Bridging the bicycling gender gap

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The gender gap in cycling is alive and well, both in transportation and sports (I may have mentioned this a time or two in the past). Fortunately, there are always plenty of inspiring people ready to disregard the obstacles, tear up the stats, and bridge that gap. Two such stories broke this morning.

The first comes from Heidi Swift, a Portland racer, writer, designer, and media wizard, who seems to have personally shifted the heavens to create a small dent in the most famous all-male bike race in the world — the Tour de France. She and five other amateur female riders will be riding the 3,000+ kilometer course a day ahead of the pack. And because Swift is running the show, the feat should get some real coverage — not a shabby feat to pull off in a sport where media are distinctly uninterested in women participants.

The second news flash came from Seattle, where organizers of the recent annual Alleycat Acres bike ride — a 70 mile ride that raises money for an urban farming nonprofit — reported that 64% of the ride’s participants identified as women. That’s well outside what’s to be expected — after all, only 30% of regular bike commuters in Washington State identify as women — and led Tom of Seattle Bike Blog to wonder why. Perhaps it was, he decided, because the ride was long enough to be challenging but organized to be welcoming.

The long ride was almost more about proving that “difficult” can be done, whether it’s a personal distance biking feat or reimagining our region’s food landscape. And everyone on the ride was in it together.

So what can the city learn from this ride’s success at encouraging women to ride? Aside from creating more safe and welcoming physical infrastructure, how can we create a welcoming atmosphere and culture?

Reading that made me want to cheer. Sure, the gender gap in cycling is huge and, statistically, it’s getting worse. But there are ways to mitigate it — sometimes through the intention of the people who organize streets and events, sometimes by force of will of the people who carve out opportunities to use them. It’s good to have a reminder, also, that we can change the culture simply by going for it, without having to wait for political tides to shift and bureaucracies to get their act together.

As it happens, I’ve been working on a new presentation about the gender gap in bicycling — it’s intended for stops on our upcoming tour where I’ve already given my talk on Bikenomics. If you’re going to be at the Seattle Bike Expo this weekend, you’ll be able to see a short version of it as part of panel of contributors to the book On Bicycling — that’s at 12:10pm on Saturday, March 10th. (I’ll also be doing my Bikenomics talk on Sunday at 2:10).

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