Cycling gender gap and local infrastructure decisions

Nice Rider by VeloTraffic, on Flickr

Nice Rider by VeloTraffic, on Flickr

For the past several years, there have been ongoing discussions within the cycling community about why women are statistically underrepresented in cycling rates, and what we should do about it. There continues to be disagreement. The only thing we know for sure, is that women are, in fact, statistically underrepresented. Beyond that, disagreement, speculation, or conflicting research.

What we know:

  • Census Journey to Work data suggests that women account for 23% of cyclists nationwide.
  • American Community Survey suggests that women account for 37% of cyclists in Minneapolis.

What we don’t know:

  • Why?
  • What to do about it?

And let me explicitly state that I don’t know the answer to either of these questions.

A lot of the discussion dates back to a 2009 article in Scientific American titled How to Get More Bicyclists on the Road, subtitled To boost urban bicycling, figure out what women want.

From the article:

Women are considered an “indicator species” for bike-friendly cities for several reasons. First, studies across disciplines as disparate as criminology and child ­rearing have shown that women are more averse to risk than men. In the cycling arena, that risk aversion translates into increased demand for safe bike infrastructure as a prerequisite for riding. Women also do most of the child care and household shopping, which means these bike routes need to be organized around practical urban destinations to make a difference.

Scientific American wasn’t the first source to suggest the idea that women are a sort of “indicator species”, but it may have been the first widely distributed source that reached a more diverse audience than anything published in academic circles. From this article and the mention of “risk aversion” seems to spring the idea that traditional bike lanes just aren’t an attractive enough facility type for women, and that we should consider building safer types of facilities (roughly defined as the more separated bike boulevards or cycletracks) if we want more women to cycle. The article is quick to point out that “good infrastructure alone won’t improve women’s cycling rates”, but that disclaimer hasn’t gotten nearly as much press as the general assertion that perhaps women demand safer types of bike facilities than men.

This assertion makes me a bit uncomfortable, and the “indicator species” idea has been repeated in ways that I find a bit distasteful. For example, this post from People for Bikes lumps women together with children and seniors and can be crudely characterized as “Dutch Cycling: So Safe, even Women Do It!”, which is both absurd and offensive, although I realize the author would surely object to that characterization.

Of course there are many alternate voices as well pushing back against the idea that women have inherently different cycling preferences than men. Perhaps most notably, Elly Blue posted an article at Grist called Bicycling’s gender gap: It’s the economy, stupid:

Why don’t more U.S. women ride bikes?
The two theories you hear bandied about the most are fear and fashion.
There’s plenty of truth in both the fear and fashion theories. But before we commit to blaming women’s transportation practices on our timidity and vanity, I think it’s worth looking at some other potential factors.
Like the economy.


What we do need is the same that that men need — roads that are good places for bikes, and lots of other people out there bicycling and making them even safer.

We need a world in which bicycling isn’t about gender and in which nobody has to write articles like this one.

(Please click through to read the rest of her excellent post.) Also, see other local authors contributing to the discussion here, here, and here.

Part of my concern about the “indicator species” language, or generally the idea that women prefer safer types of facilities than men, is that it seems to perpetuate gender inequalities more than it effectively addresses them. If women want different facilities, is that an inherent gender preference, or is it more likely a symptom of inequalities elsewhere in society? And if it is more likely the result of inequalities elsewhere, how does that inform the way we make infrastructure decisions?

So what does this have to do with Minnesota (this is, after all, a local blog about local topics, right)? Well, I guess only that I’ve heard this “indicator species” language from a couple of local sources recently, including the idea that the recent local emphasis on developing bicycle boulevards may help lessen the cycling gender gap. And in each case, the discussion has made me bristle, and seemed a bit off-key. At least for the near-future, I intend to stick to more gender-neutral language when discussing the pros and cons of infrastructure options, but not everyone will agree with that decision. How about you?

10 thoughts on “Cycling gender gap and local infrastructure decisions

  1. Julie K

    I will grant that if a woman has a child in tow, it will influence route selection, and there will be a bias to protected infrastructure. The same is true for a male with a child in tow. I think this is a 'duh' moment.

    But I do think that it starts coming down to pure census data. Something like 71% of women with children under 18 are workforce participants, and women are still generally responsible for most household and childcare duties. Outlier stories about the mom with 6 kids who does stuff only by bike aside, most women are tired and stuck doing other stuff. Useful things, like working, managing childcare, procuring food, laundry.

    So how do you get more ladies on bicycles? Babysit for an hour and send her out on her bike (or for a run, or for yoga, or whatever thing she likes doing that's not feasible normally — I realize this post was bike specific, but you needn't be). Fathers can take more responsibility for stuff too. Some of the women can be more assertive in asking for help at home. Others may need to open their minds to relinquishing control in the household/child area — I know many women who get upset because her partner doesn't do stuff just like they do, and they should mellow out except insofar as the differences risk health or wholeness.

    Infrastructure is nice, but it doesn't address family structure issues.

    1. Jessica SchonerJessica S

      Reuben – great article! I appreciate your eagerness to look past the shallow "women like X facilities" claims and explore deeper inequalities in society.

      In general, I find the "It's the economy, stupid" viewpoint much more persuasive than blanket statements about how women are risk averse. That said, different economic and family structures can cause different transportation infrastructure needs. This is one of the reasons I was curious about network structure and the gender gap (thanks for linking to my paper!) – if social, cultural, and economic forces place additional demands on women's time, do better connected bicycle facility networks enable them to get all the places they need to go? I think I'd need to dig deeper into land use around the networks to answer conclusively, but for now it's fun to think about. And like Julie commented – whoever carries the bulk of child care responsibilities (typically women in our society these days) is going to have additional constraints on their time and mobility. They may need to transport passengers. If they choose to do that by bicycle, I suspect infrastructure makes a big difference. I think people regard the safety of their passengers (especially children) a little differently from their own safety, not to mention whatever logistics and comfort that may be associated with hauling around a bike trailer.

      Anecdotally, I do have gender-related infrastructure concerns that aren't related to family or household structure, but they're much more about security than safety. An isolated trail in an abandoned railroad trench is pretty much useless to me after dark, unless I'm with a group of people. As great as our Midtown Greenway is, its isolation is a drawback. I don't feel safe there. At night, I will take a lane on a major street before I'll use a parallel route on a quiet, empty street. Bike lanes or cycle tracks along busy streets and spaces win out over quiet trails on this front. However, women are also subjected to much more street harassment than men, so oftentimes if I'm thinking about biking at night, after I've figured out what route I can take that will be well-lit and secure, I start to think about how much harassment I'll experience for the crime of being female in public. This doesn't stop everyone from cycling, but I get discouraged because of it and don't bike much at night these days. So a general cultural shift toward women in public spaces is necessary, and that's not something the cycling community can single-handedly fix.

      Also, if anyone's curious about the gender gap in Nice Ride subscribers and trips, I've written about the 2011 data here:

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    it's worth remembering that lots of men would like to ride on boulevards and off-street trails, too (myself included). Basically, the split is between people who enjoy and are comfortable when riding on the street mixed into traffic, and people who want a higher level of security and separation. This divide goes way back in history, at least to the 60s, to the infamous 'effective/vehicular cycling' debates made famous by John Forester.

    There is a very visible and vocal group of (mostly male) cyclists who have been setting the policy across the country about cycling and what people 'need' for generations. IN many ways, that makes sense because they reflect and represent a significant part of the current population of cyclists. These policies emphasize this group at the expense of others, people who are left out who might want better and more comfortable infrastructure. That group isn't just women, but includes older people, poor people, current sidewalk riders, non-athletic people, people with children, people not in a hurry, nervous people, people who like to listen to music while riding a bicycle, DWI people, etc.

  3. Max MusicantMax Musicant

    I think that there are parallels here to public spaces. I know that William H. Whyte in studying parks and public areas noted that a successful public space will have a 50/50 split between men and women. If there is gender parity, the space is both actually and perceived to be safe. Women are more discerning in their use of space and are more perceptive to positive or negative cues.

    To combine this and Julie's comments I would bet that women would ride bikes more often if the infrastructure enabled a safer ride and if NiceRide facilities came with kid-seats or other family-centric features. I would be interested in knowing what the gender breakdown is along "safe" bike routes like along the chain of lakes – I would be that it is close to parity.

  4. Mike Hicks

    I guess I'm beginning to think about this within the broader context of multiple forms of transportation. Transit typically has the opposite gender gap, where the majority of riders are women rather than men. Of course, in economically disadvantaged households, there's less likely to be a car available and many of them are single parents.

    I also tend to feel that there's a pedestrian gender gap as well, but that just comes from my time as a student where it always seemed like the women got vacuumed up into some invisible tunnel system whenever I wandered more than a few blocks off campus.

  5. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    I would suggest that the density of destinations is at least as important as infrastructure. If you're in charge of child care (man or woman) and child care is 5 or 10 miles away, you ain't biking, especially if you also have to go to work and shopping in the opposite direction, no matter how many protected bike lanes there are. I mapped child care access for Minneapolis/St Paul a year or so back here:

    To get more women (and men) riding, maybe we should focus on giving people many more childcare choices near their homes while also developing safer infrastructure.

  6. Daniel

    Recently I got into a conversation with a woman from my office as I was riding the elevator in my bike commuting clothes. She said she would like to bike commute, and could ride the Cedar Lake Trail all the way in (so it's not an infrastructure issue in this case), but she said, “it's different for women."

    In a professional office, I've worked it out by leaving suits, dress shirts, and shoes at the office and changing when I get there. The drycleaner across the street makes it easy, and I bring some things home in my bike basket to launder.

    But I can understand, hopefully without stereo-typing to widely, that it may be tougher to pull off for women in a professional office. Between hair, make-up, and a more varying wardrobe, some women would have challenges I don't have to deal with.

    Even though our office building has showers and lockers for bike commuters, I can imagine that the shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hair dryers, straighteners, curlers, moisturizers, make up, hair brushes, and the rest — is enough to dissuade many women from moving their morning routine to the office.

    I do know there are many daily women bike commuters that work in my office building, and some seem to commute in business-casual clothes. Leaving a hair brush and extra deodorant at work is probably enough for a short commute.

    But I understand your choice to stick to gender neutral language. In the end, the things that make bike-commuting easier for women – safer infrastructure, showers & lockers at work, secure bike storage – make bike commuting easier for everyone.

    It is an adjustment for anyone to start commuting by bike, and people (of whatever gender) will figure out the logistics when they are motivated to do so.

  7. Michelle F.

    Being a constant (female) bike commuter, and being that most of the women I know do bike (at least some of the time), the reasons for this gap are somewhat hard to imagine. But one of the points I can see that's not really being raised is that women might not think to be bikers not only because of safety, but because bike culture is more geared towards men and/or seems like a 'guy thing' rather than something that is easy and accessible for them. It seems like a lot of men are attracted to the mechanical aspect, as they like tinkering, find they can do work on the bike, etc (and find that an appropriate activity for men). Clearly women are capable of dealing with the mechanics of a bike (though I haven't ever known any personally who were very interested in it), but it seems like they are less likely than men to be interested/feel comfortable with it/feel it's appropriate.

    Even more notably, I've found that being a woman and taking your bike in to get repaired can be even worse than going to a car mechanic in terms of feeling like the service staff find you ignorant and seem to be wondering why you are there. It does tend to be a pretty masculine environment. And that goes beyond maintenance into bike purchases, as well — you don't really see a lot of bike products or marketing that seem dedicated to the segment of women commuters, for instance, who might have concerns about wearing certain clothes or dealing with things like shoes and purses (which can be dealt with!). But you do see products dedicated to male commuters who want to bring briefcases.

    So basically I'm wondering if it isn't even so much safety fears as it a bike culture (service, sales, and otherwise) that is overly geared towards men.

  8. Julie Kosbab

    Density is also a factor. Which becomes a key urban-suburban conundrum, because I suspect that there is not only a gender gap, but that even among women cyclists women within metro cores are more likely and able to ride for function. Throw in an economic gap — it's considerably harder to haul a kid (or multiple kids) as well as anything else without equipment.

    The sometimes-overly-male culture of cycling is not always especially welcoming (or, sometimes, it's too welcoming if you are a young, single urban female, by which I mean "it's way creepy"). But at the same time, I think there are plenty of places where you can tell that the attempts to appeal to more female bicyclists were developed by middle-age white guys because they are ham-handed. See also the proclamation at the National Bike Summit that retailers need to focus on "cute bikes and clothes for the ladies!," or the near-constant attempts to sell "you can bike the kids to daycare and fry the bacon in the pan, girls!"

    There's a reason I take a very "some is better than none" approach to the ladies-on-bikes question, and it's because I give people death glances when they suggest I take my pair to daycare via bike. Just trust me: NOPE. NOT HAPPENING. But teaming up with my spouse, we do bike to soccer, the park, church, Dairy Queen. These are all shorter journeys (church and back is 12 miles). We don't bike to the grocery store, because hauling a child + milk + chicken + eggs? NOPE. I know it's possible, but I do not WANT TO DO IT.

    And getting people to do more trips under 5 miles is valuable, and it increases cyclists on the road and it sends good messages to the kids without having that same degree of preachiness that makes many women want to slap people.

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