Can Protected Bike Lanes Help Close the Gender Gap in Cycling?

A recent report by Portland State University researchers suggest that it can, but there is more to the equation.

Written by:
Photo by Paul Krueger

Photo by Paul Krueger

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.


  • Completely agree with the article, Hilary! As a cyclist and a mother, I want to feel safe for me and my kids, while we are cycling around the city! We need a better infrastructure for bicycles with protected lanes!!

  • I completely agree with all of these findings. I’m an experienced touring cyclist, with many miles on my (three) bikes. But having children – and having them riding on the back of my road tandem – is an exercise in motherly anxiety every time I ride. While I worried slightly about cars, traffic on the country roads I rode for touring while married without kids, being in an urban area and cycling as a mother was nervewracking. Riding bikes with small kids (one on the back, one on her own bike) in Chicago a few times was an exercise that required white knuckles and a lot of prayer. I’m headed to Europe – with the kids – this summer (Netherlands and Belgium) and I’m incredibly excited at having all of my anxieties lifted, and my confidence in urban riding with kids boosted. I live in a small midwestern city that is almost entirely flat. We have a Bike Friendly University and a decent interurban trail network. My bike use should be near 80%, but it’s closer to about 30% of all of my trips for many reasons. Clothing, children, cargo and cars are big issues for women cyclists.

  • We’ve been counting female/male ratios in our visual counts for some years. The better the riding environment, the more representative of the population the riding population is. In inner metro areas this means separated bikes lanes bring more women riders.

  • Let’s first start with the fact that I am 5’2″ and there were only 3 bikes in the whole store of the largest bike store in Charlotte. Most bicycle companies do not make bikes that fit women unless you go to a major retailer. I had $500 in hand at six bike shops in my town and couldn’t find a bike my size without pink or purple on it. Not all women like pink or purple, folks! I also agree with the other comments about the focus being on sport. My $500 was frowned upon in two of the shops, so I walked out. Cycling has almost become an elitist sport. If you have a kickstand, you are frowned upon. If you don’t have a carbon bike, you are frowned upon. This is why I have recently started a slow bike group targeted to black women. I am trying to get black women to bike so that we can get more children to bike, which will help the health statistics in these groups. I post bikes from Craiglist and pawn shops so women don’t have to feel this way.

    • robin

      I think that’s great, Kenya. You know what works for you and you are growing your community. Stay with it!

  • Alison

    I always feel puzzled by the gender gap because I’ve never felt it was unusual for me, as a woman, to be riding a bike. Maybe it has to do with role-modelling – my older sisters rode and so it seemed a natural thing for me to do. And fun! It’s true, though, that when I’ve lived in places with good infrastructure, or just quiet side-streets, I’ve ridden more. I’m not a big risk-taker, so learning early on how to ride safely and find a good route has allowed me to feel comfortable biking around the city.

  • Paul

    Another big reason is the bike shops themselves being so tilted toward spandex and carbon racing bikes, large and impractical mountain bikes sold mostly to men wanting the latest bike toys rather than practical commuter style bicycles that most of those wanting a usable bike for transport, not SPORT.

    • Yes! Cycling in North America is framed as a sport activity and both the equipment offered and the expertise given at bike shops reinforces that style of riding. That means that the things that make bicycling convenient and practical for day-to-day living are largely absent or even discouraged here: baskets, racks, panniers, cargo bikes. Heck, even asking for non-clip-in pedals and a kickstand are often met with contempt in many bike shops.

Autumn Gear Guide

Find inspiration in our Gear Guide that will keep you out on your bike through wind or rain.

Download Now