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A recent report by Portland State University researchers suggest that it can, but there is more to the equation.
The gender gap in North American cycling is a well-documented phenomenon. According to a survey undertaken by the Federal Highway Administration in 2009, women riders accounted for only 24 percent of all bicycle trips taken in the US that year. This significant gap has tangible social and economic impacts, not to mention personal and societal impacts on women’s health and well-being. However, the disparity in ridership is not for lack of women’s interest.
A full 82 percent of women who responded to a 2012 Princeton Survey Research Associates poll reported having a positive view of cycling, and a further 66 percent agreed that their community would be a better place to live if cycling was made safer and more comfortable. So if the interest is there, then why do the numbers remain so low?
A confluence of factors – including safety concerns, standards of dress, and differing social expectations for caregiving between women and men – are listed as chief among the reasons that the gender gap persists in North American cycling.
However, in other Westernized countries with strong cycling populations where the the number of women cyclists is equal to or greater than that of men (the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, etc.), gendered expectations of dress and family responsibility are similar to those in North America, so why does the the gender gap persists in the US? A team of Portland University Researchers set out to figure that out.
In a recent report entitled “Can Protected Bike Lanes Help Close the Gender Gap in Cycling?”, four Portland State University researchers sought to determine whether a lack of adequate cycling infrastructure in the US could the biggest obstacle preventing more women from regularly riding bikes. The data seems to suggest that it could.
The researchers undertook a comprehensive evaluation of data on protected bike lanes in Washington, DC; Austin, TX, San Francisco, CA; Chicago, IL; and Portland, OR. They conducted intercept surveys of 1, 111 women and men using the bike lanes, as well as 2, 283 surveys of men and women living near the facilities who may or may not ride bikes, seeking to determine perceptions of safety in and out of the bike lanes and patterns of ridership in general.
Overwhelmingly, the data suggests that more women would ride bikes if the amount of protected bike lanes were to increase. Among the intercepted riders, both men and women felt their sense of safety increased exponentially in protected bike lanes, but women were much more likely than men to report going out of their way to ride in a bike lane rather than on a roadway, and much more likely to report feeling uncomfortable riding on the road. Women were also significantly more likely to report their overall ridership increasing dramatically when the protected bike lanes were installed. Of the non-riders who had a stated interest in cycling, 87 percent of women compared to 82 percent of men agreed they would be more likely to ride if they could be physically separated from cars.
While these numbers are encouraging, and corroborate what bicycling advocates have been saying for years about protected bike lanes and ridership, the researchers do acknowledge that more work needs to be done and more patterns of behavior need to change if we are to see a significant differences in rates of women’s cycling. Specifically the researchers noted that, of the riders intercepted, the women were much less likely than the men to have children, suggesting that mothers still carry an uneven responsibility for transporting children and household cargo in the US. While the popularity of cargo bikes in strong cycling countries does much to address this need, their relative lack of popularity in the US could be another reason preventing many women from riding bikes.
As attitudes about women and cycling change within the cycling industry and more women take up leadership roles in the cycling advocacy community, we can only hope that these calls to action will be heard by policy-makers, so the infrastructure will be there to support and encourage the community’s growth.