On Women and Bicycling: "Sharing the Road With Boys"

By Josh Cohen July 12, 2010

This weekend, I got as close as I'll ever get to my colleague Chris Kissel's level of obscure coolness (check out the old PubliCalanders to get a feel for the sort of out-there readings he's into) when I got a copy of the first issue of Taking the Lane, a new Portland-based, self-published, feminist, bike zine by activist and former-Bike Portland journalist Elly Blue.

Issue one, "Sharing the Road with Boys," is a thoughtful essay on gender disparities in the Portland bicycle world. Blue chronicles some of her negative experiences on the road, in meetings, and in bike shops, as well as those of her women friends that ride, race, and work in the bike industry. And, though she doesn't offer any finite solutions (understandably so), she does provide valuable thoughts on ways to begin closing the bicycling gender gap.

"I don't want to say that riding a bike isn't a choice," writes Blue. "But it's also important to notice ways that infrastructure and circumstances can affect your range of choices. Things like zoning, school placement, paternity leave, and the gender gap in wages all play in to who does the driving and who gets to ride."

The prevailing theme of the essay is marginalization. Blue's been marginalized by men shouting (inaccurate) traffic laws at her from their cars, by bike shop employees offering unsolicited advice with "exaggerated patience," by meeting organizers inviting her to the table first-and-foremost because they need a token female, by a spectator at a race she was covering for a blog asking her if she was there "to watch her boyfriend race?" The underlying assumption is that women always need the help of their male-cyclist counterparts, or in the case of the meeting organizers, that a tokenized woman is the same as a balance of perspectives.

As I said when I broached the subject of women and bicycling a few months ago, my perspective on the issue is limited (I'm a guy). But, I can say that whereas Blue presents her and her friends' negative experiences as an all-too-common motif, I have never had a driver offer me traffic-law advice (shouts of "get off the road" don't count) or have a shop employee assume I needed a lesson on the difference between presta and schrader tire valves. It's probably safe to assume, however, that plenty of Seattle women have shared similar experiences to Blue.

My post and Blue's essay approach women and bicycling from very different angles. I focused on the issues keeping women off bikes (safety, infrastructure, equipment). Blue focuses on the problems of women already riding. But, the larger issue is still the problematic gender-gap in bicycling, something that needs to be dealt with if bicycling can successfully grow as a viable transportation mode share.

Blue sees self-empowerment as the key to success. She again turns to her own anecdotal experiences.  Organizing a successful event showcasing women-owned, Portland-based, bicycling businesses left Blue and others inspired about bicycling businesswomen. The event also raised "over a thousand dollars for a new grant fund for women to develop leadership skills in promoting active transportation." When she first fixed her own flat tire and realized she no longer needed to be "grudgingly reliant on the gruff bike shop guys" to do it for her, Blue "felt so high on life."

She writes:
Self empowerment works. Community works. Just going out and riding your bike to the grocery store or the mountain and having a great time works best of all. Like the women in the 19th century who found freedom in wearing bloomers and riding bicycles, I've found bicycling—on the road and as a political movement—to be incredibly liberating. Even when bikes become a focal point for power imbalances and gender dynamics, the bike is still what I make of it: a machine I can ride, fix, and wield for building the revolution.

Obviously, Blue's musing on self-empowerment is not a blueprint for closing bicycling's wide gender-gap (according to the essay, women use bikes for .5 percent of total trips in the US, less than half of the number of trips men take by bikes). But, it still rings true that finding ways to make bicycling a more positive experience for women—be it targeted events, (solicited) education, better infrastructure, or otherwise—is necessary to combat the common marginalization that women bicyclists currently face.

The next issue of Taking the Lane will build off of "Sharing the Road with Boys" and continue exploring solutions to problems related to gender, bicycling, power dynamics, and transportation. It is due out in December.
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