Statistics Alone Paint an Incomplete Picture of Women and Bicycles

"I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."  — Susan B. Anthony, 1896.

According to the statistics, there is a dramatic imbalance in bike riding along gender lines, with men using the bicycle as a primary means of transportation at a rate more than double that for women. 

Data from the 2008 US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found that 2.7 percent of San Francisco’s population commutes to work by bike. The survey reports that 3.7 percent of men ride to work, while only 1.6 percent of women do. A 2009 study in Scientific American found that men’s cycling trips surpass women’s by at least 2:1. In the competitive arena, 87 percent of competitive cyclists are male, according to 2009’s active member demographic conducted by USA Cycling. 

These bicycle commute numbers also skew pretty far from commute rates by other modes. As noted in a Transportation Research Board survey by Susan Handy, a professor of environmental science at the University of California, Davis, "82 percent of the bicycle commuters were men and 21 percent were students, compared to 54 percent and 11 percent of all commuters, respectively." 

So what do these numbers mean about bicycling in the Bay Area?

Many researchers, including Handy, believe the presence of
women on bicycles is an important indicator of how bike-friendly a city
is. Research shows the better a city’s bike infrastructure, the more
commuters there are, including more women, seniors, riders with special
needs and children. 

Ironically, many of the people working hardest to create more bike
infrastructure in the Bay Area are women, including the directors of
five bicycle coalitions: The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC),
Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC), Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition
(SCBC), and Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC), and Walk Oakland
Bike Oakland (WOBO).

Many of these women leaders don’t see gender, theirs
or among cyclists in general, as having much to do with the coalition’s
goals and projects. 

Christine Culver, the Executive Director of the SCBC, says that
while SCBC is working hard to make streets more attractive to all
riders, they aren’t doing anything specifically catered to women. 

"I guess I just don’t see the divide between men and women as that
significant or worth mentioning," says Culver. "I think by making the
divide a bigger deal than it is just perpetuates the stereotype that
bikes are for men." 

Culver notes, however, that there are a number of teams and bike
classes in Sonoma County that are geared toward women, including Team
Speed Queen, Nimble Training, and Early Bird Women’s Developmental
Cycling Team. 

Furthermore, the Census statistics don’t necessarily match up
with coalition membership.

"Based on a survey we did of our members and fans in February 2010,
55 percent are women," said WOBO’s Executive Director Cassie Rohrbach. "For the most part at
WOBO, we do not target our events, programs or campaigns specifically at
women. Our goal is that as we grow, we represent the diversity of
Oakland, including the geographic, racial, cultural, socio-economic, age
and gender diversity of this city."   

WOBO does have Women’s Rides every second Sunday of the month. They
also offer "Kidical Mass" (I bet you say that out loud after reading
this) which gets families out and about.

For the SFBC, the focus on women cyclists is part of the larger
effort to increase safety in the streets.  

"The SFBC has done a few
things to focus specifically on women cyclists — we have done a
women-only urban cycling workshop, and have also organized cultural
history tours with topics of interest to women," said Renee
Rivera, SFBC’s Acting Executive Director.

"The top
priority for the SFBC is to work with the city on improving our streets,
and increasing bike ridership overall, to make the streets safer for
everybody, and through doing that I believe that women will feel safer
and more confident to bike."

Personally, as a woman and a regular cyclist, I think the indicators don’t adequately match the conditions on the streets. Everywhere I go, I see women riding and it makes the

numbers hard to believe. What’s more, Census commute statistics can’t adequately measure the
participation of women in Bay Area bicycle culture.

Bikes and the City, a regular online source for bicycle news and fun, recently started a series
in conjunction with Bike NOPA called "Women Who Bike," which chronicles the
experience of an array of woman and their pedal-powered locomotion. Velo Vogue, another local blog, documents the growing
trend of Cyclic Chic here and in cities worldwide. And how could you not be
inspired to ride (no matter your gender) after watching The Derailleurs perform a
scintillating routine?

I live in the Mission and I’ve commuted to work in SOMA for two years by bike. Now, at eight months pregnant, I work from home but still ride my bike to run errands. My fiance and I are investigating bike seats for kids. We’re having a girl.

So if the statisticians out there are concerned, that will be one more female riding a bicycle.

  • Agent F-Word

    Right-on article, and thanks for the Derailleurs shout-out!

  • While I am fond of data and have quoted the 2008 Census Survey myself, I think it likely that it’s fairly out of date given how fast things have been changing in San Francisco. I am seeing more and more women bicycle, especially in the Mission. However, most of these women are young–under 30. As to the over 40 cohort, the vast majority I see are male, so I would say, yes, there is a difference between the male and female experience of bicycling in this city, though there certainly is an overlap in what men and women value and want.

    In my peer group (women over 40) most believe bicycling in San Francisco to be akin to skiing down a double black diamond run–i.e. only super-fit young people would be foolhardy enough to attempt it, and even they are risking near certain death. I try to assure them that statistics show that the more bicyclists and bike lanes they see in the city, the safer bicycling is getting. (I’d put biking in San Francisco as a challenging intermediate run these days.) They eye me doubtfully, as if I’m trying to entice them off a cornice.

    Now some people like skiing down double black diamond runs. Some people also like taking the lane, riding 30 mph and mixing it up with cars. But if we want women (of all ages) to bicycle in large numbers, the experience needs to be as safe and pleasant as a green beginner run. (Maybe an advanced beginner run.) Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. Perhaps it’s time to consider how to design infrastructure to accommodate both the 30 mph speedster and the 8mph senior on her adult tricycle. (Me, I like to go 12 – 14 mph.)

    As a female bicyclist in her 40s, bike lanes make me happy, slow car traffic makes me happy, and lots of other bicyclists around (especially at night) make me happy. Smooth pavement and good lighting at night add to my sense of well being. Upright, utilitarian bikes with comfortable seats catch my eye, and I’ll even admit to admiring bike baskets decorated with flowers and other frivolous things, though I don’t personally sport one. Gear ratios and technological arcana interest me little; the other day I had to have my husband explain to me what a fixie was. (I still don’t get it. Why would anyone not want to be able to coast?)

    Bike parking racks are appreciated, and secure bike parking makes me jump for joy, although I don’t find it very often. I hate taking the lane in 30 mph traffic, but I hate SUVs skimming by my elbow even more. I hate evil cars and trucks double-parked in bike lanes, and I hate having to breathe smelly car fumes. I hate cars that don’t signal and then turn or park right in front of me. I hate potholes, trenches cut across the road, metal plates, and slippery manhole covers. I’ve learned to be very careful around Muni tracks.

    I appreciate the vast majority of drivers in San Francisco who are considerate and non-threatening to bicyclists. Riding by trees, grass and nature is delightful, as is not having to constantly divert oneself around pedestrians and dogs on leashes. I feel best when every mode has its place–cars, bicycles, pedestrians. I like it when everyone–cars, bikes, and pedestrians–is considerate enough to take their turn at stop signs and stop lights. Ah, bicycle heaven. One day, one day . . .

  • Nick

    It’s a lot easier to be a cyclist in the city today (for any gender) than it was just 10 years ago. Infrastructure hasn’t improved that much, but there has been a mellowing of tensions on both sides.

    Critical Mass didn’t get it’s hyper aggressive mindset from being treated nicely by drivers during the month. Car drivers did a lot to scare people off bikes through the years.

  • Many of these women leaders don’t see gender, theirs or among cyclists in general, as having much to do with the coalition’s goals and projects.

    i don’t know if females, or female bike advocates, have any extra duty to make the case for better bike infrastructure, but i know it’s an incredible missed opportunity. this is basic rights — women’s rights — human rights — whatever you want to call it. everyone deserves to get around under their own power — not just men.

    it’s ok for the bike world to quote Susan B. Anthony once in a while to show that we’re all pro-women’s rights, and then we astutely go about completely ignoring women’s rights when it comes to policy. nice.

    talk about the difference between men and women? no way, dude — we’re the same! ok. experience and research suggest otherwise, but hey, who’s perfect, amiright?

    “I guess I just don’t see the divide between men and women as that significant or worth mentioning,” says Culver. “I think by making the divide a bigger deal than it is just perpetuates the stereotype that bikes are for men.”

    it’s a monumental difference — it’s the difference between whether or not women are allowed to ride or not. if that’s not important to you, then don’t talk about the difference between men and women — pretend it’s not there. if women don’t matter to you, ignore the difference between men and women, and we’ll continue to have male-specific bike infrastructure. simple.

    pretending that men and women are the same won’t make it so. and i, for one, don’t want us to be the same. if the world is saved from self-destruction, it’ll probably be women who save it.

    Personally, as a woman and a regular cyclist, I think the indicators don’t adequately match the conditions on the streets.

    i don’t know what the indicators say, but i can tell you who is actually riding in SF, Oakland, and San Jose — dudes. Lots of ’em. There are a few women riding these days, and they do appear to be growing in rider share as we very slowly allow more of them to ride, but i can’t help but wonder what would happen if we didn’t work so hard to ignore them. maybe they’re like teeth — if we ignore them long enough, they’ll go away.

    and i’m curious if having women-led organizations makes the ‘male vs. female’ issue toxic for those female leaders? like, women leaders are not allowed to ‘go there’ or else they’ll be seen as ‘uppity feminist (male-hating) chicks’?

    but whether an advocacy organization is male-led or female-led, i don’t know that i’ve seen evidence of any group in the US or anywhere in the world that has made a concerted effort to talk about the differences between men and women and use that as a justification for allowing women to ride too. so who knows — maybe there is actually no difference between men and women? our experience and research must be wrong! let’s have more ‘cycle chic’ and special ‘woman bike training classes’ instead of building the appropriate infrastructure that allows women to ride! and then we can continue to act perplexed when women don’t ride! sweet!

  • I have seen a tremendous peak in women-ridership within my riding time (almost 10 years now) in SF, yet the ratio is still quite outnumbered by men.
    I am not personally very keen on the term chic, as it almost sounds a bit pretentious to me. I do LOVE fashion, but I don’t expect people to per se, get motivated by looking nice on their bike. I am all for people riding in whatever the heck they feel confident in, to just go for it and do it. Maybe it all starts with an errand, with checkin out sunday streets and/or going for a stroll in their neighborhood. I am happy that this chic thing has pretty much inspired many people, women in particular but I also know many of my peeps who dont give a crap about being all stylish and are happy to get muddy and sweaty.
    The point is get out and ride, and the more women that are vocal about how easy and safe it is, especially in SF being 7×7, the more people will perhaps get inspired to just get out there. Get informed, get going and enjoy the ride.
    High heels or SPDs, the bike lane is for everybody!

    Great post and thanks for the shout out Regina.
    Looking forward to reading your post-baby posts 😉
    xxo.m

  • Agent F-Word

    True that there are a lot fewer women riding than men – but there are a million other places that line could be drawn (for example, there are a lot fewer riders older than 50 as compared to younger) that would be equally instructive.

    There is no magic bullet to get women, all women, on bikes. “Women” is too big and too diverse a demographic group to try to cater to all at once – which is why we end up with things like “how to look cute on a bicycle!” which are annoying to the hard-core, beside the point for the safety-obsessed… and just right for the people who are worried about looking sweaty and stupid, female and male alike. Instead of making blanket generalizations about What Women Want, how about asking some?

    So: what would it take to get you in the saddle? Separated bike lanes? Abolition of internal combustion? Free helmets and lights? An engraved invitation and a parade in your honor? The sun coming up in the morning?

  • Allison

    One comment I’d like to make in this whole female bicyclist/species indicator argument is that I feel like the type of female being targeted to become or sustain being a cyclist targets mostly educated, middle class (and likely White) female cyclists. Aside from suburban moms/working professional women, what about low-income women of color? I believe it will be important to reach out to say, Latina domestics, who wait at shady bus stops at night to get home from work, when riding a bike home could be safer. Which women are we talking about is THE question…

    Let’s dialogue on this!

  • True that there are a lot fewer women riding than men – but there are a million other places that line could be drawn (for example, there are a lot fewer riders older than 50 as compared to younger) that would be equally instructive.

    i disagree. the evidence points out that it is women riding less than men, at every age group. this says something about the difference between women and men — not men and old men, not women and old women, not anything else. this is not some conspiracy to keep women off bikes — it’s just the opposite, in fact.

    i understand there is reluctance on the part of some women to admit that women are more careful/risk averse than men, but we shouldn’t let that stand in the way of creating understanding, and ultimately, better policies, which will allow women to ride in equal numbers to men.

    There is no magic bullet to get women, all women, on bikes.

    just like there is no magic bullet to get all men on bikes, and nobody that i know of is suggesting this is the case.

    “Women” is too big and too diverse a demographic group to try to cater to all at once

    disagree. we can make generalizations, at least, about the sexes, and we should, especially when it helps create a better world. this is one such case.

    Instead of making blanket generalizations about What Women Want, how about asking some?

    that’s what everyone’s been doing for years, and that’s exactly what the linked research did — that’s how we know what we know about the necessity of bicycle infrastructure — quoting the abstract:

    Analysis of data from an online survey using a binary logistic regression approach shows strong interaction of gender with individual factors such as safety perception and household responsibilities and, to a lesser degree, with social and environmental factors to influence bicycle behavior.

    if we can move away from this ‘fear of telling the truth about the differences between men and women’ thing, then maybe we can start to see some real action on bicycle infrastructure improvements. for instance, Title IX says that “any institution receiving federal funding may not discriminate against anyone based on gender” — yet that is exactly what state and federal DOTs have been doing for decades — effectively only allowing men to ride their bikes on most roads. it’s time we start using the law to stop gender-based discrimination on our roads.

  • Great article. It is indeed true that when a city increases the ratio of female to male cyclists, something is being done right. As a bicycling advocate who is the son of a lifelong feminist, I personally just hate the thought of women being turned away from another male-dominated activity. Homogeneity is just boring, to boot!

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