Cycling’s gender gap, explained

I’ve written about why there is a gender gap in cycling in the U.S., and have struggled to explain that it isn’t because women are so damn womanly but rather because we’re an economic underclass and our transportation choices are more constrained than those of our male peers.

So it was great to read a much more level headed, good natured take on the whole subject yesterday. This is from reader Michelle Swanson who lives and bikes in Spokane, Washington with her young daughter. She’s writing her urban planning thesis about this topic exactly, and she laid some of her considerable knowledge on the folks at the Stranger, who were stoked enough to publish her letter yesterday.

Here’s an excerpt:

In the United States, about 23% of all cyclists are women (which is based on Census data about commutes). In fact, the number of women who commute by bicycle has decreased from from 33% of all bike trips in 2001 to 24% in 2009 (this is from the American Community Survey, which is conducted by the Census Bureau). For comparison, 55% of all bicycle trips in the Netherlands is by women, and 49% in Germany.

The above data about the US is especially striking if you consider that bike trips are up significantly during the same period of time (2001 to 2009), which indicates that many more men are taking to the streets by bike but women are not.

There’s something different about the United States. And it’s infrastructure. Studies across all sorts of disciplines show that women are more risk-averse, and indeed, concerns about riding in traffic are overwhelmingly the reason women cite for not riding their bikes. Women also have different travel patterns: they perform the vast majority (77%) of all “serve passenger” trips (hauling people, usually children, around), engage in more “trip chaining,” and run more errands, like grocery shopping. They also drive fewer miles to their commutes (this is all based on the 2009 National Household Transportation Survey).

And where have we invested in segregated bicycle lanes? Along recreational corridors, that don’t lead to schools, daycare centers, grocery stores, or major employment centers. In other words, the safest bicycle facilities have been installed where few women really want or need to go.

If we’re going to increase bicycling–which everyone agrees at least theoretically is in the community’s best interests–then we need to invest in safer infrastructure to serve the population that isn’t young, male, and super fit. If women are bicycling in equivalent numbers to men, then the revolution will be here.

I’m particularly excited that Swanson will be writing about urban planning, bicycling, and the gender division of labor for my next zine, Taking the Lane volume 6.

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3 Responses to “Cycling’s gender gap, explained”

  1. Jonathan December 9, 2011 at 9:35 am #

    Ms. Swanson does a pretty good explaining job; thank you for reposting! But those ACS numbers on commuting don’t do a good job of accounting for people who use two (or more) transportation modes on their way to work. They also don’t count as cyclists people who take the train to work and then ride their bike for errands in the neighborhood.

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