How to Diversify Bicycle Culture in Three Easy Steps

Everything you think you know about bicycling is wrong. At the National Women’s Bicycling Forum this morning, one message came through: the underrepresentation of women and people of color in cycling isn’t simply due to safety concerns and lack of protected infrastructure, as is often surmised. It’s more complicated than that.

Megan Odett of Kidical Mass DC is not your typical MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra). Photo: Tanya Snyder

Megan Odett, who founded Kidical Mass DC in April 2011 to encourage family cycling, conducted a survey [PDF] of attitudes about biking with kids. She said she found men worry more about safety than women. In her survey, women ranked distance – and their own physical limitations — as a bigger barrier.

And an audience member who had worked in New York’s Chinatown found that a lack of bike lanes wasn’t what was keeping people from riding. It was the high cost of buying a bike, and the problem of where to park it.

Women represent only one out of four cyclists on the road. If you ask Odett why that might be — or why moms aren’t showing up in huge numbers to bike advocacy meetings — she’ll tell you it’s “because we’re at PTA meetings, or we’re cleaning up after supper.”

So how do you get more moms biking?

  1. Identify the most likely prospects. The “low-hanging fruit” for family cycling are people who rode before they have kids, who live in a dense area, and who have moderate or high incomes (because there can be expensive equipment involved), said Odett. People with somewhat flexible schedules or work from home are also likely candidates for cycling. “I think that the core audience for family cycling and ‘mama-biking’ hasn’t really been saturated yet,” Odett said.
  2. Saturate the core audience. “You want to looking at saturating this core audience first, and then letting this movement expand out to some of the higher hanging fruit,” Odett said. “That’s going to make it much more ‘normal’ to bike with kids. It’s also going to create a used equipment market, which will help lower the barrier to entry to cycling with children.” And that will expand the demographic base outward from that initial high-income set.
  3. Model the benefits. Odett says women are barraged with advertising messages, as are parents – so moms learn to just tune it out. An organized PR campaign aimed at getting moms to bike might not work – but they’ll notice when their friend rides right up to the school’s front doors with a happy, smiling child on the back and everybody else has been stuck in traffic. “When I ride, I think of myself as PR for bicycling,” Odett said. “I’m on this bike because it’s an amazingly fun thing to do with my son.”

These three steps can be a good game plan to expand cycling in any demographic — not just moms.

You won’t get everyone. Biking with kids is significantly harder and more complicated than biking alone, and Odett implored advocates to respect people’s limitations. “You can’t be that person in the biking forum who, when someone says, ‘Well, I can’t bike because this,’ and they say, ‘Well, you get up two hours earlier and you don’t really need to shower! Then you can bike to work,'” she said.

Odett, sporting a pregnant tummy, also exhorted the cyclists in the audience to drop the judgment. She’s thinking of getting an electric assist for her bike so she can go longer distances with, now, two passengers. “I don’t think e-assist is cheating,” she said. “Don’t talk about it like it’s cheating.” It’s easy to be a bicycling purist when you have no burdens.

And it’s not just about moms. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs in combat and is now a committed cyclist, asked advocates to “think of the disabled.”

“There’s all sorts of permutations, and that’s the great thing about bikes – you just add on a few more parts and you just Rube-Goldberg the darned thing until it works for you,” Duckworth said. “I see kids with cerebral palsy who can only move part of one arm, I see kids who are blind riding on a two-seater with their parents. I see folks like myself who don’t have legs who use their arms.”

But sometimes broadening the bicycle movement isn’t about getting more people on bikes – it’s about including people who are already riding but aren’t connected to any cycling networks.

Lugo’s group, Ciudad de Luces (City of Lights), worked to improve safety for these transportation cyclists by handing out bike lights – first at transit stations, then at day laborer centers, and next she wants to engage with churches. The people she meets at those places may already be riding their bikes every day for transportation, but they may not be paying dues to the League or participating in bike advocacy meetings. We might not even think to count them among the key constituency for bicycle improvements, but they are.

“We talk about millennials, and ‘the millennials are moving to DC’ and ‘the millennials want to bike’ and ‘the millennials want to use public transportation,’” said Veronica Davis of Black Women Bike DC. “But the reality is, we’re talking about the white demographic. Because we have a black population and a Latino population here, and they’ve been using the bus, they’ve been on a bike, and it’s nothing new to them.”

Moreover, she said, they might not even show up in the data as bike commuters. “When is that data collected?” Davis said. “During peak rush hour on a weekday. But if you go to any of these restaurants around here at 10:00, 11:00 at night, who’s leaving? A lot of service workers that are on bikes and they tend to be minorities.”

25 thoughts on How to Diversify Bicycle Culture in Three Easy Steps

  1. “Women represent only three out of four cyclists on the road.”

    Guessing this was a typo. 1 out of 4?

  2. Midnight Ridazz in LA rarely gets the recognition from advocacy orgs or politicians but regardless has been a diversified bike culture and the fuel in LA for 9 years now…. Men women young old documented undocumented lawyers, jet pilots, teachers doctors, busboys, students, artists, homeless… you name it we are it. Perhaps the best way to diversify is to remove the rules and just ride together and make things F.U.N.

  3. e-assist isn’t ‘cheating’ but it is also not purely bicycling. Trying to convince yourself otherwise is just rationalizing. It’s powered bicycling – like a motorcycle. Go for it and have fun – but please stay out of bike lanes. Either that – or do not get angry at motorcyclists in bike lanes who drive safely and at a reasonable (~20mph) speed. I’d rather not go down that road. People have limitations – but trying to get the entire world to change to satisfy your own vanity towards pretending you are still biking and not motorcycling is not a mature response.

  4. What I mean to say is… The diversity in the FUN group rides is there because there is SAFETY in numbers. Other than that, you will only see macho men vehicular cyclists, weekend warriors and fixie whippers on the streets.

    Provide segregated protected travel space for those who use human powered vehicles to be protected from 2 ton speeding machines driven by unpredictable texting careless people and you will see incredible diversity on bikes.

  5. With all due respect to Megan Odett’s commitment and zeal, I worry that her recommendation to target moderate- and high-income families first may serve to harden class and ethnic divisions that are already rife in “discretionary” cycling and that carry over to the political realm. I’d be interested in her (or Tanya’s) thoughts on that. And is her survey of attitudes about biking with kids available?

  6. And the bicycling is already happening.  In all neighborhoods.  Question is will the infrastructure be created as promised?

  7. When I say make it safe and separated, I don’t mean to toss off this research in an offhand way. But there is this gap between what we in the US believe is not dangerous and actual institutionalized safety like one would find in a European city with even crap infrastructure. Having lived in both places, I think we have no idea here what safe feels like. So much so that we look for other reasons — and there are many other cultural reasons. But I agree with Roadblock — true safety leads to diversity. And I’m talking about everything from infrastructure to liability law wrt vehicular operation to training to an environment where guys in trucks cannot yell about your body parts because you are too far away from them. That would be nice.

  8. @disqus_mI7VBCcRGE:disqus Unless we’re talking about e-bikes which go well over 30 mph (and would be considered motor scooters for all intents and purposes), I’m not seeing what the problem is. The typical speed range for all types of cyclists is maybe about 7 or 8 mph up to 25 or 30 mph. Granted, few cyclists can maintain speeds at the higher end of this range continually, but they can certainly reach these speeds for short periods. And many cyclists can cruise at the ~20 mph or so top speed of most e-bikes. Since any decent bike lane or bike path should accommodate cyclists of all abilities, it can also accommodate legal e-bikes. From a purely selfish perspective, I’d much rather have someone with limited biking abilities cruising at 18 or 20 mph on an e-bike than struggling to go 10 mph (and way less uphill). E-bikes tend to equalize speeds between fast and slow cyclists, and that’s a good thing for everyone’s safety. They also allow those without much physical strength or stamina to still get some exercise, but get where they’re going in a timely manner.

  9. I can’t see the price of a bike as a major barrier to cycling. Besides the non-negligible secondhand market, there are inexpensive new bikes. If you manage to switch from using transit to using a bike in a place such as NYC, the bike will pay for itself in a couple of months.

  10. I can see that low income has trouble buying bikes. I’m retired and make 27k and I find it hard to buy not only new bikes but used ones. The parking of bikes I agree is an issue. Places to park is not all that prevalent and even if it were I always worry about theft.
        More needs to be done. Shopping centers should have secure parking for bikes and more places should be more bike conscience. In rising gas prices a positive bike environment is a nessary thing for low income or for people depended on bikes.

  11. I’ve noticed this after the last several years as a grad student in a college town.  Bicycle access is not a problem, bicycle use is.  There were a few attempts to set up bikeshare systems (as in, a fleet of unlocked bicycles around campus), but if you go and look at the racks by the dorms, you can tell that it isn’t that people can’t GET bicycles, it’s that they won’t RIDE bicycles.

    [Standard disclaimer that my experiences don’t apply everywhere.  North Dakota isn’t the big city.]

  12.  Hi, @Komanoff:disqus . To answer your second question first, I’m happy to e-mail you the preliminary results if you’ll send me an e-mail at KidicalMassDC at Gmail dot com. I’ll post that same document on the Kidical Mass DC website as soon as I can find a good way to get the PDF up. I also plan to keep working on analyzing and publicizing the rest of the answers. I’m using Excel and there are nearly 100 responses, so you can imagine how long it takes to sort everything out.

    The full survey, for your reference, is here:

    Regarding your first point, I can see your concern. My short response is that I was speaking in a narrow and specific context–car-replacement bicycling with children. If you (as the hypothetical audience) were to replace your hypothetical car with a bike to transport your hypothetical children, you’d need to deal with a range of challenges that are harder to address for parents than for solo cyclists. Solutions that enable this kind of car-replacement cycling with children are, by and large, not cheap. As someone who is undeniably white and middle-class, I think it would be the height of presumption for me to parachute into a low-income community and insist that replacing their cars with expensive cargo bikes would solve all of their transportation problems.

    That’s not to say that I think cycling advocates shouldn’t be doing any outreach to underserved communities–of course they should! I’m incredibly proud of the work that my local bike association, WABA, has been doing to help members of our underserved communities gain access to resources that will enable them to bike more. And I think there ARE opportunities in these communities to encourage parents to bicycle with children, especially recreationally, which requires much less in the way of gear and commitment than full-on commuting/ utilitarian cycling with kids does.

    Obviously the three-step process outlined above (Tanya’s formulation, not mine, but I might just go ahead and steal it!) can be applied to getting more than just parents on bikes. You could apply the steps to any community you wanted to reach out to; it just so happens that I was talking about women with children. I don’t think there’s anything inherently divisive in that process. It just happens that the “core audience” for parent-cycling with children is currently middle class, for reasons that I outlined above.

    As someone who loves cycling with my son, I hope to see family bicycling become popular among all races and classes.

    Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. Clearly we all have a lot more work to do!

  13. @cc36704b289cbef0ac72a06121c6c6d8:disqus  About the only place I’ve ridden in NYC where I felt truly “safe” was the Belt Parkway Greenway. I could probably say the same about the other greenways here also but I haven’t ridden on them. When you’re riding someplace where you *know* motor vehicles won’t be an issue, it’s just amazing how much less stressful everything is. Actually, more like close to zero stress. I just needed to look out for potholes and other cyclists, but that’s a piece of cake compared to being in full-on alert for every second I’m sharing the road with motor vehicles. So yes, safe and separated is the way to go if you ask me. Either that, or get traffic volumes down very low so that seeing a motor vehicle is a very occasional event.

  14. Am I the only guy who finds the MAMIL term offensive?  Yeah I fit the stereotype at times but I also a big fan of the ever so practical 3-speed (I rode mine 7 miles today to run errands, and never broke a sweat).  I’m also a big supporter of getting more of all people on bikes; men, women, black, white Hispanic, kids, elderly,etc. 

    I don’t think using a slur to describe the defacto majority of cyclists really helps Tanya.  Most of us “MAMILS” would like nothing more than to have more women riding bikes, spandex clad or not.

  15. @2995d81157fecd50fe4b728419a38787:disqus I find it MAMIL offensive myself, especially when people mistakenly apply it to me just because I’m a self-described fast recreational rider (I actually wear regular street clothes and don’t even own one piece of cycling-specific clothing). I think there are enough cyclist stereotypes in the mainstream media already without the cycling community adding more.

    And yes, I would like to see a lot more females of all ages on bikes. Ironically, in all my years of riding one of my best memories was when I was caught a female rider about my age (30 at the time) coming up on me. I had a lot fun the next four miles giving it my all just to see what she was capable of, but she hung on just fine. When we went our separate ways, I gave her a big thumbs up. At that time, guys who could keep my pace were pretty rare, and up until then I never had anyone stay with me for that long. What made the experience all the more unique was the fact this happened in the early 1990s, when there were fewer cyclists, period, and an even larger percentage were male.

  16. Thanks Joe R.  Sometimes I feel there is quite a bit of reverse sexism going on and many guys feel powerless to say anything. 

    BTW some of the best rides I’ve ever been on was with my friend Kerri down in Asbury Park, NJ (the Streetsblog NYC people know who she is).  She organizes rides to encourage more women to ride but unlike some women rides, the guys are totally welcome!  Kerri can ride and we will usually do a 17mph pace but we will wait for everyone, laugh, joke and talk.  I love riding with the Kerri and her gang because it IS NOT a testosterone fest of men trying to exert their dominance.  It’s just fun!

    Alright, time to slap on the spandex but I’ve got 40 miles of errands to run.

  17. “So how do you get more moms biking?”
    “she’ll tell you it’s ‘because we’re at PTA meetings, or we’re cleaning up after supper.'”This doesn’t really sound like a bike advocacy issue, it sounds like a gender equality issue, and it’s one that bike advocates seem to either ignore or sidestep.  “’I think that the core audience for family cycling and ‘mama-biking’ hasn’t really been saturated yet,’ Odett said.”First off, men are parents too and I know lots of them that haul their kids around on bikes to daycare and school.  Second, “mama-biking”? Vomit. The way this whole list is stated only perpetuates gender inequality, as it seems to assume that “parent and housekeeping stuff” is the woman’s job.  While that’s true in some households, talking about “mama-biking” and all that kinda crap doesn’t really help mothers or women overcome their lack of time to ride, and it certainly doesn’t help womens rights in general…like, at all.  Any “women and biking” conversations aimed at overcoming parental obstacles needs to involve both parents*–not just mothers–and focus on how they can divide their time and responsibilities equally to mitigate those obstacles.  Treating it as a problem that’s up to women to deal with absolves husbands** of their equal responsibilities as parents.*not diminishing the role of single parents. they face their own unique set of challenges that probably are much more difficult to solve in this context.

    **talking heteronormatively here for simplicity

  18. Thanks for this article.  I’m a parent in Chicago and I found myself identifying with a lot of it.  My spouse bike commutes to work and I am usually home with the kids.  I would love to bike for them more, but the logistics become overwhelming at times.  I have a bike trailer and the weight is difficult to manage.  And I won’t spend the money on the cargo bike until I’m sure I’m actually biking with the kids.  For other options, one kid is old enough for a tagalong now, but where does the other go?  

    And even if I go the simple route of the bike trailer, locking the whole thing up is a challenge, especially when there isn’t adequate bike parking.  And of course time becomes an issue as well.  

  19. I also have to plan my route much better and in advance with the bike trailer.  I don’t want a bike lane that is too busy, because I will be slower than the other riders.  I don’t want a busy street without a bike lane because I want my driver conscious that I am there especially with the trailer.  So I bike on slow neighborhood streets without lanes a lot, but many are one-ways so again, it just takes planning.  And in that time, I could have just driven.  

  20.  @bobafuct:disqus I actually addressed many of these issues in my talk. Wish you’d been there!

  21. Feel free to visit the Netherlands any time if you want to learn about cycling for everyone….

    A Dutch cycle-daddy

  22. I love my local Bike Party but I wouldn’t describe it as particularly safe or suggest it to totally novice riders. Huge numbers of people packed close together going at wildly varying speeds, some of them weaving in and out or doing tricks – you have to know what you’re doing to not end up tangling wheels. In that way it’s a bit like a very slow race.

    Also I’m a 30 something female daily commuter and I’m not *that* rare despite not fitting into any of the categories you derisively mention. Why the name-calling -is it really necessary to insult other cyclists?

  23. I’m sorry if someone already pointed this out, but did anyone else notice the factual errors between the actual survey and what the author of the article reported it to be?
    The article stated that Odett “found men worry more about safety than women” (I think the author meant “than women do”), and that “women ranked
    distance – and their own physical limitations — as a bigger barrier.” I looked at the actual survey data as linked here. Assuming those were numbers of respondents on the x-axis, the graph shows that 27 women (55% of female respondents) and 23 men (52% of male respondents) worry about safety (specifically while cycling with children, presumably). Not a huge difference, but it appears that it’s not true that she found that men worry about it *more* than women.
    Furthermore, the survey results graph shows that while women did rank distance as a bigger barrier than that of safety (but barely), the “effort, you” item (presumably referring to physical limitations on the parent’s part) was significantly lower than safety. So while it’s true that safety was not the top concern for women cycling with kids, it was very nearly almost the top concern (and might actually come out on the other side given margin of error and methodology and whatnot), and the author’s efforts to minimize it as a factor inverted one of the actual take-away messages from the survey (although, yes, the point about complexity of the situation still stands, although I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere claiming that women’s concerns about safety are definitely the only factor, just that it’s been established as a factor). Unless I’m missing something here, but I looked over it twice to make sure…

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