Schlepping By Bicycle: The Next Big Thing in Women’s Bike Advocacy?

Dutch bike infrastructure is light years ahead of America's. But maybe it's their progressive policies on gender and family that have more to do with high rates of women biking. Photo: ## View from the Cycle Path##
Dutch bike infrastructure is light years ahead of America’s. But but how much does progressive social policy contribute to the country’s high rates of women biking? Photo: ## View from the Cycle Path##

Why don’t women bike as much as men? It’s a question that’s been getting a lot of press for the last three years or so since the explosion of Women Bike onto the national advocacy scene. Only about 24 percent of bikes on the street have women’s butts on them. What’s going on?

The conventional wisdom is that women are just more risk-averse. The need to get more women biking is often mentioned as one of many reasons for building safe, protected bike infrastructure for all ability levels. The Bike League’s Women on a Roll report named five C’s of women biking: comfort, convenience, consumer products, confidence, and community. But they forgot one: Chores.

An article in last Friday’s Guardian by UCLA academics Kelcie Ralph and Herbie Huff has been clanging around in my head since I read it. The reason women make up more than half of cyclists in the Netherlands and less than a quarter here isn’t simply due to skittishness about biking in traffic, Ralph and Huff argue. It’s about household inequality, plain and simple.

“In short, despite years of progress, American women’s lives are still disproportionately filled with driving children around, getting groceries, and doing other household chores,” they write — “housework that doesn’t lend itself easily to two-wheeled transportation.”

Transportation research in the United States focuses disproportionately on the “journey to work” because that’s the only trip we have Census data on. But the journey to work makes up only about 16 percent of all trips. According to a recent study by Ralph and her colleagues at UCLA and Rutgers, “travel for other, more domestic purposes — shopping (21 percent), family errands (22 percent), and school/church (10 percent) — collectively (53 percent) make up a much, much larger share of all personal travel.” And women make the lion’s share of those trips.

In families with opposite-sex parents, women make twice as many child-serving trips as men — three times as many when the woman doesn’t work outside the home. But even when the woman works outside the home as many hours as her male partner, she makes 1.5 child-serving trips for every one the man makes.

Even single moms make 40 percent more child-serving trips than single dads — and 82 percent of single parents are women.

The best way to bring equality to American bicycling is to bring equality to our household division of labor, Ralph and Huff argue — and that will likely necessitate changes to our entire labor system. Paid paternity leave and a step back from a workaholic “always there” culture for professionals would be a big help.

And to that I say Yes Yes Yes A Million Times Yes.


The bike advocacy movement has a role in this, too, and it’s a whole lot easier than ending patriarchy. While Women Bike has become a rallying cry for the movement, family biking is still hardly a blip on the radar. The 24 percent statistic isn’t separated out by age, but I’d be willing to bet that 20-something women ride a lot more equally with men, but then stop abruptly when they have kids and take on more domestic duties. According to a recent survey, 60 percent of bike owners aged 17-28 are women.

The first step is acknowledging that this bike exists. Photo: ## Space##
How many American parents even know this bike exists? Photo: ## Space##

Ralph’s study found that women drive for 92 percent of their child-serving and household-serving trips, but only for only 56 percent of their other trips. “Once you have to do any schlepping at all, it’s almost exclusively by automobile,” Ralph told me. But when they’re not schlepping, women are more inclined to get out of their cars than men.

Acquainting parents — of all genders — with the how-tos of family biking could make a dent in that, at least among people who were used to biking before they had kids. And it could be downright revolutionary for women.

Still, leaders of Kidical Mass groups, which encourage and organize family bike rides, differ greatly on whether family biking belongs under the banner of Women Bike. To some, like Kidical Mass DC organizer Megan Odett, no women’s biking program is complete without covering the family biking issue, since kids and domestic responsibilities are such a big part of why women don’t bike. To others, like Kidical Mass Arlington’s Gillian Burgess, to call family biking a women’s issue would deny the fact that family biking represents the one place where there is gender equity: Women make of half of all people biking with kids, and men emerge as leaders in Kidical Mass a whole lot more than in any other child-related activity.

Huff and Ralph had good reasons for focusing on deeper societal issues in their article. Clearly, dismantling gender inequality in the home will go farther toward dismantling gender inequality in bicycling — and building a better world — than just acquainting women with trailers and iBerts. “I never want to make the implication these are women’s problems, and that’s fine that they’re women’s problems, but let’s just get them a cargo bike,” Huff told me.

Plus, she said, “I’m speaking as a bike advocate when I say I think there’s a tendency to just focus on things that are ‘bike.’”

“I think the movement has gotten to a point where we start to touch things that are deeper and we have to go there to make progress,” Huff went on. “Race, gentrification and displacement, class — these are other issues that the movement is coming up against, and they’re like ‘oh no, what are we supposed to do; that’s not biking.’ But it is.”

Still, Huff and Ralph agree that finding ways to manage child-related and household chores by bike is key to getting more women biking. “A lot of the burden for women is the chauffeuring of children,” Ralph said, “so if you can get those kids biking independently, that’s easing a lot of their burden.”

So why isn’t the bike movement providing resources to people who want to manage their domestic responsibilities by bike? There’s hardly any information out there, so the default is just to drive. Where would you go with questions about what kind of gear you need, or how old your kid should be before you start, or if biking in traffic with a baby is just a crazy dangerous idea to begin with?

These aren’t questions just for women, but women are the ones who have the most to gain from learning how to manage a kid — and diaper bags, and groceries, and library books — on two wheels.

National bicycling groups have, in recent years, spent considerable energy trying to get more women to ride. But they have yet to invest in encouraging and training women how to schlep by bike.

30 thoughts on Schlepping By Bicycle: The Next Big Thing in Women’s Bike Advocacy?

  1. “housework that doesn’t lend itself easily to two-wheeled transportation [in the US]” The article forgot to add that bit in brackets, which is critical in any comparison of the US and the Netherlands.

    In the Netherlands, women of child-rearing age make MORE trips by bike, not less, than their husbands precisely because they do those chores, which are much much easier to do by bike than in the US. As this article highlights, the Dutch have bikes that accommodate kids and cargo much easier than bikes readily available in the US. And their neighborhoods have cycletracks that make it much more convenient and safe for them to get to stores, schools, etc.

    A woman who does family errands racks up more bike trips per day than her husband who might only do two trips, to and from work. And the Dutch count trips, not work commutes. Data and discussion on Dutch women of child-rearing age bicycling here:

  2. Great article Tanya. It all mixes in together. Playing on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I do think that segregated infrastructure is the foundation and without it we’ll not see much movement. On top of that though is all of the stuff that you raised above and with it simply getting mindshare so that people; moms, dads, and grandparents, consider bicycles as a great alternative.

    Local trips will be key though. Not even many Dutch or Danes or Finns ride more than a few miles round-trip and gender doesn’t seem to play a role in this:

  3. I do not understand how trips to work only account for 16% of trips. In a given week that would suggest that the average person makes 52 non-work related trips. (10 trips for work 16% -> 84/16 = 5.25 times more trips for non-work). That seems way out of whack to me, I don’t make 50 trips, I often don’t even make 5 trips outside of work in a given week. I can see for parents with kids that could be higher, but 50 seems ridiculous.

  4. Norway has the same or better family friendly policies as Holland with regards to working hours, division of household labor, and mobility of the youth, but it’s not a cycling paradise.

  5. Just consider that many people are unemployed, work part-time, are retired, or are too young to be in the workforce.

  6. Yep. The difference between Malmö and the rest of Sweden, Münster
    and the rest of Germany and so on is the quality of the infrastructure. In The Netherlands this infrastructure is just nearly universal (even OUTSIDE of cities and suburbs).

  7. Whether disproportionate household-serving travel burdens borne by women will continue depends on whether gender socialization norms begin to change more quickly or remain deeply embedded.

    Kelcie and Ralph, quoted above, suggest that gender socialization norms are to blame, not infrastructure.

  8. I know what Kelcie and Ralph are suggesting, though the article also mentions that women in The Netherlands have to chauffeur children less because of the “high quality cycling infrastructure” that the kids can use themselves.

    However, lots of other research has shown that women feel less safe cycling on the roads in the US and are more risk averse than men. They also have a much larger subjective safety benefit from separated cycling infrastructure than men.

    Either way, so few men ride in the US that gender parity would still not amount to all that many women riding.

  9. “Either way, so few men ride in the US that gender parity would still not amount to all that many women riding.” Very true in one sense.

    Most people, male, female, or other, are not going to ride 10 miles each way to work everyday or any day. However, most people if provided good infrastructure, proper bikes, and the idea that bicycling is an option, will ride 3 or 4 miles round trip to school, a cafe for dinner, or the hardware store or pharmacy.

  10. Terrific contribution to the discussion of why cycling is so male dominated — northern Europe excepted. Male cyclists outnumber women in Budapest, where I live, but as the author observed, it’s really more of a life stage thing. Single women are biking all over Budapest — as the blog demonstrates. But some of my most environmentally conscientious friends broke down and got a car when they got kids — usually under pressure from their wives. Budapest is a nice, compact city and trip distances aren’t normally a barrier to cycling, but there’s no segregated infrastructure here, and when you’re with kids, you want that.

  11. To the store and back counts as two trips. Go out for lunch? That’s two trips. School? Dry cleaners? Girl Scouts meeting? Church? Etc…

  12. OMG!!! Are you kidding me?!?! The patriarchy I observed in Germany with my own family even had my 84 German mother (60 year American resident) up in arms. Yes women have to schlep a lot with a car here in the US because you can’t do ANYTHING without a car in most places. In Germany I saw the women in my family still doing all sorts of things for the kids as the men just sat around. The difference there is that the kids could actually walk or ride a bike to school and “football” practice. Because of this the women had time to then ride there bikes alone to do the shopping, etc. while the men sat around reading the paper.

    I also think this is more of an issue than most other things. Read the first paragraph of Sarah Goodyear’s recent article and some of the comments related to that incident by some of the women.

  13. I don’t know. You wouldn’t need ANY segregated infra if the roads were already safe to ride on. In my mom’s hometown of Bad Kissingen Germany, I’d say the majority of the people I saw riding were women. There was little in the way of segregated infra in downtown. What there was a lot of were roads with major traffic calming. I’d rather see towns make all bike infra obsolete because their downtown and residential streets have been made safe again for bikes, peds and cars.

  14. Anyone who believes that typical Dutch families constitute some feminist paradise of gender equality has never spent much time in The Netherlands with those families.

    The key difference in The Netherlands is that for shopping, child and household trips, cycling is the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of safely travelling from A to B. That is 100% due to the superior infrastructure. So the typical harried and time-pressed Dutch mother makes those trips on a bicycle.

    The big bonus for women in The Netherlands comes when the child turns 8 years old and starts cycling independently to school and everywhere else. No more mommy chauffeur! I vividly remember my own mother’s response to such requests, “Are your legs broken?”

    And not just in The Netherlands. Take a look at this video of kindergarten children being picked up in Japan. No gender equality; 100% of the pick-up is by women, presumably their mothers. But 100% of the child transport is by bicycle. Also note how the guard enforcing the entrance to the car-free zone bows politely to each cyclist.

  15. That poppycock article can be dismissed with the gaping counterexample it failed to mention: New York City. Plenty of Big Apple moms do just fine without driving, and they do so because the infrastructure allows them.

  16. European cities not only have better infrastructure, they have have many aspects of urban design that make multiple small trips with and without children more amenable to biking. Shorter distances to stores, parks, and schools. Products and packaging design to be purchased in smaller quantities, etc. Safety considerations are also doubled up when some of your trips involve bringing the kids along. There’s many trips I would feel comfortable riding, but wouldn’t take my child along with me. I assume that would be even more true for women who tend to do more trips with kids in tow and may have higher concerns about safety to start with.

    But I think that Ralph and Huff are absolutely right generally that we have to look beyond simple street conditions to understand gender differences in cycling and other life choices. Our work, family care, and household responsibility expectations have many impacts throughout the ways we live our lives.

  17. That’s just the thing. All those little trips do add up and are frequently of a distance that provide little worthwhile difference in time to drive. Many more people likely would ride those distances or even the 10 miles to work if infrastructure were provided. That’s not uncommon for kids to do to get to high school in The NLs, so adults should have no problem. Also worth noting is that the Dutch network is optimized to allow a combination of biking and public transit to be seamless and easy. So even those unwilling to bike 10+ miles could easily bike a mile to the train, hop on board, then finish the last mile or two on foot, a bus, or a bike share bike.

  18. The infrastructure in the US is the problem. I’m a childless woman, and I bike commute to work a few days a week. It’s an 18 mile trip one way, but there’s decent bike trails and lanes for almost the entire trip. But if I want to bike to the pharmacy that’s 3/4 of a mile from my house, there’s no bike rack to lock my bike to! Yeah, there’s probably a tree or something way out at the edge of the parking lot I could lock my bike to but it’s little annoyances like that that make biking something you REALLY have to commit to. And that’s why Americans drive even for the shortest trips. Because biking is something you do for fun and exercise, not a way to pick up a loaf of bread. And until we get better infrastructure, only ‘crazy’ people like me will cycle. I really wish city officials and business owners were forced to cycle around their cities and see how inconvenient and unsafe some areas are. That might make things change for the better a little faster.

  19. This discussion doesn’t need a gender filter or even a parent filter. The stats point to some human and cultural differences between men and women but the solutions are for all. One of the main reasons bike use is marginal in the U.S. is that people of both genders are risk adverse. Secure infrastructure is needed. Parents need to learn about child mobility and schlepping stuff by bike. And you don’t need kids to schlep. This is an area where the bike industry can help. Let’s get the product out there in front of people.

  20. The family biking issue shows the need for a multipronged approach to normalizing bicycling. Access to info about options and tech for family biking is important, and Kidical Mass is a great example of how to expand this kind of social infrastructure from city to city. I’ve seen a considerable amount of awareness among KM folks (at least the ones I know from Seattle, PDX, Eugene, and DC) of their own limitations as a self-selecting subculture. For this reason, what I would love to see is support from an existing network like SRTS that could take the organic growth of the Kidical Mass model and make it into a solution for more communities. As lots of folks have commented here, the lack of connected infrastructure that gives ppl a sense of security is a continuing source of frustration, and that’s certainly an issue that the national bike orgs have been tackling for years. I think looking for other solutions to the root problem (vicious road culture) is something that will benefit all bike users. More solutions!

  21. “American women’s lives are still disproportionately filled with driving
    children around, getting groceries, and doing other household chores,”
    they write — “housework that doesn’t lend itself easily to two-wheeled

    But in the Netherlands, people do all those things by bicycle.

  22. I see a lot of comments on how Dutch women do child portage/chores by bike almost as if it’s no excuse for American women not to bike. Dutch women can do this because it is easy for them to do so. At least here in Chicago, it’s easy for women to do their chores by car. Unlike NYC where people rich or poor take public transportation, only poor families take the train here. It’s still affordable to own a car and even in my working class neighborhood almost everyone has a car. Also, a lot of people here frown upon child portage by bike, viewing it as putting their kids in danger.

  23. They’re counting total trips, not trip miles. Let’s take an example where in a community of 100 people, one person drives 100 miles each direction to work while everyone else drives only 2. At the end of the day, that one person has contributed only 1% of the trips, but 51% of the trip miles. Big difference there.

  24. It sounds like the authors of that report either visited The Netherlands with blinders on or just have never been. Yes, the parents may have the opportunity to be more available with “free time” to pick up kids from school. But at the same time, there’s far less of parents transporting able-bodied people and their belongings, which is a major portion of the “schlepping” many woman do. The average age of riding to school unaccompanied by parents in The Netherlands is 8 years old. Suddenly, after that time, there’s a lot of free time available. Even if a parent is able to stay home, they likely won’t be spending their time ferrying their kids around. That extends far beyond just school. The kids can transport themselves to music or sports practice, a friend/relative’s house, the park, or other such destinations without the parent having to drive them. This is also the age of cell phones and other similar communication devices. Instead of trying to cram a trip to the store in, mothers can phone their child and ask them to do a bit of grocery shopping if necessary on the way home. Which the child can do, because even the smallest Dutch bikes come outfitted with racks.

    But all of this requires good infrastructure. That can’t be stressed enough, as even the authors apparently admit. They should re-title the paper “Infrastructure doesn’t matter except when it matters” because it definitely matters here. A bunch of sharrows on arterials and painted lip(service) won’t do much toward alleviating the fears of worried parents. If there is to be any progress, it will need to come from the infrastructure side. Especially since that’s likely the easiest to change anyway. (Of course, it probably isn’t a stretch to say that the infrastructure is an integral force in determining some of the culture. America has been built to prioritize the car, so it shouldn’t be surprising to find our lives and culture full of both.)

  25. Yup, children transporting themselves by bike and by foot is part of what they’re talking about. See: “A lot of the burden for women is the chauffeuring of children,” Ralph said, “so if you can get those kids biking independently, that’s easing a lot of their burden.”

  26. Yes, so, work still counts as two trips, I still don’t see how it can work out to 50 trips a week. Take into account, that’s 7 per day, I don’t even make 7 trips on the weekend usually, let alone after work.

  27. I agree, I would expect trip miles to be even more skewed, given road trips. Although I’m not sure of on the stats of how far people commute. Far longer than I feel would be sane. That being said, I was already considering trips, not miles. I do not see how someone would make 50 trips outside of going to work and back during the week. That’s over 7 trips per day.

  28. WOW!!! 18 miles one way?!?! You go girl!!! I did a 15 mile one-way ride and that was at the limit of what I would do for a daily commute.

    Otherwise, great observation about a lack of bicycle parking being one of the most critical obstacles to increasing bicycle use!

  29. Yea, you’d be surprised. I hear some cars going past my window sometimes a good 20 times daily. Everyone jumps straight into a car for even the shortest of trips, but they definitely add up. At the same time, that 16% jives well with Dutch figures, where just 16% of bike trips are for work/school. Unfortunately, American biking and advocacy has been hampered here by the general focus of transportation surveys to be solely on trips to school/work. That makes biking look smaller than it really is or could be.

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