Mind the Gender Gap

Yesterday’s New York Times blog item about why New York women are underrepresented among the city’s bike commuters didn’t sit well with the authors of Streetsblog Network member Let’s Go Ride a Bike.
Trisha, one of the blog’s authors and a bike commuter herself in
Nashville, sees the piece as part of a trend (epitomized by a recent
Treehugger post called "6 Reasons the World Needs More Girls on Bikes"). Too often, she says, people looking at female cyclists take a cosmetic approach to a complex subject: 

494801835_9dba1859cf_m.jpgThis is how mothers roll in Japan: on a "mamachari." Photo by anthonygrimley via Flickr.

certainly don’t want to discount concerns about safety and fashion,
which were issues for me when starting out and two things Dottie and I
are trying to help others overcome.

What annoys me is that none of the articles I’ve read on this
topic lately go any deeper into why those things present serious
obstacles for women but not men, even though men have the same concerns
(no one wants to show up for work disheveled and stinky after all). Why
bother, when it’s so obvious that men are just much less self-absorbed
and a million times braver? It couldn’t be that there are higher
expectations for women’s appearances in the workplace, or that the
burden of transporting children or household errands like grocery
shopping more often falls to them—the first reasons that came to my
mind. These are not insurmountable, of course (just ask these cycling superparents, both moms and dads, or the other stylish women bike commuters we
know), but they require some thought, negotiation and planning that
your average male might not have to overcome in his quest to bicycle

But instead of giving weight to these concerns,
or looking into others, these articles stay on the surface. Women are
dismissed as frivolous and their absence is mourned not because of the
missed opportunity to allow them to discover an activity that can
improve their quality of life, but because their presence would improve
the scenery. As a girl who likes to look good on her bike, I can’t
argue with that statement, but I can argue with it being the number one
reason we should get women on bikes — sorry, Treehugger.

Network member Fifty Car Pileup, who has written about the gender gap before, also had a thoughtful response to the Times piece.

makes me sad about this whole debate is that in the United States, we
tend to think of ourselves as being especially enlightened when it
comes to women’s issues. Yet women here are still confronted every day
with the idea that being sweaty, or even physically active outside of a
gym, isn’t feminine. If you’re not worried about it yourself, you’re
constantly being reminded by the media that other, "average" women are.
Transporting children by bike is almost unheard of.

Meanwhile, Dutch parents have the Bakfiets, of course. And in Japan, women ride their kids on cycles called "mamacharis," or mama chariots. Maybe we’ll get there someday.

Other good things from around the network: imagineNATIVEamerica writes about the debate between New Urbanists and the proponents of sprawl; the Hard Drive reports some Oregon drivers don’t see why they should have to put down their cellphones; and The MinusCar Project expects "green business" initiatives to be more than business as usual.

  • Dave Snyder

    Professor Jason Henderson and I have counted bicyclists by gender on five occasions at two locations: on weekday mornings at Market & Gough Streets and at midday on the weekend at Steiner and Waller. We counted 1,488 riders, including 466 women, or 31%. Interestingly, the proportion of women differed significantly at each location. Women represented only 28% of the commuter cyclists and 36% of the weekend recreational cyclists.

  • CBrinkman

    The lower numbers of female cyclists has more to do with women being less inclined to take risks, and not so much with fashion or helmet hair or sweat. Cycling is still perceived as being risky, and women tend to avoid risk and conflict. Riding a bike in SF still involves conflict with cars, and now with other cyclists as there are more of us. I’m a committed bike commuter and there have been times when I’ve been disinclined to ride after unfortunate altercations with jerk drivers.

    I am very tired of young(er) male cyclists stating that physically separated bike lanes are not a good idea because of x, y, and z. What they really should say is that they don’t feel they need separated bike lanes. I can only imagine how many women in my office would ride in to work if there were a safe and dignified way to get here by bike. Bike boulevard, physically seperated lanes, whatever – just not what we have right now.

  • I see a lot of women on bikes these days when I ride through the Mission or on the Panhandle bike lane. (I would guess in numbers close to 40%?) Most of these are young women (under 30.) Hardy souls. I agree with Cbrinkman that the number one reason that other women I know don’t ride is their perception of danger on the city streets. The second is the difficulty of transporting children via bike, the third is hills. (Yes, wearing a bike helmet makes one look goofy, so I expect that is an unsaid but influential reason as well.) I assure these women that bike lanes have made biking in the city much safer, I show them my Xtracycle that I can haul around my daughter with, and I suggest an electric-assist option if they have to deal with big hills. I think when people realize just how cool Bakfietsens are as a way of transporting young children, we’ll see them springing up all over the city.

    It can’t be overstated the enormous different safe bikeways make. Physically separated bike lanes would make it possible for all sorts of demographic groups beyond young men (women! kids! senior citizens!) to make biking a way of life.

    Whenever I chance upon a traffic-free stretch of street (usually just by luck), I’m struck afresh at how delightful San Francisco would be for biking if there were no cars. I do have to say that when I have my daughter on the back of my bike, car drivers are generally nicer to me than they are to the average bicyclist.

  • ZA

    Much as the recognition of disability mobility in America helped set the stage for ADA and all the facilities that followed, I welcome the day more women (and families) take to the road on bicycles and powerfully demand facilities that are too often seen as just another low-priority line item in a budget negotiation today.

  • JD

    Just because one might intuitivly believe that segregated bike lanes are safer than lane sharing dosn’t make it the truth. Bicycles have been on the road since the 1840s

    “In 1971, the California state government contracted with University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) for the design of bikeways. UCLA largely copied Dutch bicycle facilities practice (primarily sidepaths) to create their bikeway designs, but the derived designs were not made public. The California Statewide Bicycle Committee (CSBC) was created. Initially composed of representatives of governmental and motoring organisations. When John Forester, a cyclist representative, became a member he concluded that its real motivation for moving cyclists aside was the convenience of motorists, although the stated reason was the safety of cyclists. Serious safety issues were identified with the proposed designs. [ Forester, John (August 1994). Bicycle Transportation. MIT Press. pp. 24–25. ISBN 0-262-56079-8.]

    For more information see:

  • CBrinkman: you said “The lower numbers of female cyclists has more to do with women being less inclined to take risks, and not so much with fashion or helmet hair or sweat.” and “…women tend to avoid risk and conflict…” I’m just curious if those are just your personal observations or if you’re citing some specific sources?

    This whole discussion is so weird to me. I mean, I guess it’s an important topic. But I’m not totally convinced. I don’t understand why a woman would want to consistently walk or drive or take public transit to a workplace that is a bikable distance from home, nor do I understand why a man would prefer those modes to the bicycle. But I am biased because I love riding.

    What I would like to see: less vehicular traffic, more cleaner-burning vehicles and more use of public and bike transit infrastructure. I don’t really care all that much whether I see more female cyclists (and I am, for the record, female). That’s not to say I don’t want to see safe biking infrastructure and plenty of bike racks, etc. Those are important. But if more men use bikes than women when commuting…I guess I just don’t see that as being a big issue.

    Now, if a woman, or man, is fearful of riding in traffic, I think that’s a shame. One should not be afraid to ride in traffic. One should try to get over that fear, in my opinion. Because I believe it’s valuable to have different perspectives on public spaces. Riding a bike provides an important perspective on how things work, how traffic flows (or doesn’t). It can make one a more cautious driver. It can make one a more defensive cyclist. It can make one a more aware pedestrian. Maybe we should just all swap out our conveyance of choice once in a while and get a new perspective.

    If a woman, or a man, doesn’t want to ride a bike to work because she or he doesn’t want to get sweaty, fine. Who cares. That’s your call. Take the bus or subway, or walk. Or carpool if you must. Or just get over it. For most people in most places, there are at least a few options.

    Two final notes. It really is way easier, in my experience, to ride in high heels than to walk in them. When moving through the city, alone, late at night, I find that I feel much safer on a bike than on foot. (Especially a high-heeled foot.)

  • Sarah, thanks for the shout out! This dialogue is fantastic.

    MC OConnor, I completely agree with you on the two final notes. Those are points that I stress when talking about cycling with non-cycling women. I often wear heels on my bike, but never if I have to walk or take public transit – ouch. And I feel way safer cycling alone at night than taking public transportation or walking – moving fast and staying out of reach of pedestrians, bushes, alleys, etc.

  • Just for completeness’ sake:

    SFMTA’s 2008 SF State of Cycling Report relates intersection counts from summer 2008 which tallied 27% female cyclists, from 24% in 2007 and 25% in 2006. SFMTA’s survey info published in the same report found females made up 23% of “frequent” cyclists (ride a bike 2 or more times/week) but 54% of “infrequent” riders.


    SFBC’s 2008 Report Card on Bicycling heard from 37% female respondents (essentially unchanged from 38% in 2006).


    Also, do see Mary Brown’s 2002 work with the SFBC, a Low-Income Women and Bicycling survey focusing on the reasons why women use bicycles as transportation at far lower rates than men.


    We really haven’t got a current campaign on woman and bicycling, let alone a campaign dealing with low-income women, let me know if you want to take it on as an internship of some sort . . .

  • we are out there, whatever is needed, locally – let us know.
    I recently did a fun post for sunday streets, in reaction to (andy’s reference) of the 27% here:

    we are city girls. we ride. we blog.
    cant wait for these numbers to go way up high sisters, let’s ride, more and more <3 I’m sure there are probably more, but that I know of-check out these bay area girlfriends:


  • CBrinkman

    Thansk for asking that question MC O’Conner – it made me go see if my perceptions match up to reality. My statement that women are less inclined to take risks is based on personal observation and awareness of things such as car insurance rates and biology – but it was interesting to actually look this theory up – why do young men pay higher car insurance rates then young women? They get into crashes more often due to driving behavior. “males fatal crash rates are about 1.8 times that of women” although, as you will see that is changing as more women drive more miles: http://www.iihs.org/externaldata/srdata/docs/sr3610.pdf

    Can we expect humans to behave dramatically differently when on bikes versus in cars – and what is causing the difference in behavior?

    “Young human males are more prone then females to take risks in relation to conflict” Fascinating tidbit from this article: “Females find risky situations more stressful then males do”

    I would guess it is because males have more testosterone coursing through their blood stream then women and evolutionary survival of the species adaptation. Testosterone affects behavior. And, as TaoMom pointed out, women tend to have transportation responsibility for the children of a family – and will choose what is perceived to be safer given the opportunity for choice because as I just learned, risk stresses us out. Yes, some risk is perceived versus real – as someone points out the stady that seperated bike lanes aren’t always safer – but if we feel safer we are less stressed.

    Anyone who has spent time around teenage boys or young men just knows that males take risks more often then females – but it’s interesting to try and understand why. Any biologists around or are we all transport policy and bike geeks?




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