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Women want to cycle, but the barriers 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.
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.”
This could explain the allure of bike share for many women. Bike rental programs in Mexico and Minneapolis have a higher percentage of female patrons than the average number of female cyclists in those regions, and the prospect of using a ride-ready, maintenance-free, hassle-free mode of transportation could be why.
Playing it Safe
Research has shown that women in general tend to be more risk-averse than men, said Janine Hegeman, ride committee chair for the Colorado Springs Cycling Club. “Safety is a very big issue. There are many gaps in the trail system (that) are discouraging to newer riders.” Said Samantha Arnold of Chicago: “We need more bike lanes that are suitable for taking our children in – I’ll ride a cargo bike if I can get separated bike lanes.” A lack of secure places to lock a cargo bike doesn’t help, either, said Arnold.
The Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (APBP) published a Women’s Cycling Survey in 2010, which members Fionnuala Quinn and Andrea Garland played a large part in bringing together. The survey gathered input from over 13,000 women across North America. “Supporting better quality bicycling facilities in our communities will increase the number of women who will be willing to try cycling, leading to the potential for equalizing usage,” said Quinn. When she moved to Philadelphia, she explained, “as a civil engineer it became increasingly clear to me how big a role infrastructure design played in limiting my cycling options as well as in safety problems created for cyclists by the built environment.”
Interestingly, the APBP study found that some women actually cycle for safety reasons, saying that it is safer than walking or taking transit in urban centers at night. Naylor of Bike Pirates, for instance said that “as a woman, I have always felt safer riding my bike, especially alone and after dark.”
Many cycling organizations are finding that cycling in groups is a good way to bolster confidence. Mannos, for instance, said that the “Ovarian Cyclist” rides have been really empowering. Felicia Williams, board member of C.I.C.L.E. in Pasadena, CA, also commented that their Ladies Night ride has been helpful to first time riders who are scared “about riding in traffic or of being left behind by their male counterparts.”
Bikes vs. Fashion
Maybe it bolsters the status quo, but a lot of women are not excited about getting to work sweaty and grease-stained. Euro-style bikes that protect skirts and cuffs with chainguards and internal gears, and fashionable duds made specifically for sitting pretty, do have a niche market when it comes to female urban professional cyclists. Teresa Delfin, founder and CEO of Mountain Mama clothes in California, said, “Performance is at the top of my list, but as someone who has been known to wear a little black dress over a pair of Castelli bib shorts, I won’t pretend that style is a non-issue.”
Hegeman said that very few women at her club participate in fitness rides to avoid getting sweaty or looking “slow in front of all the guys.”
“Inconvenience factors, such as weather, sweat, helmet-hair and appropriate clothing may discourage some women from cycling more often or at all,” said Garland of the APBP survey.
Kim Burgas, an NYC designer and cyclist who organizes “Get Fancy” gallery-hops by bicycle, has one solution: “I would love a few spots around the city where I could change, freshen up and shower after commuting.” Likewise, Arnold, who is an adaptive bike advocate and blogger, said “the fact that I don’t need special clothes, don’t have to worry about grease on my pants or mud on my clothes with a Dutch bike is huge. I can ride everywhere and still look nice.”
But riding in heels isn’t everyone’s concern. The current trend in LA is for teenage girls to ride fixed-gear bikes, said Mannos. “Among low-income teenaged female cyclists, the fashion is the bike, the trend is having the fixed-gear,” she said, and not so much the clothes.
The concern with fashion depends on the expectations at your job and your sense of style to begin with. Sara Armstrong, blogger and cycling mother of three in New Haven, CT, said, for instance, “style matters very little to me; it’s more about utility.” Although she appreciates new cycling fashion, she said: “I just was never a chic woman to begin with!”
Gotta Have Time?
Elly Blue, an independent writer in of Portland, OR, clearly laid out the barriers that women face when it comes to cycling: “Statistically, we have more errands to run, more child and elder care duties, less leisure time, and even though we make less money than men in similar jobs, we are expected to meet a higher standard for professional appearance and behavior in order to get and keep those jobs.”
Whether it is riding to the law office, schlepping kids to school, racing, touring or picking up groceries in the snow, what women want is to ride. And with a plethora of bike blogs that address gender and cycling, such as Velojoy, Taking the Lane and Full Hands, it’s clear that gender is still a hot button issue in the cycling world.
If cycling is often the most economical and efficient way to get around in North American cities, and women aren’t biking because they don’t have the money or the time, there has to have been a disconnect somewhere that needs mending. Some female cyclists, such as Janine Hegeman, are crunching numbers and finding out that cycling really can make sense as part of a busy lifestyle. But because our society is set up for cars, cycling doesn’t always seem like the natural choice. More public education and encouragement for women is key for both female cyclists and the environment. As the number of riders across the continent increases, let’s not allow women to be left behind.
The good news is that all over North America, women are organizing and advocating for accessibility to cycling. Women- and trans-only bike repair times at bike shops, better and safer ways to transport kids, community bike rides that reclaim the roads and, of course, cutting-edge, functional cycle fashion are all increasing women’s comfort on the road.
Anna Bowen is a freelance writer in Toronto, ON. Her articles also appear in Spacing, Geez and Alternatives Journal. Things she has towed with a bike trailer include: a writing desk, her toddler and a canoe.