions on the data is fraught with issues. However, the data collected supports assertions that women are risk-averse: Women cited such concerns about cycling as motorist behavior, distracted driving, and stranger attacks.
The APBP study also asked respondents what would get them cycling more. The answers? More than 60% said bike lanes, and another 46% responded with completely separated bike paths/tracks. Better direct routes was also cited by more than 40% of respondents.
I’ve written about this before. Many special facilities lead inexperienced cyclists into a false sense of safety, and actually guide them into hazardous scenarios. I’ll quote myself, here:
Under most state laws, roads are bicycle facilities. We need to find ways to empower the 60% of reluctant cyclists to feel safe on these facilities, and we need to educate drivers not to be jerks. Additional segregated facilities need to be developed based on context — because, yeah, there are some routes on which they make lots of sense — and not based on a knee-jerk belief that they are “safer” or “better.” Segregating cyclists as a matter of policy doesn’t productively further a goal of having bicycling be considered a transport mode, and not a cute little way to get around for hipsters, hippies and people who just aren’t cool enough to have cars.
The challenge is how to calm streets so that all potential users — cyclists, pedestrians, women, kids, the elderly, dogs, etc. — can use them safely and confidently. An additional challenge is continued education to these groups. Bike/Walk Twin Cities have done a number of cycling seminars targeted specifically to women, and many other groups have done similarly.
I happen to believe that improving programs like Safe Routes to Schools could help influence women’s participation in cycling. Enabling those who are providing childcare with the means to choose active transport to get to school, athletics/extracurriculars, and even church will help cut down on the number of car trips under two miles.
I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood. — Susan B. Anthony