This was originally posted on Friday.
Significantly fewer women ride bikes than men. It's a subject I've touched on (very briefly) before, but it bears further exploration.
An article in October's Scientific American reported that men outnumber women cyclists 2-to-1 in America—a fact the writers attribute in large part to cycling infrastructure. They argue that if there were more protected or separated bike lanes running through cities (and not just along waterways and green spaces) more women would ride.
Some local cycling advocates, however, say that infrastructure is just a small slice of the problem and that things like secure bike parking and appropriate equipment play much larger roles in keeping women from using bikes as transportation.
As I guy, I bring a pretty limited perspective as to what's keeping women off bikes. So I posed the question to Every Day, commute specialist with the Bicycle Alliance of Washington. Day, a bike commuter for more than 20 years, teaches workshops on safe commuting, basic repairs, and proper equipment selection. She says that the conventional wisdom that a lack of bike lanes or trails poses a significant barrier is no more true for women than men. In her view, the number one reason more women don't cycle is a lack of safe, secure bike parking.
"Imagine you're a woman on the UW campus going to unlock your bike in a dark area of campus at night," says Day. "Whether it's just perception or not, women feel more vulnerable. Bikes feel more vulnerable."
Day says she's "by no means saying that women are afraid of bicycling." But bicycling for transportation means riding at all hours of the day, in all weather, which often means that the beginning and end of the ride is going to involve locking up your bike on a dark street or in a dark parking lot.
To address the issue of secure bike parking (for both bicyclists and their bikes), Bike Alliance introduced the Bike Station (recently rebranded the Bike Port) in 2003. It's an indoor bike storage facility in Pioneer Square a block north of King Street Station that can be accessed 24/7 by key card.
Instead of standing in the dark and rain, commuters can enter the locked Bike Port, change at their leisure, and use the bathroom in comfort and safety. There are bathrooms, lockers, basic tools and a work stand, and a vending machine stocked with emergency repair supplies. It costs $100 per year ($10 a month, or $2 a day) to use the facility.
The number two impediment for women, Day says, is finding equipment that fits and suits their needs. Until recently, major manufacturers put little to no effort into designing bikes for women. Because the majority of a woman's height is typically in her legs, riding a bike designed for a man often means being stretched beyond comfort in the upper body. Riding a saddle designed for a man (women's saddles are often wider to accommodate wider hips and have cut outs to accommodate "soft tissue") has caused serious discomfort as well for many of the women cyclists I know.
Fortunately, bike fit is significantly less of an issue than it was even five years ago. Some of the biggest companies in the industry—like Trek, Giant, and Specialized—have introduced women-specific versions of their road, mountain, and commuter bikes.
But getting people onto the right bike is still a huge issue. A skinny-tired road bike and a backpack might work fine for commuting to the office (though there are better options out there), but it can't rival a car for running errands around town and dropping the kids off at school (and the dozen other places parents have to chauffeur their children every week). Day says cargo and electric-assist bikes are key to the viability of bikes as transportation. Cargo bikes give you room to pick up a week's worth of groceries and the kids. And electric-assist bikes use a battery-powered motor to help you up hills. Day says that sore joints and muscles are major concerns for many of the older women she talks to at events.
Groups like Cascade Bicycle Club and Bicycle Alliance offer plenty of classes that are open to everyone, but there are few women-specific classes. The Bikery in the Central District occasionally offers a class called Basic Bike Maintenance for Women, Gender Queer, and Trans Folk. Their website says the class is for "people who are looking for an intentional alternative to the traditionally male dominated bike-shop environment."
Nationally, the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals is working on a project trying to figure out how to get more women into cycling as part of their broader effort to "change transportation culture."
A major component of the APBP's early effort is a survey for women and girls that they're conducting through May 15. As such, the questions focus heavily on women's experiences riding on streets, their interactions with cars, and their comfort on bike trails vs. bike lanes. But it also includes questions about other provisions women might want (in the office, around town) to make cycling easier. The APBP says the aim of the survey is to give engineers, city officials, and transportation planners the information needed to design improved, practical cycling infrastructure.
It'd be great to see the number of male and female cyclists equal out. If nothing else, it would basically double the number of cyclists out there, increasing visibility and acceptance. Things like the APBP survey, Bike Alliance's Bike Port, and The Bikery's classes for women are small steps in the right direction, but there's clearly many more changes needed to close the gender gap.
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