Bicycle commuting, I recently learned, is predominantly a male activity in the U.S. Statistics collected in 2009 show a striking reality: 73.26% (560,925) of bicycle commuters are male and 26.74% (204,778) are female. When riding in my area, I notice cyclists of both genders. I would never have guessed that three-quarters of all commuters were male.
The 2009 bicycle commuter study, from which these figures come, shows that commuting has increased more than 150% from 2004 to 2009. I was unable to find statistics on how many men versus women use bicycles for recreation – although I suspect that the percentages are more evenly matched. I was also unable to find statistics on how many men versus women use bicycles for general transportation. Anecdotally, I’ve heard figures reflecting a 2:1 ratio of males to females.
Do these numbers mean that women are less interested in cycling in general or just as a means of traveling to work? If cycling is ever to become a valid means of transportation, understanding why so few women ride and what can be done to include them is necessary.
A few issues come to mind when thinking about why women are less likely to commute by bike than men. Fear of riding alone in bad neighborhoods or in the dark may be an issue. Traffic concerns, such as the difficulty of riding in heavy traffic with hurried drivers, could be a disincentive. Also, some women’s work clothes are less suitable for cycling in foul weather and showering facilities may not be available at work.
To shed light on why there aren’t more women involved in cycling, the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals conducted a Women’s Cycling Survey (direct link to download the study in PDF format). There were 11,453 participants from the U.S. in the study. 85% had completed either college or graduate school and 90% were white (Caucasian). These numbers are not reflective of the educational or racial/ethnic demographics in the U.S. Nonetheless, they provide some insight into women’s perceptions and concerns about cycling.
The top concerns women raised about cycling were related to cars and pedestrians, e.g. distracted drivers, the speed of cars, getting doored or pedestrians stepping out in front of them. When asked what would encourage them to start or increase their cycling, the majority mentioned the addition of bike lanes. The second highest ranking response was for the creation of separate bike paths. Another top concern was the need for greater connectivity and direct routes.
Interesting approaches have been tried to include more females in cycling.
In some countries, bicycles are a source of freedom. They allow poor people or those in rural areas to travel. The mobility bicycles offer provides more opportunities for education and employment. This is particularly true for women and girls who may face problems related to traveling alone.
Tying cycling to other goals may act as an incentive for involving girls in cycling. Doing so might also increase the number of females using bicycles throughout their lives. In India’s Bihar state, for example, where girls drop out of school more often than boys, they give a bicycle to everyone with good attendance who reaches eighth grade. As part of a larger plan, this program has lowered girls’ drop-out numbers by 1.5 million in five years.
Among the reasons young women give up their education is that it’s unsafe for them to travel long distances alone on public transportation. A bicycle provides increased mobility and free transportation to school. Since the program began in 2006, approximately 871,000 girls – with an 80% attendance record and who reach eighth grade – have earned bicycles from the state. Clearly, bicycles have made a huge difference in these girls’ lives.
In the U.S., efforts have also been made to increase girls’ interest in bicycles and cycling. In Maine, the nonprofit Community Bicycle Center holds a mechanics class exclusively for girls (called “Bike Monkeys”) to get them more involved. One of the things preventing girls from getting involved in cycling is their lack of knowledge about bike repair. This 8-week program is designed to increase their self-reliance skills.
The Community Bicycle Center was unable to find a female bicycle mechanic to give step-by-step instructions on how to tear apart and reassemble bicycles. So, in addition to teaching the girls about bicycles, the program hopes to show them nontraditional jobs they can do. Such instruction can also spark a life-long interest in cycling.
With the exception of personal safety related concerns, many of the concerns preventing women from participating in cycling also affect men. All cyclists would benefit from more bike lanes, greater connectivity and direct routes. If women were better represented in cycling, then it would be easier to gain support for investing in bicycling infrastructure. And, the increased ridership would help to alleviate traffic congestion and reduce the negative environmental impact of cars as well.