Photo by Andrew Schwartz
By Anna Bowen
Female urban cyclists are as diverse as the bikes they ride. When a friend of mine recently rolled up to my back porch in Toronto, ON, on a black Norco Emma city bike, all decked out in business attire and a tweed helmet, it wasn't just her style that impressed me. Rachel Percy, policy analyst for the Government of Ontario, used to think cycling in Toronto was only for diehards. Her limited experiences of cycling left her in the dust: "I fell off my bike and I wasn't even riding it!" she said of her experience at a stoplight near an intimidating overpass in Toronto back in 2004. She now bikes to work -- four miles (seven kilometers) each way -- on every "good weather" day.
From blogger moms taking their kids to school on a bike bus, to Latina teenagers riding fixies in LA, women want to cycle. But the barriers to bicycling are real: lack of safe cycling infrastructure, economic barriers to buying and maintaining a bike and cultural norms that dictate what's feminine and what's not are all challenges that women can face when they consider cruising on two wheels. Added to that are the social pressures that can make women feel uncomfortable in a mainstream bike shop and the fact that they often cannot find the functional and fashionable everyday cycling clothes and accessories they're looking for.
The Gender Gap
In the last decade, more men have been hitting the pedals than women. The percentage of bike trips made by women in the US fell five percent between 2001 and 2009, according to a report by John Pucher, a professor of planning and transportation at Rutgers University. Men accounted for about three-quarters of all bike trips made in the US in 2009. That's discouraging news, considering that women have been called the "indicator species" of the overall bike-friendliness of a region, as the more of them there are, the more widespread cycling seems to be. In the Netherlands, where the cycling mode share is around 27 percent, women account for 55 percent of the cyclists on the street, and 49 percent of the total population.
Allison Mannos, urban strategy director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, works with Latino immigrant day-labor cyclists in LA, where she said pretty much everyone she works with is male. ìItís framed as a very male thingî to use a bike for transportation in low-income immigrant communities, she explained. In her community, women generally reserve bikes for recreational use. "There aren't enough affordable bike shops within their neighborhoods," she said, adding that, in LA, it is very clear that immigrant women take the bus.
Empowerment through DIY Repairs
Portland's success over the past 15 years or so is credited in part to women-only bike repair times and women's group rides. Many of the women I spoke to confirmed this, citing DIY, women-only repair times and group rides among the motivators for getting them up and rolling.
"Bikes need to be demystified," said Ainsley Naylor of Toronto's Bike Pirates, a nonprofit DIY bicycle collective. Naylor coordinates women- and trans-only repair times once a week at Bike Pirates. "We definitely see a lot of women who are just overwhelmed by trying to buy a bike, or leaving their bike to rust because it got a flat tire and they didn't know what to do." Percy said of her first bike shop experience: "I wasn't intimidated because I was a woman, but I was intimidated because I didn't know anything about bikes."