The National Push to Close the Cycling Gender Gap

Yep, those women are making a "gang sign" that represents ovaries and fallopian tubes. Image: Bike League

Women have been called an “indicator species” of a bike-friendly city because they tend to pedal more in places that are safe and practical for biking. But on those counts, the United States has some work to do.

In 2009, the last time good data was released, less than a quarter of bike trips in the U.S. — 24 percent — were made by women. Some cities are performing better than others: In Boston and Philadelphia, women make 32 percent of bike trips. In San Francisco, it’s 33 percent.

Still, we’ve got a long way to go compared to places where the gender gap has been closed. In the Netherlands, women account for 55 percent of bike trips. In Germany, it’s 49 percent. According to Bikes Belong, nearly all of the growth in cycling in the U.S. over the past two decades has come from men between the ages of 25 and 64.

Courtesy of the ## Cycling Project##

So what exactly is the problem? It seems to be combination of things, ranging from the quality of U.S. bike infrastructure to the availability of bike products designed for women’s tastes. The League of American Bicyclists recently issued a report, Women on a Roll, which lays out five key factors that get more women riding.

“It seems like such a nebulous and complex issue,” said Carolyn Szczepanski, director of the league’s Women Bike program. “But there are certain things that when you look at the research, come up over and over again.”

The number one factor is establishing better infrastructure — “comfort,” they call it. There’s a lot of research that shows lack of adequate bike infrastructure is holding women back from bicycling. Cities that have made great strides in cycling infrastructure have seen the share of female cyclists rise. In Portland, for instance, it rose from 21 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2012.

“Comfort is one of the biggest drivers of whether women bike or not,” said Szczepanski. “That has to do with creating an experience for getting more people on a bike regardless of gender.”

Women tend to prefer bike lanes and protected bike lanes to a greater extent than men. In a 2009 Portland study, 94 percent of women said that separated bike lanes made their trip safer, compared to 64 percent of men.

Interestingly, the Bike League found that bike-share can help close the cycling gender gap. In North America, about 43 percent of bike-share users are female, a much more balanced ratio than the cycling population as a whole. Bike-share, Szczepanski said, seems to combine many of the qualities valued by women, including comfort and convenience.

The League cites evidence that bike repair education for women can also make an impact. Research shows that women are less confident repairing and maintaining bikes than men. In a national survey by the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals in 2010, 20 percent of women reported they would bike more if repair classes were available to them.

The Bike League is calling for greater parity between the sexes in the bike world: from the composition of local planning agencies to the management of major bike industry companies to the staffs of bike advocacy organizations. Previous research has raised the question of whether the preponderance of men in top transportation engineering groups, like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has, in effect, further marginalized street designs preferred by women.

“The main discourse thus far has been that women are intimidated, women are worried about messing up their hair wearing helmets. We’re trying to reframe this in a positive context,” said Szczepanski. “A lot of these things are solvable, if we address them in a nuanced and respectful way.”

20 thoughts on The National Push to Close the Cycling Gender Gap

  1. It’s not that women are wimps or obsessed with their hair. Only 17% of women in their 40’s are childless. The rest of us are traveling, more often than not, with kids in tow. We require safe street design for our kids before we can get out en mass…as in NL.

  2. I am (in my 50s) “obsessed with my hair” if I’m looked upon as some kind of filthy street person when I go to meet a client, as a freelancer. I’m not style obsessed, but matted, filthy hair nixes work contracts.

    More important, I see helmet promotion among slow, utilitarian cyclists as a form of victim-blaming, akin to forcing women to “cover” to ward off sexual assault or other misogynist acts. Eliminate hazards at the source!

  3. These cycling & gender modal split figures are interesting, e.g. if the overall figure is 6%, 2/3 men and 1/3 women as in Portland, OR, it means that real gender modal share there is 9% men and 3% women. This seems more dramatic, no?

    Not only gender, but class, ethnic/racial self-identification and so on are also useful to look at. I wrote about this a while back:

  4. First of all, women and children are NOT a different species from men, so it would help if you stopped calling us that. If by “comfort” you mean we would prefer to not get run over and die, then you are correct. I was lured by the promise of protected bike lanes in bicycle friendly San Francisco, but the reality is that most places in San Francisco are extremely unsafe for bicyclist. Do not pander to me (50 year old woman) and try to sell me “comfort” and the perception of safety. We want actual real safety that does not rely solely on “education” and the assumption that drivers and bicylist will all be super aware and never get in each other’s way and never make mistakes.

    I had motorcycles following me for several long blocks in the “protected” lane on embarcadero last weekend. At a stop light, I turned around and said, “This is not your lane. Get out!” I motioned towards the car lanes, which were slower. On market street, a CAR followed behind me IN the bike lane, not a merging lane but solid green paint. Concrete might not be magic but it is far better than paint. I tried biking Folsom a few weeks ago, and lasted only about a block because it made me cringe. So, I walked my bicycle on the sidewalk the rest of the way. My “perception” is that there was no way to make the situation on Folsom safe no matter how cautious I may be. It saddens me greatly that my intuition of the danger was correct. I was so excited about the promise of a bicycle friendly San Francisco, but will probably go back to driving my car there again. I am not stupid.

  5. Then you are part of the problem. (I’m also a middle-aged woman, in Montréal, and have never driven a car in my life).

    Hope the situation improves, but please don’t drive a car in a densely-populated city. Take public transport if you don’t feel safe on a bicycle. Cars kill, and destroy the planet.

  6. In places wirh excellent transportation, like anywhere near Bart, i do not drive. You can get to many neighborhoods in San francisco that way. However, the western part of Sf does not have good public transportation. It can take a couple hours to get across the city on public transport, and Sf is only 7 miles long by 7 miles wide. Getting from the east with bart to the west with good museums but no good routes is difficult. No doubt, public transportation in montreal is much better. Every place in Europe is better. i do not even drive in Los Angeles, but San Francisco is truly horrible.

  7. I so wear a helmet although it is not legally required. My mother had a head injury, so I am cautious. Try dry shampoo (which I keep in my basket), parting your hair the other way which helps with hat head too, and a cotton scarf or head band if you choose to wear a helmet.

  8. This article missed a huge factor: STREET HARASSMENT. LA is already a biker-unfriendly city, but when that is coupled with men yelling things at me from out of their cars and from the sidewalk, getting jeers, gestures, honks, and gross propositions, it can be a headache. One of my friends was cycling slowly in the bike lane on exposition blvd and a man reached out of his window and slapped her ass. It seems like if you’re a woman in public, especially if you’re doing anything in a male dominated field/area, you’re at risk of getting unwanted sexual attention which can sometime turn violent.

  9. I agree that characterizing the issue as women being “intimidated” or afraid of “messing up their hair” is demeaning and inaccurate. I think most women just want to ride safely. I was recently hit by a car riding in NYC (luckily I was not seriously injured), and for a lot of women, the high likelihood of that happening in cities where there is little bike infrastructure and little enforcement of safe street practices makes biking a nonstarter.

  10. im tired of hearing about a gap in women and men for cycling.

    ALL cyclists share the same vulnerability of the road regardless of sex.

    angie needs to stop with creating a problem when there really isnt a problem in gender, but a problem with safety for ALL cyclists. not just women.

  11. Not wearing a helmet is just plan stupid I don’t care what gender you are but I will admit if they made them so don’t look like an alien pod on your head more women would wear them.

  12. Don’t blame Angie. She is just the messenger. The League of American Bicyclists is pushing a lot on the Gender Equity front to the point that it feels like reverse discrimination. While I agree that women face more sexism then men even on the bike (Karen’s story above), I as a man often ride in literal fear of my life due to careless and reckless car drivers.

    BTW, the most scary incident I EVER had on my bike happened in Germany, a country with a high share or women cyclists. I was on a lightly trafficked, narrow country road less than a mile from my cousin’s house when a supped up VW flew past me at 80mph+. Cleared me by less than 2 feet!!! I would have “f”in’ ripped that driver out of his car and beat him senseless if I caught him in the town a kilometer away! That’s how scared and angry I was at his reckless and potentially homicidal action.

    Fear of “death by auto” is a BIG issue for cyclists no matter what your gender or country you ride in. I wish our paid advocates would stop acting like its only a problem that bothers women.

  13. I second Karen down below that we face a problem males don’t: street harassment. I was catcalled by some goddamn City of Austin utility workers. Of course you can just as easily be attacked while walking to your car, but cycling as a women puts you further out int he public sphere than if you are in your car. It’s uncomfortable and takes some getting used to. Plus, some women have special considerations in terms of clothing (where is my skirtguard!!) and the increased likelihood of having to haul small children around. These are all real barriers to keeping women from cycling that have nothing to do with vulnerability on the road and everything to do with women’s perceived role in society.

  14. I knew Angie was going to continue her prejudicial bigot trip linking the ridiculous notion that transportation engineers hate women. I guess I should not be surprised but I was actually hoping she would not take that low road. Guess I was a little too optimistic that she would become more educated and not be so ignorant.

  15. With articles like this spreading lies, ignorance and bigotry about traffic engineers hating women, it does not help the cause.

  16. FL, you have a point: it’s wrong to judge people based on their sex.

    However, putting more liveability into the way streets are built gets easier if you look at who the engineers are, and who the users are. The gender gap may be a crude measure, but it can still tell us something about how bicycling is percieved.

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