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Environment | Communities

Closing The Gender Gap Among Bicyclists

PORTLAND — On most mornings, Hau Hagedorn bicycles to work with her husband, riding along with their three boys as they pedal to school.

It’s been a family ritual that began eight years ago when Hagedorn bicycled while her children rode along in a cargo trailer. It wasn’t an easy habit to start.

“I’m pretty petite and it’s quite a load when you’re hauling kids,” says Hagedorn, who lives in North Portland and works downtown. “It was hard at first, but I tried to focus on the health aspect.”

The benefits of bicycling – daily exercise, cost savings and reducing one’s carbon footprint – are just as good for women as they are for men.

And yet as a woman, Hagedorn is in the minority among bike commuters. Nationally, women represent a quarter of bike commuters. Even in bike-friendly Portland, male bicycle commuters outnumber females, 2-to-1.

Why the gender gap?

Jennifer Dill, a transportation researcher at Portland State University, says safety concerns represent one of the biggest reasons for the gender gap among cyclists.

“Women are generally more risk-averse,” Dill says. “The studies that I’ve done generally find that women are less comfortable bicycling in environments where they are close to motor vehicle traffic.”

One way to close the cycling gender gap, then, is to buffer cyclists from cars. Portland’s been doing this since the 1990s by expanding bike lanes and establishing cycling routes through low-traffic neighborhoods. It seems to be working. The percentage of women bicyclists grew from 21 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2012.

The trick to increasing the number of women on bikes, Dill says, is to make sure they have commuter routes that present low-stress alternatives to bicycling in motor-vehicle traffic.

“I don’t necessarily think you’ll see it if all they do is paint white stripes on busy streets,” she says.

European countries like Germany and the Netherlands have more extensive networks of separated bike lanes. Women make up half these countries’ bike ridership. Dill is skeptical, however, that the U.S. will reach European levels of biking parity with infrastructural improvements alone.

Women take more trips

On average, women in the U.S. take 110 more trips per year than men, often to drop off and pick up children. The Guardian recently reported that American women have a disproportionate burden of domestic duties compared to European women, and that this limits their access to bike commuting.

Credit: Jennifer Dill. Source: Pucher and Buehler (eds.) City Cycling. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012

“Denmark and other Scandinavian countries have social policies that are very different in terms of supporting women with kids,” Dill says. “There might be a limit [to closing the biking gender gap] until some of those things change in the U.S.”

Darcy Cronin, 36, bike commuted in Portland for eight years, even before the city became a bicycling haven. But after having kids, it took Cronin four years to get back on the bike with her kids.

“It was partly needing to wait until they were each old enough for it to feel safe,” Cronin says. “But it was also schlepping all their gear and then the unknowns of how they would behave en route, and worrying that I wouldn’t get to work on time.”

After getting set up with the right equipment and discovering that her kids love bicycling, Cronin now rides with her three kids about six months of the year. They walk during the winter.

Where are the girls on bikes?

Motherhood may add another layer of complexity to women’s travel patterns. But it’s not where the gender gap in biking begins.

According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, boys are twice as likely as girls to bicycle to and from school (PDF). A study at Oregon middle schools showed that 75 percent of observed student bicycle riders were male in 2014.

In contrast, girls and women are just as likely as their male counterparts to travel to work or school on foot.

Bicycling advocate Jessica Roberts thinks parents are at least partially responsible for the inequality among girls and boys on bikes.

“If you’re looking at first graders, the parents are the ones who decide how their kids get to school at that age,” says Roberts, who manages the education and outreach programs for Alta Planning + Design, a national firm based in Portland that focuses on increasing bicycling and walking.

Roberts thinks parents are more protective of girls and less likely to feel it’s safe for their daughters to bike to school. However, that doesn’t explain why teenage girls, who have more say in how they commute than younger kids, still choose biking less often than boys.

Credit: Olivia Poblacion/OPB Source: U.S. Census, 2009-2013 American Community Survey

Roberts says part of the problem is how bicycling is marketed—the typical image is male, athletic and expensive and doesn’t appeal to wide audiences of women.

“If you flip open Bicycling magazine, it’s all strong white dudes on fast $10,000 bikes. When I look at that I think ‘that’s clearly not for me’,” Roberts says.

Bicycling Magazine may also be an indication that cycling culture is dealing with its gender gap.

The magazine’s latest issue features Leah Benson, owner of Portland’s Gladys Bikes, along with its “strong white dudes.”

Benson says she wanted to create a place that specifically called out: “Women, we want you to be a part of this!”

She opened her women-focused bike shop in Portland because she realized that a lot of women were like her and felt intimidated or unwelcome in typical bike shops—either it was hard to find a bike that fit them correctly or they felt like outsiders in biking culture.

In the U.S., 89 percent of bike shop owners are men.

Even though Gladys Bikes has a focus on women, Benson recognizes that not all women coming to her shop are looking for the same thing.

“Our shop tries to find ways to appropriately reach out to women without pigeonholing them into being this one category,” Benson says, “It’s why it’s so hard to figure out why exactly women don’t ride—because its for a myriad of reasons I’m sure.”

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