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.