Understanding Gender Imbalance in Bicycling

Female Cyclist Using Cell Phone

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.

This entry was posted in Cycling and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Understanding Gender Imbalance in Bicycling

  1. Christine says:

    I believe it’s a matter of perceived safety. I have heard that the number female cyclists in general here in DC has increased significantly since the city created a network of bike lanes. I know I feel much safer when I’m riding in a dedicated lane on a city street.

    But I also don’t think the bike culture here supports femininity in cycling. Are you aware of the “Mary Poppins effect”, in which drivers are supposed to be nicer to women wearing feminine clothes and riding upright bicycles? Maybe some women are reluctant to bicycle commute because they think it means spandex and drop handlebars. Maybe we just need more upright bikes, à la your photo.

    • You raise some interesting points. Studies do show an increase in female cyclists when bike lanes are provided. Perhaps they feel safer with bike lanes, or the lanes might just make it easier to ride in traffic.

      With respect to the “Mary Poppins effect,” I haven’t heard of it, but I can see how drivers could form a different impression of feminine appearing cyclists as compared to their spandex clad counterparts. Upright bikes and acceptance of street clothes for riding certainly would change perceptions about cyclists as a group. As female cyclists become more common on the road, we’ll have a better idea about what effect these things will have.

  2. Suzanne says:

    I’ve biked all my life (commute, mt bike, road bike, tour guide, self-contain tourist) and I’ve heard from many women that they don’t feel safe on a bike- not just the fear of contact with cars but also a general exposure feeling. Many are afraid of being attacked or harassed on a bike. I think of it as freedom but others see it as vulnerability…

    • “I’ve heard from many women that they don’t feel safe on a bike- not just the fear of contact with cars but also a general exposure feeling. Many are afraid of being attacked or harassed on a bike.”

      I’m not surprised to hear about reports of women feeling vulnerable when riding a bike. This feeling is a reflection of our society as a whole.

      The only solution I can think of to combat that feeling is to create a sense of community among cyclists – one where cyclists look out for one another. Women can also plan their routes along busy roads to avoid being alone. Doing so would decrease the odds of someone bothering them. And, if they ran into trouble, it would be easier to get help.

      Ultimately, a concerted effort to address women’s concerns is the only way to encourage greater participation in cycling. Maybe female cyclists could undertake this task themselves.

      • Shanna says:

        I have just started biking to work. I go from one town in Alaska to another. There is a nice bike path connecting the towns. However, when the salmon started to spawn in the fall, I did fear encountering bears. At the same time, it is now very dark. A large can of bear spray and just continuing to ride has helped me over come that fear. In addition, where there is some bad, human areas, I ride along the highway. I have come up on the moose, but no problem there.

  3. Pingback: Could Bike Shops and Bicycle Marketing Be Contributing to the Paucity of Female Cyclists? | IsolateCyclist

  4. Bernice Adams says:

    One problem women have commuting is helmet hair. In our culture there is such a huge emphasis on how women look that it discourages many from athletic endeavors, but in most workplaces there are no facilities to make the transition from sweaty commuter to well-groomed woman.
    As recreational riders they are often introduced to the sport by men–faster stronger riders–so they start out feeling inferior so they figure what is the use?

  5. Jess says:

    I’ve met a lot of women who are just too vain for the bicycle commute to work. The sweat, helmet hair, wind, running make-up and tight skirt don’t work well on a cycle to work I’ll admit, but if you love it, you find away around it. A lot would rather drive to work then go to the gym afterwards and get on a stationary bike. Makes no sense to me but I’ve seen it happen! As a woman and a cyclist it saddens me that women are generally more afraid & hesitant on the roads than men, toughen up ladies!

  6. P Buddery says:

    Compulsory helmet legislation may discourage female riders.

    Firstly, female tend to be more risk-averse than males, and compulsory helmet legislation creates the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it really is.

    Secondly, women may be less able to wear helmets safely as they may be more prone to adverse and potentially extremely dangerous effects caused by exercise-generated heat affecting their brains.

    I am a male affected by serious brain overheating issues, and can only wear a helmet when riding downhill in cool weather.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *