What’s behind the gender gap in bicycling?

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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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