What’s behind the gender gap in bicycling?

My latest column on Grist went up yesterday. In it I take on a topic that’s been on my mind for a while — the gender gap in bicycling.

bike womenYoung bicyclist.
(Photo by Elly Blue)

That gap is getting wider, and the usual line up of explanations and assumptions doesn’t really do it for me. Yes, fear is real and valid. Yes, clothes and hair can be a conundrum. Yes, there’s a whole world of baggage and cultural stuff going on. But when I hear from women about why they don’t ride, the real reason always seems to be that they have a lot of places to be and not a lot of time, particularly for investing in something totally new that seems particularly dangerous, uncomfortable, and inconvenient. “Why would I mess around with that when I’m barely making it through the week as it is?” is the general drift.

These are economic issues (yes, the division of labor for unpaid work is a major part of the economy). This has been talked about a little. But it tends to get lost in the din of data that correlates women’s ridership with safe-feeling bike infrastructure. I can’t say this isn’t good science. But as long as we’re comparing U.S. cities with Dutch and German ones, I want to see how the economic numbers on gender match up with transportation, too.

Also, it may be worth asking, while we’re investigating cultural characteristics tied to gender: Why are so many men riding? Is it workplace-specific pressure? A marketing success? A sporting connection? Maybe it’s fashion. Maybe it’s fear — or rather a learned approach to fear that leads you to challenge yourself, compete with others, and prove your strength and bravery. I’d love to hear any ideas about this. It’s surprising that an uptick in men cycling has barely been discussed in terms of gender — there is a deafening silence on the topic of how men in particular are embracing safer bicycling infrastructure, for instance. One study I cited in the Grist story points out that women are more likely to openly admit fear of going to the dentist — but that men are less likely to actually go in for that feared check up.

By the way, I want to be clear that the need for safer and more reasonable bicycling conditions is urgent. But let’s not pin that need on women — we don’t need that burden, and men honestly don’t need anything that reinforces the pressure to be macho and fearless either. Perhaps all our motivations are more complicated than we realize or admit. If we’re going to talk about cycling in terms of gender, and we should, then we have to look well beyond the bike lanes.

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5 Responses to “What’s behind the gender gap in bicycling?”

  1. Dave June 21, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    I think a lot of these issues are all kind of inextricably related. For instance, take the statement” “I have a lot of places to be and not a lot of time, particularly for investing in something totally new that seems particularly dangerous, uncomfortable, and inconvenient.”

    This statement, in one sentence, addresses social issues of what responsibilities that person has to (or has chosen to) fulfill on a daily basis, the convenience of routes available to them via bicycle, the safety (perceived or real) of traveling by bicycle, the comfort and practicality of the bicycle itself, and social conception of what kind of person rides a bike, and how you are supposed to do it. It deals with levels of traffic, street design and levels of permeation, density, perception of safety, and social norms.

    I can’t speak for other guys, but I feel like my reasons for riding a bike are varied and complex as well – part of it is that it helps me to live the kind of life I enjoy – slower, more intentional, closer to home, more time at home, less time going places. Part of it is that it helps me enjoy the time I spend getting places, and making it more useful, rather than just being kind of “wasted” time in-between doing real things. Part of it is that I like the feeling of seeing and knowing the spaces I’m moving through, and I think it’s important for people to have that experience if we don’t want our cities to die horrible deaths. Part of it is that it just feels good most of the time. Part of it is that it’s really practically useful to use a bike for a lot of things. Part of it is that I have extra money now riding a bike instead of driving or using the bus most of the time. Part of it is at least burning enough calories to be able to eat the stuff we cook and not gain weight :) Part of it is that I just don’t like moving fast, especially if I’m in control of the vehicle. 10-15mph is perfectly fine, and in the city, honestly gets me most places nearly as fast as driving, sometimes faster. Part of it is that I hate sitting in traffic, and I almost never have to on a bike. Part of it is that I hate parking cars, and I hate driving in circles trying to *find* a place to park.

    I don’t necessarily do it *because* the streets are safe, but I wouldn’t do it if they *weren’t*, because that would ruin most of the things I listed as reasons why I do ride a bike. I work a normal 8-hour-per-day job, and run most of our household errands, so for me, having too much to do in a day isn’t a deterrent, but I also don’t have kids to haul around and whatnot, and we’ve made an intentional effort to live in a place where we are close to everything we do on a regular basis. However, I can certainly see how this could be a big issue for some people.

    It’s kind of a mess, I think, to try to make a model of a large group’s motivations for doing something, but certainly all of these issues are involved, and all of them should get talked about and worked on – we like compartmentalization too much in the U.S., and we really need to start looking at things as a whole more often – a whole person (not just their sexual orientation, or gender, or class, or whatever), a whole transportation system (rather than just automobiles), whatever it is, there are many factors involved, and you have to look at as many as possible to come up with a good solution to an underlying problem, not just treat symptoms related to one or another factor.

  2. Anna June 21, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

    I think I am the only woman who regularly bikes to work to the Dept. of Transportation in my city. Several men do. I think the economic question (division of household labors), along with the social pressure to appear “put together”, is really important to acknowledge. They are, in many ways, above and beyond the safety/fear factor when it comes to bicycling. These issues represent the deeper level of change that needs to take place, beyond infrastructural amenities, for women to have equal representation as cyclists. For incredibly busy women who need to be in multiple places at once–especially if they are the same women who struggle for validity in the workplace–bicycling doesn’t really fit in right now. Thank you for reframing this question!


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