Why Do Teenage Girls Lose Interest in Biking?

Young girls are as enthusiastic about biking as boys, but many lose interest in biking as they get older. Photo: Cameron Adams/Flickr
Young girls are as enthusiastic about biking as boys, but many lose interest in biking as they get older. Photo: Cameron Adams/Flickr

The cycling gender gap in America is real: Women accounted for less than a quarter of bike trips in 2009, according to the National Household Travel Survey. The question is what causes the disparity, and how can it be eliminated?

Jennifer Dill, a planning professor at Portland State University, is taking a close look at why girls’ attitudes about biking change over time. In a longitudinal study of 300 Portland-area families, she observed that a gender gap in attitudes toward cycling isn’t apparent in younger kids, but when girls reach adolescence, they don’t view cycling as positively as boys do.

kidbikeattitudechange
The gender gap in attitudes toward cycling starts in adolescence. Graphic: Jennifer Dill

Here Dill delves into the nuanced differences between kids who view biking positively versus negatively, and what that says about why girls lose interest in cycling:

A few factors were correlated with the changes, including perceptions of traffic safety and confidence riding with traffic. For example, for the negative girls, their agreement with the statement “traffic in our neighborhood makes it difficult or unpleasant for me to bike alone in our neighborhood” went up, while it went down for the other girls and for all the boys (figure below). The negative girls’ comfort level riding alone in different street environments also went down, while it went up for the other girls and went up or stayed about the same for all the boys. These findings indicate that programs that help girls feel more confident riding, such as classes and group rides, may be important for getting more girls riding. Infrastructure that reduces interactions with motor vehicles may also help.

changetrafficperceptions

The girls [with more negative attitudes toward biking] were also more likely to increasingly think biking takes too long. This parallels other research I’ve done showing time as a reason women do not bike. There also seem to be social aspects to bicycling for girls. The negative girls increasingly said that having no one to bike with was a barrier (figure below). For some reason, the opposite happened among the boys. The negative girls were also much less likely over the two years to say that their friends thought they should bike more.

someonetobikewith

Rain as a barrier for biking also increased among the negative girls more so than other girls and all the boys. Not liking to wear helmets correlated with negative attitudes among both the girls and boys, though it wasn’t a barrier for many of the kids.

There were many things that were not correlated with the negative changes in attitudes, including attitudes towards driving (wanting to drive) and thinking biking is cool (or not). This may be the influence of living in Portland, where bicycling is generally viewed as normal, and perhaps even “hip.” The changes were also not associated with objective measures of the neighborhood environment, including street connectivity or bike infrastructure. However, the neighborhoods in our study did not vary that much; this might be a factor in other places. And, remember that perceptions of the neighborhood were important.

More recommended reading today: Mobility Lab shares new research showing that early experiences with transit can influence lifelong ridership. And City Observatory shoots down Ross Douthat’s fantasy of “breaking up” large, liberal cities.

  • Southeasterner

    Don’t underestimate the power of these girls on their male counterparts. I loved cycling but I stopped biking in High School because the girl I had a crush on thought biking was stupid and only wanted to travel by car. I sold my bike and bought a cheap car because of her…since then I found and married a woman who loves cycling and we now own 6 bikes and 1 barely ever used car.

  • Walter Crunch

    Biking has become a “prove it” sport. Most girls aren’t into that.

  • Guy Ross

    Hmmm….. dubious. Belgium and the Netherlands have very much a ‘prove it’ cyclesport culture but have very high rates of female cycling w/o any age dip that I know of.

    If I may, I believe it has to do with the interplay of infrastructure and mobility. Around puberty, people start to determine their own mobility: where they want to go and how they get there. In the U.S. you have to be brave to use a bike as your form of transport. As horizons broaden and destinations become farther and more diverse in teenage years, going by bike as a default requires the recklessness (bravery) typical of males.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Wait a minute. Another recent article on SB has Dill implying that the risk aversion difference between genders is overplayed and not significant with respect to biking. But now this research from her is saying it is a significant factor. Which is it?

  • Walter Crunch

    So, girls become less brave as they age?

  • Chris Wienberg

    One consideration that isn’t in this study: some of the decline in the 11-16 y.o. girls cohort could be a result of them beginning to become the targets of street harassment.

  • Jennifer Dill

    I’m not sure what SB article you are referring to, but perhaps its conclusion isn’t mine, but the author’s. My research has been pretty consistent in finding that concerns about traffic safety are a significant factor for women in decisions to bicycle for transportation.

  • Mouse on a Wheel

    This. Was just thinking as I read “The negative girls’ comfort level riding alone in different street environments also went down…” Gee, I wonder why many girls would suddenly feel less comfortable on the street alone after they hit puberty??

  • Jame

    I think another thing that is harder to quantify is the attitude of your parents. For example, when I was younger my parents were like “yay, play outside!” And as I got older, risky behavior – where I might get hurt – was discouraged. And I was also encouraged to spend more time on studying and academic pursuits than more “frivolous” things like bike riding. My parents were more concerned about physical safety and use of time.

    A skinned knee became a crisis because heaven forbid my “pretty legs” get messed up by a scar. Unfortunately teen girls are encouraged to be more looked focused as they get older and that may mean outfits or hair not great for physical pursuits or getting sweaty.

  • RGD

    I think what was going on was that they established that there was a clear trend, but that the apparent trend was more blurry than originally thought.

  • RGD

    I think that they become much better at weighing the risks.

  • Cat

    Fascinating article and discussion. From my own experience (I was an avid bike rider as a kid and again as an adult, but you couldn’t get me on a bike as a teenager for all the money in the world) I’d have to say that social norms were the main obstacle. For me, the teenage years were an experience in desperation – trying hopelessly to fit in and be accepted. That meant having the right hair, and shoes, and clothes, and makeup – and being a dork on a bike with a helmet and a sweaty butt was decidedly NOT going to help one be accepted! I wouldn’t even carry a backpack because that was something that geeks did, not “cool” people. I’m sure some of this has changed, but when I was a teenager cars were the ultimate status symbol, and if you were on a bike it meant that you were too poor to afford a car.

    I think perhaps the way around all of this would be to get girls involved in cycling as a sport rather than transportation. Helmets and sausage legs would be much more acceptable in the realm of competitive athletics than casual attire. And for GOD’s sake, can they PLEASE stop designing women’s bike shorts with tight elastic that hits at the meatiest part of the thigh?!? NO woman looks good in those things.

  • Walter Crunch

    Given that driving is the leading cause of teen death, the assumption is doubtful.

  • Mikala

    Yep. Distinctly remember a carload of boys/men driving by shouting obscene come-ons — which was not uncommon, of course — but this time one of them reached out and slapped my butt as they passed me. Took a bite out of my enthusiasm for biking for sure. I think I was 14.

  • Chris Wienberg

    This happened to my mother when she was a teenager and it knocked her off her bike.

  • Miles Bader

    I think perhaps the way around all of this would be to get girls involved in cycling as a sport rather than transportation. Helmets and sausage legs would be much more acceptable in the realm of competitive athletics than casual attire

    But walling off bicycles in the “it’s a sport!” ghetto is exactly one of the attitudes that has held back bicycle transportation in the U.S.

    Changing fashion intentionally is difficult, but at least some of the obstacles can be removed. It’s widely known that helmets do more harm than good, so simply pushing back against the American helmet obsession could go a long way, along with more general changes like improving the biking environment.

    In the end, there’s zero reason for such attitudes, and they are completely absent in plenty of other countries.

  • Cat

    Well, I agree… but if girls saw the sport of cycling as “cool” then it’s less of a jump to get them to take it up as transportation.

    I don’t really have any good answers here since “coolness” is one of those things that has always eluded me. But I do know that as long as teens see biking as “dorky” it’s never gonna catch on, whether or not there are good reasons for the attitudes.

    I think what we need – and I’m partly being sarcastic, but partly not – is for some company to figure out that there’s a big untapped market in selling bikes and bike stuff to teens if they can just make it “cool”. I mean, if they can convince youth that jeans with holes in them are worth insane amounts of money, they ought to be able to figure out a way to market bikes!

  • Baloo Uriza

    That kid riding left of the centerline and that obsolete, 1970s two-way salmon lane design makes me hella uncomfortable.

  • bikeleptic

    I wonder how the questions were asked and in what kind of setting. When I was a teenager between tender growing pains and raging hormones for most of the month that would leave maybe a week that I would feel comfortable enough with my own skin that I would want to sit on a saddle BETWEEN MY LEGS for any extended period of time.

  • cmu

    How ridiculous. And that’s the type of comment that makes people stop cycling.

  • belaroo

    well, as a life long girl on a bike, I’d say barriers would be it’s bloody dangerous, I don’t wear a helmet unless riding for sport anyway, but I’ve been known to prefer a peak cap of some description to keep the sun off. I’ve killed a few skirts and dresses that have been caught in the back wheel over the years, not for ages now, as I can afford a bike with dress and chain guard. Looking at NL, factors why cycling is over half women include it’s safe at night, segregated bike paths, most bikes come with chain guards and cycling with helmets is only for sport. Transport cycling is social if your friends are going your way, women never stop cycling, even when they get a proper job and drive to work, if they are going out locally, it’s still easier by bike. I know some exceptions, women can be petrol heads too, just like men, but that’s their choice, not that they are put off cycling, they are petrol heads. Most of us need to get about somehow, pop to the shops, work, friends, go out and a transport bike, just like a car, needs to be able to work in whatever you are wearing, have room for a bag of shopping (I have big double panniers that just sit there all bright and cheery). I can ride home after a few wines or beers – one thing about knowing you will be riding home from the pub is you do have to know your limits. It’s not as dangerous at all as driving after a couple of drinks, the night air and the fact that you want to get home alive help too. Getting into a comfy car just plays into the hands of taking more risks, but cycling tipsy, you still have to balance and make an effort. Falling off a bike causes mostly scratches and damage to your ego, where as car crashes are way worse and way more expensive and life changing.

  • claw789

    not mentioned: harassment. the more skin showing, the worse it gets. not a problem in winter, but agony in summer.

  • Baloo Uriza

    It’s ridiculous to expect a safe, modern cycleway design or people to obey some basic guidelines for riding safely?

  • midringrider

    People do things for a variety of reasons. Perceived safety being the important point of this article. It would be good to look at how much street harassment (assault) plays a part in young women’s decisions to stop cycling.

    As for weighing risks driving is considered safe and treated as safe compared to cycling for all of society. Never mind the 40K slaughtered this past year on the roads. People are horrible at determining general risk. We fear terrorism but our risk from that is much lower than the risk involved in the average commute by car.

  • Coach David

    Girls need to get involved in scholastic teams organized under NICA, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, that hosts mountain bike training and racing. NICA provides a nurturing environment for both boys and girls in middle and high schools to develop confidence, fitness, and a love for bikes. NICA goal is to develop lifelong cyclists, not racers. These links give more insight to what NICA does. NICA’s site: http://nationalmtb.org , NICA video: https://youtu.be/t6BUJg07ooQ

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