Bicycles, Gender, and Risk

Disclaimer: In this post, I’m going to be referring to “men” and “women” because the study was done with a binary conception of gender. In a very real sense, this is garbage, but in a different real sense, it’s not only reasonable but a good idea to use that conception.

I came across the recent study put out by UMN’s Gender Policy Report, showing that women have a 3.8x greater risk of encroachment (cars/trucks passing within 36″ of the cyclist) as compared to men, in a comparison of 3000 passing events.

Here’s some thoughts about why this might be, as a woman:

  •  Men don’t usually endanger other men they don’t know. Women don’t usually endanger people. So, if anyone on the road is going to be endangered, it’s likely to be a man driving who sees a woman. Either they’re less careful around women or they’re actively dangerous. Intent doesn’t matter.
  • Men are worse drivers.  This compounds on the point above.
  • Women are less likely to respond aggressively to being threatened in general, so there’s less deterrent for endangerment.
  • Women get less personal space in our culture. Of course this extends to personal space that is critically needed for safety.

Here’s some thoughts about other possible options:

  • Women are less aggressive cyclists. As a woman who rides on the left-hand side of unprotected painted lanes and yells at cars, this doesn’t match my experience.
  • People are less used to seeing women cyclists. What that has to do with anything, I don’t even know.
  • Women are less good at cycling safely. Hahaha, no.
  • Flaws in the study design. Fund a replication study! Please!

In conclusion, riding a bike is not much different from any other facet of existing in public as a woman. It’s more dangerous than it is for men. What should be done? Better, more protected lanes, and less cars on the road would be a good place to start from.

Pine Salica

About Pine Salica

Pine lives in Minneapolis and works in Saint Paul. Pine hasn't owned a car for over a dozen years, and can count on one hand the number of times they've operated one in the last 12 months. Housing is a human right, car storage is not. Member of the Climate Committee.

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20 thoughts on “Bicycles, Gender, and Risk

  1. Anon

    The published academic article requires a login. Does anyone have a direct link? I wonder what causes this outcome. I wonder if it could just be a result of the bicyclist’s size? Maybe people give more room to larger bikers and men tend to be larger? Maybe some drivers are more concerned with a violent retaliation that they feel may be more likely to come from a man? Thanks for finding this interesting study. People are fascinated when they drive. I’d be so interested to know what kinds of cars are more likely to encroach. Time of day would be interesting also.

    Also, being a man in public is far more dangerous than being a woman. The bicycle fatality rate is 5.6 times higher for men. Men are more than twice as likely to die in car crashes; 15x more likely to die at work; 4x more likely to be murdered. Men are more likely to kill themselves and more likely to die of almost every disease. I used to work in a health care facility for the elderly and the skewed gender ratio is very noticeable; far fewer men make it to old age.

    1. Mark

      My non-scientific guess is that it absolutely has to do with the size of the rider. I’d love to see the data broken down like that if it were captured/available. I’m guessing a driver will provide more room to a larger rider due to the underlying assumption that a larger ride will cause more damage to their vehicle if there is a collision.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        My non-scientific guess is that it’s likely more complicated than size, but my other non-scientific observation is that drivers give more deference when I’m on the cargo bike…

      2. Steve

        I agree with you that the size of the rider probably explains all of this, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the motorist’s assessment of potential vehicle damage $.

        According to the report itself, passing distances were measured by handlebar-mounted radar. I’m certain that when motorists gauge safe passing distances they eyeball the rider, not the handlebar. Motorists may perceive that they are at a safe passing distance from a smaller rider and stay on course, but may instinctively alter course when passing a larger rider. They are much more likely assessing large vs small, wide vs slender, rather than XY vs XX. And they are certainly not focused on their distance from the bike’s handlebar.

        Another noteworthy takeaway from the report itself is this quote: “The rate of encroachment among all passing events was relatively low at 1.12%”.

          1. Steve

            “Encroaches” in this context means passing at a distance closer than 36 inches. Whether it’s scary or not depends greatly on how much closer. If one car out of 100 passes me at 34 or 35 inches rather than 36 inches, I won’t even notice the difference. If that one car intentionally buzzes me at 12 inches, I’ll notice.

            Note that it was the author of the report who deemed 1.12% to be “relatively low”. I just wanted to point out that your disagreement is with him, not me.

    2. Pine SalicaPine Salica Post author

      your assertion that “being a man in public is far more dangerous than being a woman” is very wrong.
      what do rates of suicide have to do with encroachments?

      1. Anon

        It is safer to write a bicycle as a woman, according to the author of this study. In her earlier paper “Can Protected Bike Lanes Help Close the Gender Gap in Cycling?” she concluded, “Data Show that, controlling for exposure, women are less likely than men to be injured in traffic while bicycling, and less likely for injuries to be severe.”

        1. Stuart

          Are these differences the result of the cyclists behavior? Or the result of the behavior of others?

          My experience is that women are generally more cautious, so they are likely putting themselves in danger less often. The study here indicates that people in cars endanger women on bicycles more often than men. Maybe men that bicycle get injured more often because they are less defensive on the road. I don’t want to victim blame, but sometimes it is the cyclists fault (or both parties) and the injury data controls for exposure, but not fault or cause.

          This may directly correlate to the results of the study. Men might get more clearance because people in cars (consciously or unconsciously) worry that men will behave erratically more than women.

    3. J

      Your stats are probably technically correct, but they kind of ignore the cause of danger – and that would be the appetite for danger that men have. Men are more likely to die in many of these ways not because we’re being targeted as males but because we choose to take on more risk as we drive, bike, and work.

      I think the number 1 reason behind the encroachment rate has to do with this as well – I think male cyclists are far more comfortable riding right smack dab in the middle of the lane when they don’t feel safe being passed. It’s possible women cyclists might not want to risk angering motorists by doing this. I know I’ve angered a motorist or two this way, and if not for my hulking frame and battle ready limbs, I probably wouldn’t occupy the lane for this reason.

  2. Julia

    I’d like to push back against both parts of one of your assumptions, namely that men are not aggressive towards other men and that women are less violent/aggressive in a way that would impact how they drive around people biking.

    The second first. As someone who primarily walks, I very often see who’s aggressive or inattentive towards me (a very small woman), and it’s pretty close to a 50/50 split of men/women (though the sexual harassment, which is different, is almost entirely from men). When I’ve asked around, it seems that men outside cars are less likely to be harassed by women outside cars, but not everyone is keeping track. I’d offer another option if my experience is part of a trend: women who bike are harassed by all drivers, but men are only harassed by male drivers.

    In the first part of your assumptions, from my understandings and observations, men passing men head on walking often have a more aggressive/territorial posture towards one another and are less likely to step to the side (but this is a specific setting). Certainly, when I walk with a man, the experience of street harassment from men is definitely different than when I’m by myself or with another woman—to me, it often reads as more aggressive/hostile than the street harassment when I’m not with a man.

    I like this invitation to ponder and discuss what’s going on that makes our streets even more hostile to bike for those who aren’t men.

    1. Pine SalicaPine Salica Post author

      your way of saying “women who bike are harassed by all drivers, but men are only harassed by male drivers.” was what i was trying to say with my first point, but more eloquent and succinct! hear hear.

  3. Serafina ScheelSerafina Scheel

    In my experience, drivers give a much wider berth to me when I’m biking with my elementary-aged son than when I’m biking alone. When I’m on my own, I get buzzed with some regularity, especially at intersections, and by men and women drivers alike. The people who yell at me and verbally threaten me are uniformly male. (I’m a middle-aged woman biking sedately in a dress and sandals with no helmet.) My son reports that he, too, faces more aggression from drivers when he is biking alone rather than biking with me. Which upsets me terribly. Some of it may be a matter of perception also. What I might perceive/describe as aggression, my husband is more likely to attribute to driver inattention.

    I’m currently taking a hiatus from biking because of a very rough and rage-filled week of biking. I know I’m not alone among my women friends to do so.

    1. Rosa

      it’s hard to attribute it to inattention when so many feel the need to say something as they buzz by you. And if you call them on the behavior they yell, swear, or flip you off. It makes it seem highly intentional. I hope your hiatus makes you feel better and you get back on the bike!

  4. Frank Phelan

    I’d hazard a guess that statistically, well over 95% of us identify as male or female. So I’m OK with a study that uses those terms.

    Now, some may see those as fightin’ words. And a place where angels fear to tread. While a layman, I have some basic knowledge of statistics. And it is very difficult to get a representative sample size of a small group.

    For example, a number of years ago, I read of a political poll that was done, and unlike most, it was large enough to have an accurate breakout of Jewish folks. Most national and state wide polls just aren’t large enough. It doesn’t mean that the political opinions of Jewish voters, or Jews themselves are unimportant, or less worthy of respect. It’s just a math/science thing.

    Most Americans aren’t bikers. It’s a fairly small group to begin with. In terms of larger public policy goals, the effects on a slim slice of a small slice isn’t worth the effort. It would be like finding out how safe biking is for left handed accountants.

    1. Pine SalicaPine Salica Post author

      my hope for the future is that we can eliminate gender disparities among cyclists. if you don’t agree with that goal then… ask yourself why that is.

      1. Frank Phelan

        Help me out. Where did I say, or imply, that I am unconcerned with disparities in the dangers of cycling?

        There are many things I want to do, and to change about the world. How realistic any of those things are is another story entirely.

        Please parse my words carefully.

        1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

          I am a researcher and have worked in research and program evaluation, including the use of statistics, for 15 years. There is an entire field of research methodology dedicated to equitable research methods. We understand that hundreds of years of research that ignores small groups results is biased research. Often groups are ignored in the name of “well, that’s math,” but really that’s just poor research. Usually it is women, non-binary folks, people of color, religious minorities, basically anyone who is not white, male, and middle class, that get ignored due to “small sample size.” Yet, it often is those groups’ experiences that drive the most positive change and richest research findings.

          For more information on equitable research methods:

 Search “equitable and methodology” for 1,000s of articles on program evaluation

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