Women’s Bicycling Forum Confronts Obstacles to Getting More Women Riding

NOW President Terry O'Neill told the Women's Forum that they need to put women -- not bicycles -- at the center of their analysis. Photo: Brian Palmer
NOW President Terry O’Neill told the Women’s Forum that they need to put women — not bicycles — at the center of their analysis. Photo: Brian Palmer

This year marks the third time a Women’s Bicycling Forum has preceded the National Bike Summit in Washington, DC, and, despite weather emergencies and an epidemic of flight cancellations, this is by far the best-attended one yet.

Despite impressive momentum, the movement to get more women on bikes faces many obstacles. Yesterday, National Organization of Women President Terry O’Neill laid out some barriers to women’s cycling that don’t often make it into the conversation. When bike advocates focus on safe infrastructure, group rides, and kitten-heel-friendly bike fashion to lure women, O’Neill says they might be missing some important points.

Overlooked Factors

Commuting to work by bike is all well and good if you live near work, O’Neill said, but low-wage women workers in the service industry — who live on the poor side of town and work on the rich side — might have long commutes on dangerous arterial streets at non-traditional hours. Telling them to bike that route is a losing battle.

But it’s also an opportunity to make important connections with other movements, she said — like the fight for affordable housing in all communities, so that more people can live near their jobs.

Women are also more sensitive than men to the dangers they face, not just from cars but from predators, O’Neill noted. Being exposed and unprotected on a bike might be a deal-breaker for women who have been victims of sexual assault or stalking.

Plus, it’s well-known that women’s days are more complicated than men’s. Grocery shopping, child-care dropoff, and soccer practice all create multi-point trips with different cargo. As Megan Odett of Kidical Mass DC says, a $100 investment will allow you to do about 75 percent of everything you need to do on your bike with your kid. But to make all your trips on a bike requires an investment of thousands: Cargo bikes and electric assists are not cheap.

O’Neill suggests that the women’s bike movement should shift its focus. “What do we do to bring women to bikes?” is the wrong question, she said. “Put women at the center of your analysis and you’ll ask, ‘What do we need to do to make bicycles a smart, natural no-brainer solution for the challenges women face in their everyday lives?’”

Women Dominate in Cycling… With Kids

Odett is trying to “foment a revolution” to get the women’s bike movement to pay more attention to the needs of parents — both men and women, but with women taking on a disproportionate amount of child-care responsibilities, it becomes a women’s issue.

“The bike community needs to understand they need family people there,” Odett said. “It’s a lot easier to retain a cyclist than to create a cyclist.”

“With so much of the growth in cycling from younger people, the cycling community needs to ask itself what’s going to happen in five or 10 years when all these new women cyclists and new young cyclists start having children and start making hard choices about where they live and how they get their families to the places they need to get to.”

A new study from the Gluskin Townley Group [PDF] shows that women make up 54 percent of people who bike with kids — the only slice of the U.S. cycling population in which women are the majority.

The Privilege of the Naked Bike Ride

That’s what’s so frustrating about an approach like that of Lilian Karabaic, a Portland-based board member of Cycle Wild and author of an upcoming book on the “Bike Fun” movement, who spoke in the afternoon. Though no one could argue with her push for more donuts on bike rides, many people walked out of her talk offended.

“We don’t keep [kids] riding by talking about concrete and curb cuts,” she said. “What keeps someone riding is fun! How do we get adults that haven’t ridden to become riders? You don’t create more riders with suits and ties; you don’t get more riders with spandex.”

Karabaic is all in favor of bunny-ears bike rides and naked bike rides. She thinks those are more fun. But she fails to acknowledge the obvious: Her bunny-ears rides are kept safe by the bicycling infrastructure and driver education that the “suits and ties” crowd keeps yapping about.

You know, I don’t get turned on talking about soil science, either, but I’m still appreciative of the people who grow my food.

Karabaic might not love talking about concrete, but concrete — in the form of protected bike infrastructure — is an essential ingredient to get more people on bikes and keep them alive, whether they’re wearing tutus, spandex, or pencil skirts.

What’s more, Karabaic is dead-set against bike advocacy that focuses on environmental responsibility or weight loss or even saving money.

“Sure, maybe I like to save money,” she said, “but it’s not like my inherent will as a person is ‘ooh, budgeting.’ It’s not super crazy sexy to me.”

But “sexy” isn’t everyone’s top priority. “I biked out of necessity,” Nelle Pierson of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association told me. “I had to bike. There was no alternative on my giant college campus. I had no money, I had to pay for my education. I had no alternative. So for her to say people base their transportation decisions off of ‘fun’ made me feel like that’s a pretty privileged approach.”

Not that Pierson is against fun — WABA puts on its share of fun rides, not to mention the Bike Prom and the Tour de Fat, a quirky day-long festival with live music, craft beer, and food trucks sponsored by the New Belgium Brewing Company.

Fun Plus

Of course, there’s a place for selling bicycling on the unbridled joy it can bring. “Fun is a big part of the Kidical Mass and family biking platform,” Odett said.

But fun is different for parents. Finding entertaining and eye-opening experiences is a daily duty when you have kids. So for a parent, “fun” can be just another need that gets met on a bike, along with transportation and exercise.

Over the course of the Women’s Forum, many people talked about how they make bicycling more inviting to women — from women-only rides with ice cream at the end to maintenance clinics in a less intimidating environment.

But for women to really dedicate themselves to cycling for transportation — and not just the one-off weekend ride in tweed or in costumes — they’re going to have to find that cycling is the best choice for their lives. Saving money and getting in shape are not trivial reasons why people get into bicycling. Finding a way to get kids and gear on a bike is key to inviting parents to hop on.

And knowing you can ride with a reasonable assumption that you’ll arrive safely at your destination is paramount for everyone. The advocates working to make biking safe aren’t to be derided for being uncool. The entire Bike Summit empowers and celebrates them for their work.

  • ladyfleur

    I didn’t attend Karabaic’s talk, but she has a point. It’s not that we shouldn’t work to make bicycling safer and more convenient, but that all the wonky talk of infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure is not cutting it. It can make it seem like you can’t ride safely until we have a full network of protected bike lanes.

    What we need is a broad approach. Work on pushing for infrastructure that’s 8-80. Work on fun rides to get people on their bikes. Work on safe routes to schools programs. Work on bike skills or bike repair education. Work on bike racing programs.

    Infighting about which is more important is silly and counterproductive. If everyone just works on the what interests them in our effort to get more butts on bikes we’ll get a lot farther a lot faster.

  • dk12

    “Commuting to work by bike is all well and good if you live near work,
    O’Neill said, but low-wage women workers in the service industry — who
    live on the poor side of town and work on the rich side — might have
    long commutes on dangerous arterial streets at non-traditional hours.
    Telling them to bike that route is a losing battle.”

    This isn’t a good argument – it can easily be countered with “we need better bike infrastructure.” And it isn’t true everywhere…

    However – as a parent who is a daily bike commuter, I do feel that the focus really needs to be shifted to riding with kids, and making this option convenient, safe, and affordable. Currently – the only thing keeping my entire family from riding for short trips around our neighborhood is that we lack a safe route to daycare, and there’s one section where we’re on the road with cars going 40 in a 20 mph zone, and a crazy intersection where people drive in the bike lane to get around cars stopped for pedestrians at a crosswalk.

  • Erica_JS

    I totally agree with you that we need a broad approach. It sounds from the limited excerpts presented here from Karabiac’s talk that she was not taking that approach, but rather putting down the efforts of people in “suits and ties” and “spandex.”

    I get tired of the reflexive “Spandex”/recreational cyclist bashing on the part of too many utilitarian cycling advocates. We need to stick together as cyclists, not insult other riders.

  • ladyfleur

    I agree. Putting down the spandex riders and/or suits & ties people are exactly the kind of subculture divisions I’m talking about. We need to be true coalitions and not expect everyone to be alike in our methods or reason for fighting for the cause.

  • Harald

    I wonder if Karabaic was merely trying to be provocative in a forum that’s full of the curb-cuts-and-concrete crowd. After all, in her tag byline she calls herself a “transportation wonk” and her thesis is “looking at the impact of bicycle infrastructure on housing rental prices.” Doesn’t sound like “fun” to me 🙂

  • Either nobody has any clue how to get more women riding, or the people who do understand how weren’t invited to speak.

  • Kevin Love

    I can state with confidence that I know how to achieve the goal of getting more women cycling. Every country in the entirety of planet Earth that has achieved a significant female cycle mode share has done it in exactly the same way: infrastructure.

    Out of every country in the world, The Netherlands has the highest female cycle mode share and the highest female/male ratio of cyclists. Is anyone surprised by this?

  • THIS: “Only thing keeping my entire family from riding for short trips around our neighborhood is that we lack a safe route to daycare.”

    Prioritizing cycle tracks leading to daycare [as well as elementary schools] can be a catalyst for achieving a political groundswell to get better bike infrastructure.

  • thielges

    Interesting observation that women’s routes are more complex than men’s. Much of the transit+bike infrastructure (i.e. bike lockers) assumes that people mostly commute back and forth between points A and B. More complex routing breaks the bike locker solution. Bikes-on-board transit on the other hand is more supportive to people with varied and complex routes.

    This also points towards routing signage and other navigation aids as being more important. If you’re only doing the A-B commute every day then you can take the time to find and memorize the best route. But if your weekly errands involve a dozen endpoints, that’s a lot of navigation to take on.

  • ubrayj02

    I drop off and pick up my kid daily on a cargo bike. I ride my kid to tons of after-school activities all week long and … I am a male.

    I understand the desire to get more women riding, as a class of people who are under-represented in cycling, but in my experience the only women (and men) I feel are worth listening to in this debate are my fellow cargo-biking parents and the few foreign born parents I’ve met who don’t accept the bizarre “safety culture” that, combined with an autocentric planning paradigm in the U.S., keeps us fat, unhappy, and poorer driving cars everywhere.

    Women, amazingly, have the same needs as men riding kids to and from school – we need a safe way to do it. Safety doesn’t mean “helmets”. Safety means road diets, protected on-street cycle tracks, secure bike parking at our destinations, and a legal culture that ensures that motorists can’t get away with manslaughter and hop away to their next botox appointment.

    I think what needs to happen to engage women politically is to develop propaganda for elected leaders and a funded effort to show that women can and do ride, etc. Women, I believe, pay a heavy cost for not appearing “normal” – and in this regard, they are set apart from men in that my divergence from what is normal does not subject me to a lot of harsh treatment that I believe does happen to women who do what I do. The re-definition of normal is a marketing effort first and foremost. I believe that when it comes to engaging the broad mass of potential cyclists, women included, we need to focus on video stories, personal reports, and images of “normal” people riding bikes. Personal interests stories from a paid pro-bike slant to combat the cultural perception of normalcy, I believe, is the biggest hurdle outside of proper facility design to getting women, and more people in general riding.

    Please, “women bike advocates”, do not make absurd claims about whose day in a heterosexual couples life is more complicated. Focus instead on the expensive propaganda war that womens bike advocacy really ought to be. Re-defining “normal” and “safe” is what I think will push more moms (and dads) over the edge and into the happy and healthy life that bike riding with kids can be.

  • ubrayj02

    I think that the battle to make the gender split more equitable in american cycling is, of course, going to depend on infrastructure first. However, I also think that for women in particular pay a heavy cost for not appearing “normal” or “safe” when they ride bikes and that this, almost as much as crappy infrastructure, keeps a lot of women from riding to get around. I think that a developed propaganda and social group organizing (funded through the bike industry?) campaign in targeted cities or communities is how we, as advocates, push beyond the infrastructure-only efforts in coming years.

  • You make some strong points that I hope people will take the time to read. However, you open your post aggressively. I worry this will turn people off from ever reading the full post. If you cut the first paragraph and place it at the end you would come across more effectively IMO. Nonetheless, thanks for taking the time to share a powerful opinion.

  • I agree with you, especially the last two sentences.

    One tip for bringing bikes on transit: folding bikes. Even in “bicycling cities” in Europe, bikes are generally not allowed on trains during peak hours. Folding bikes are the exception, both in Europe and in the US.

  • ubrayj02

    I took out my potty mouthed response. Glad I can edit these comments.

  • True Freedom

    The most important thing to increase cycling for non-recreational trips for any gender group… is infrastructure that provides a feeling of safety for the cyclist. I’ve been riding/ racing two wheel contraptions for decades and consider myself a fit and experienced rider; however, there are many sections of my daily bike commute that are downright scary due to road design.. and there are many days I’d much rather not deal with the hassle.. and would rather just drive. I’m a bike nut.. and if I feel this way, I can imagine how people who are less nutty feel.

    Additionally, we also must realize that there are people for whom cycling just won’t work. Both my wife and I must shuttle multiple kids between multiple after school activities (on certain days).. from soccer to ballet to music practice, etc. I would literally be impossible for us to get everywhere on time on bikes … or would be too time consuming, even if we had Armstrong’s legs..

    That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to make cycling a more appealing mode of transportation, but rather, we should realize that it simply won’t work for some people.

  • True Freedom

    united we stand, divided we fall. Additionally, many of us belong to multiple subgroups. I’m spandex some days, suit/tie some, single speed some, mtb others… all except those fixie weirdos 🙂

  • Jame

    I don’t belong to one of the tribes, and I don’t want to. I don’t race. I don’t head for the hills. I am not a hipster. I don’t want a cargo bikes (I am not a mom). All these tribes make it impossible for “normal” people to get in to biking. It is like you have to pick a club before you can get on two wheels.

    What I really want is an route that doesn’t feel like I need to be an action movie star to tackle, and easy tips on how I can do my normal stuff on my bike. Whether that is going to work, going to the grocery store, going to brunch or going to the farmers market. And how to keep my bike safely parked so it is still intact when I leave.

    In order to get, what feels like should be relatively straight-forward info, you have to find the bike shop that stocks the types of bike (and accessories) you want. You have to become informed on bikes just to make sure you are getting the right one for what you want to do. You’ve gotta hunt down your bike collation for the maps and route planning. And don’t forget about choosing a tribe. It is just way too much work to even get started.

    Getting more women to bike? It requires making everything feel easy and accessible, from the infrastructure to the equipment.

  • murphstahoe

    Just like recreational drugs might be a gateway to hard drug use, recreational rides are the gateway to becoming Fred the Commuter Curmudgeon

  • gneiss

    The significant problem is that our current transportation network is not family friendly. When you consider that in the Netherlands, most middle-school age children ride bikes to their schools, homes, sporting events and music lesson on their own, you begin to see how much we’ve internalized the ‘need’ for cars in our lives.

    The fact that we can’t let our children out on the streets without escorting them everywhere until they are in high school represents more of a barrier in our public domain than just about anything else. Imagine if you didn’t need to ‘shuttle multiple kids between multiple after school activities.’ What if they could do all of that themselves? Then you could incorporate active transport more easily in your own lives in addition to the rest of your family.

    If we can’t trust the community leaders and transportation engineers to keep our kids safe, then what good are they?

  • True Freedom

    I agree, to a point. My kids are still quite young (all under 10). I couldn’t imagine letting them travel very many places unattended… no matter how family friendly the roadways. Additionally, many of their activities are 8-12 miles away… doing this on a bike would take a while. Many activities end after dark.

    It’s just not realistic to think that this would ever be feasible. However, if we had a respectful society like Japan… then I would say perhaps. I was amazed to see kindergarten aged children getting themselves to school using the subway. Very cool.. but I don’t ever see that happening here..

  • JAB

    The first step is believing it is achievable.

  • True Freedom

    I believe I can teleport myself to the moon. Ok, what now?

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