Mind the Gender Gap

Yesterday’s New York Times blog item about why New York women are underrepresented among the city’s bike commuters didn’t sit well with the authors of Streetsblog Network member Let’s Go Ride a Bike. Trisha, one of the blog’s authors and a bike commuter herself in Nashville, sees the piece as part of a trend (epitomized by a recent Treehugger post called "6 Reasons the World Needs More Girls on Bikes"). Too often, she says, people looking at female cyclists take a cosmetic approach to a complex subject: 

494801835_9dba1859cf_m.jpgThis is how mothers roll in Japan: on a "mamachari." Photo by anthonygrimley via Flickr.

I certainly don’t want to discount concerns about safety and fashion, which were issues for me when starting out and two things Dottie and I are trying to help others overcome.

What annoys me is that none of the articles I’ve read on this topic lately go any deeper into why those things present serious obstacles for women but not men, even though men have the same concerns (no one wants to show up for work disheveled and stinky after all). Why bother, when it’s so obvious that men are just much less self-absorbed and a million times braver? It couldn’t be that there are higher expectations for women’s appearances in the workplace, or that the burden of transporting children or household errands like grocery shopping more often falls to them—the first reasons that came to my mind.

These are not insurmountable, of course (just ask these cycling superparents, both moms and dads, or the other stylish women bike commuters we know), but they require some thought, negotiation and planning that your average male might not have to overcome in his quest to bicycle
commute.

But instead of giving weight to these concerns, or looking into others, these articles stay on the surface. Women are dismissed as frivolous and their absence is mourned not because of the missed opportunity to allow them to discover an activity that can improve their quality of life, but because their presence would improve the scenery. As a girl who likes to look good on her bike, I can’t argue with that statement, but I can argue with it being the number one reason we should get women on bikes — sorry, Treehugger.

Network member Fifty Car Pileup, who has written about the gender gap before, also had a thoughtful response to the Times piece.

What makes me sad about this whole debate is that in the United States, we tend to think of ourselves as being especially enlightened when it comes to women’s issues. Yet women here are still confronted every day with the idea that being sweaty, or even physically active outside of a gym, isn’t feminine. If you’re not worried about it yourself, you’re constantly being reminded by the media that other, "average" women are. Transporting children by bike is almost unheard of.

Meanwhile, Dutch parents have the Bakfiets, of course. And in Japan, women ride their kids on cycles called "mamacharis," or mama chariots. Maybe we’ll get there someday.

Other good things from around the network: imagineNATIVEamerica writes about the debate between New Urbanists and the proponents of sprawl; the Hard Drive reports some Oregon drivers don’t see why they should have to put down their cellphones; and The MinusCar Project expects "green business" initiatives to be more than business as usual.

  • Trisha and Dottie are so right. I like to add that a nation can’t proclaim the title ‘bicycle culture’ until women are part of the equation.

    Same goes for the young, the elderly. Cycling should be for everyone.

    Aside:
    Dutch parents are so like Japanese, they love the mamacharis…or as they call it: a bicycle with child seats. 🙂

    (PS: the bakfiets is very popular in NL, but relatively only a small portion of Dutch parents own one)

  • Dave Snyder

    San Francisco State Professor Jason Henderson and I have counted bicyclists by gender on five occasions at two locations: on weekday mornings at Market & Gough Streets and at midday on the weekend at Steiner and Waller. We counted 1,488 riders, including 466 women, or 31%. Interestingly, the proportion of women differed significantly at each location. Women represented only 28% of the commuter cyclists and 36% of the weekend recreational cyclists.

    My understanding of the reason that in Holland, why slightly more women bike than men is that women make less money than men and therefore are less likely to have a car, and that in the large number of one-car households, the man gets the car.

  • You’re right, Dave, in that sense we’re pretty traditional. However, and I’ve looked this up on our National Census Buro and the Bicycle Council websites, it doesn’t have that much to do with income. Essentially, women prefer working closer to home (which does have to do with traditional roles and/or typical gender specific activities, such as more shopping and visiting friends) and cycle more often (shorter distances) than men (who cycle less often but longer distances). Men are willing to travel longer distances for work and do so mostly by car, but bicycle-train commuting is gaining ground more and more, hence the alarming numbers about the ever growing need (5% per year) for train station parking.

  • @Dave: perhaps you’ve seen this already, but I highly recommend reading John Pucher‘s research paper ‘Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany’ (pdf). Amongst many other aspects, it also deals with what we talked about.

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