Bicyling Built for Two

Check out this really interesting read on urban planning, bicycling, and, yup, gender in Scientific American. The bottom line:

“If you want to know if an urban environment supports cycling, you can forget about all the detailed ‘bikeability indexes’–just measure the proportion of cyclists who are female,” says Jan Garrard, a senior lecturer at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, and author of several studies on biking and gender differences.

It turns out that if an urban center wants to increase its bicycling, it has to consider recent studies on gender difference in bike lane usage. “Despite our hope that gender roles don’t exist, they still do,” says Jennifer Dill, a transportation and planning researcher at Portland State University.
Women, generally-speaking, are less likely to utilize bike lanes set in high-traffic areas, but in parks, low-traffic roadways, and the like, they are nearly 50% of riders. The enduring gender role differences also play a role here. Women who need to strap on some kids, groceries, or other precious cargo, need urban infrastructure that makes that easier (who wants to be carting a toddler around in the middle of honking, dangerous traffic?). European cities, many of which are more consciously planned around safe, cargo-laden biking, have much higher raters of women riders.
Of course, I also know some NYC-based badass women bicyclists (Christy Thornton!), who are neither risk-averse, nor lugging babes, so I wonder how they would feel about assumptions like these. Your thoughts?
Thanks to perfectlyskewed for the heads up.

Join the Conversation

  • Bethany

    I would be careful about conflating assumptions with generalizations. I think this author is saying that SOME women cycle in traffic, but caring for children keeps others from doing so, and means there is a gender imbalance in cycling. Is it a problem that women are saddled with more of the childcare and household tasks? Probably, but we also want to make cities where whoever is responsible for children and groceries can cycle safely.

  • Robinee

    I have never noticed this in Chicago or Louisville, KY, the two cities I have used my bicycle as a commuter vehicle. My only qualm with biking as a female is the unwanted shout outs of “you’re hot” in areas where bikers are few and far between. As a bicyclist in general I find it very irritating that half the bicyclists on the road have no idea how to obey traffic laws on bikes. I ride on the road as my neighborhood does not have a separate bike lane. I always have to be on the look out for bicyclists who are riding on the sidewalk and do not pay attention to my hand signals. These people are usually not wearing helmets and never use hand signals. They seem to have no need for personal safety and that of other cyclists/motorists/pedestrians.

  • JennyK

    Certainly this is not true of all women, but it is true for me. I loved to bike when I lived in Boulder, Colorado (aka the most bike-friendly city ever), but now in Washington DC I’m too scared of the heavy traffic and aggressive drivers to even try. I would love it if my city catered to more risk-averse cyclists in general – it doesn’t have to be a gendered thing.

  • kat

    Not quite sure if you are praising or objecting to the article?
    I think the researcher says it well: Despite our hopes that gender roles dont’ exist, they still do.
    If women still do a larger share of childcare and grocery shopping, and we want people on bikes more, we have to build an infrastructure that supports taking kids and groceries on bikes. I know that I won’t take my kids on certain bike routes.
    I’d also love to see the child care and grocery shopping burdens evened out between men and women. But that’s not the job of the transportation planners.

  • aleks

    Once again, a tendency or a correlation does not mean that there are no exceptions, or even very few exceptions. Acknowledging that men are more reckless / women are more risk-adverse, if that’s what the data shows, isn’t assuming that there are no cautious men or daredevil women.

  • JaviitaVenuss

    I think that making the whole urban planning strategy based on gender related statistics isn’t the most clever of ideas. I mean, I’m not upset that women are mentioned as part of their considerations, but I think that male bikers have similar circumstances with how female bikers decide to ride, where to ride and what/who to bring along. I think it’s not about gender, I guess that’s my point. Why make it a sex oriented issue. I don’t see how it affects us or them. They just gotta consider everyone who rides, not only women.

  • Mighty Ponygirl

    I read the article and thought “wow, this is going to be a bunch of commenters a) willfully misinterpreting the data, b) willfully complaining about how it doesn’t mean anything because they’re the exceptions to the rule and c) complaining about how cyclists should get off the road because they’re the real criminals”.
    So far, we’re 2 out of 3. You can do it, Feministing commenters!

  • Judith

    This post from Sociological Images seems well-timed to go along with this research:

  • MaggieF

    Do we have any urban planners here who could weigh in, at least on methodology? I’m not, but I worked closely with some of them for two years, in the capacity of editing their documents. What I gather is that demographic data like this is important. A planner isn’t trying to cater to one, but to as many as possible. If the data say that cyclists IN GENERAL want safe, convenient routes, and a reliable way to measure the safety and convenience of existing routes is to look at how many women use them, it doesn’t pigeonhole women to make use of that data. Hardcore women cyclers don’t lose by getting better, safer, and more convenient routes.
    Yes, it does exclude women who cycle despite (or because of!) the danger and/or inconvenience, but it also excludes women who don’t cycle at all. And women who live in the tundra. The article addresses a specific situation with specific solutions catering to a specific group of people, which, for reasons outside an urban planner’s scope and control, happens to be mostly composed of women.

  • WickedAnnabella

    I bike quite a bit, and I get yelled at, whistled at, and occasionally have stuff thrown at me. I know it happens to male cyclists, too, but I’d guess it happens more frequently to women, and it can sometimes make biking pretty unpleasant. Add to that aggressive and oblivious drivers (people on cell phones, I’m talking to you), badly designed and maintained roads, and macho bike culture, and I can imagine why many women (and men!) would just give up on biking altogether.

  • nestra

    An aside for people who are interested in biking but live in an area without bike lanes. Last summer I took a four week class through my local bike store. It covered basic maintenance, emergency repairs, safety rules, and gear theory. We took some group rides, ending with a 20 mile ride that included riding on and crossing a busy 4-lane highway.
    The discussions and practice on how to handle all types of traffic situations was invaluable and took me from riding only on bike paths for exercise to using my bike as my main mode of transportation.

  • nestra

    If the bicyclists are riding solely to lose weight, then they do need to get off the road, absolutely. Honestly, they probably should anyways because they are making a statement about other people’s mode of transportation, and not everyone has the ability/money/time/health/confidence/strength to ride a bike. People should not rub their privilege in other people’s faces.

  • hardlycore

    Um, fewer people have the money and resources to drive. Bikes are a cheap and easy way to get around in a lot of cities, and saying that nobody should exercise because it “rubs privilege in the face” of people who don’t have the time or ability to do so is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard.

  • Mighty Ponygirl

    Brilliant ^.^

  • a.k.a.wandergrrl

    Love this! You’ve inspired me to look for a class like that in my area. I just moved to a new neighborhood with no bike lanes and have been afraid to ride so far.

  • BruceJ

    I suspect that any studes that only look at major roads for biking will vastly underestimate the number of people using bikes.
    For the very reasons that the study authors mention, I stay the hell off the main road (I’m male, and my daily commute is on the bike.)
    This is in Tucson which has (officially) a wonderful reputation for bicycling, but fer crying out loud, many main street bike paths are shared with city buses, and where they’re true bike lanes, we’re 3 feet away from cars doing 45.
    I cut through residential streets because traffic is slower, easier to evade and at most I have to really watch out for idiots backing out of their driveways wtihout looking.
    I see a lot of people riding who will never be counted.

  • Meredith

    Living in Milwaukee I have noticed a few different things that I just thought I would share. Most women, like myself who are bad ass bikers, that ride on the street do so with the safety of a helmet and use proper hand signals, etc. The rest of the time I usually see women riding on sidewalks, etc. and they do not have helmets, or usually follow traffic signals and all that follow.
    Second thought, I do get yelled at through car windows and what not most likely more than the male counterpart does. However, in my own little biking world it does not hinder my riding because of the way I see biking. It not only helps your body work numerous muscles, but you are also helping with the environmental issues of driving a car.
    So with that said, I do believe that their are some generalizations however, if more women would look at biking as a fun activity and see what it could do for them personally I feel like more would do it. There are plenty of things you can do do keep yourself safe you just have to make the right choices to do so.

  • fsu

    But rarely (at least in my experience here) does an OP commit one of those.

  • FrumiousB

    Oh dude, it’s the privilege police again. A lot of bikers do so b/c they can’t afford a car. Poverty as privilege. Who knew.

  • perfectly_skewed

    I feel you! I suggested this article mainly because A. I am a huge science nerd with a love/hate relationship of statistics but also B. I ride my bike in Winnipeg, MB and did so year-round for the last year. I won’t be riding during the winter this year, however, as the route that I now take to school is very, very busy in the morning and I frankly fear for my safety.
    I’m not sure if I get more crap from motorists due to being a woman, but I suspect that they’re quite surprised more often than not to encounter a woman on a bike who will stand up to them when they try to pull shit with me. I have no qualms yelling at motorists who are complete asshats to me for no other reason than I’m on a bike. I ride on the road, wearing a helmet, and make all the proper signals, and am lucky enough to have a partner who spent time as a bike courier in Toronto; he’s given me a lot of insight into what a motorist will and won’t notice you doing when you’re on a bicycle. He also taught me the art of bicycle-based sass, which is a highly-satisfying art form. Not that I pick fights, but I will eloquently argue for thirty seconds at a light that I am riding a bike perfectly legally and safely on the road and I have a right to do so!
    I can say for a fact, however, that if I hadn’t had a friend/partner introduce me to cycling and teach me how to ride defensively and offensively, I’d probably never have gotten into it as I’m ridiculously risk-adverse normally, and I have always seen (and still do see) city cycling as hazardous if you don’t know how to be constantly aware of your surroundings.

  • nestra

    I hope you can find a similar class and that it is useful for you! The main thing I took from the class was not to try to memorize a bunch of rules about what you “should” do in different traffic patterns, because odds are the motorists don’t know what the bike is supposed to be doing and in a bike-meets-car situation it really doesn’t matter who was “right.” Instead, focus on communicating with and being visible to the drivers. Signal, then point if there is any doubt. Make sure you have eye contact so you both know that everyone sees each other.
    The other big thing was not to be afraid to own the lane. Usually it is safest to be as far to the right as possible, but when you are making a left turn, for example, you are more visible if you move to the middle of the lane (after looking and signaling).
    This might be painfully obvious to other bicyclists, but it was eye-opening to me.
    Hope you enjoy biking in your new neighborhood!

  • nestra

    I can’t resist a challenge!

  • ooperbooper

    Pretty sure nestra was just trying to come up with a comment that met all of Mighty Ponygirl’s “requirements”.

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  • shimmoril

    ‘Peg represent!
    I hear you on the shitty cycling experience. When I was younger I used to do a straight shot down Portage from St James to the baseball arena, and it was terrifying. Especially Portage & Main, those bunkers are horrible.

  • PatriarchySlayer

    Maybe the article is only commenting on the habits of those in that city, but I can tell you from my own observations (I am a Canadian living in Beijing) that both men and women equally use the bike lanes here. It is the easiest way to get around in the city and surprisingly I see equal amount of men and women bringing their children along on the back of the bike. Now, whether or not that is safe is a different story.
    But I don’t think that some things are genetically programmed into males and females…and I think this is one of those things.

  • naath

    I’m a cyclist, and I think that basically this is pretty wrong-headed. Whether or not the findings about female cyclists are correct… I think this is the wrong sort of measure for cycling safety. The right measure for cycling safety is the number of cyclist deaths and serious injuries from road accident per mile cycled (or possibly per cyclist; but I think per mile is better); you might want to divide this by type of cycling to see if your city is more safe for some cyclists than for others.
    How to make cycling safe and popular is a hotly debated issue (in the right circles, obviously) and the answers are no where near as obvious as the casual onlooker might assume. For instance one major study of European cities found that the biggest factor in keeping cycling safe (as measured by number of cycling accidents not by saying whether such-and-such a facility exists) is the *number of cyclists*; cycle facilities (such as bike-lanes) were of dubious merit [putting cyclists off-road makes it more dangerous for them when they need to join/cross roads for instance].
    If “number of cyclists” really is the key to safety then rather than spending money on cycle facilities that may (or may not) be helpful it might be better to spend it promoting cycling to potential cyclists. Also I think that key to promoting cycling is making sure that the distances people will need/want to cycle (home/shop/school/work) are reasonable and that public transport (eg trains) can carry bikes for longer distances.
    From a more anecdotal perspective I rarely use cycle facilities except when cross a park is a short-cut for me, I largely cycle on the road with the traffic – I don’t find this especially unsafe, but then I am both confident and moderately fast (typically 10-15mph). Cycle facilities in this town are generally crap (too narrow, randomly starting and stopping and so forth).
    For learning how to ride confidently and safely in the UK I recommend Cyclecraft ( but I don’t know how much of it’s contents applies to the US (you’re on the wrong side of the road for a start).

  • joanneod

    I don’t cycle myself although I have great admiration for those who do. Just out of interest, here in northern Europe you also see plenty of guys with kids on the back or front of their bikes – it’s definitely not mostly gals. And it looks to me like they all essentially use the same cycle paths (where there are any).

  • DreamerSpirit

    Cycling isn’t exactly a “privilege” for everyone. I ride a bike because I can’t afford bus fare, much less to support a car. The 5 mile trek home from the grocery store in the height of summer of depths of winter is no cakewalk. Nor is riding home after a 12-hour workday. It would be a real privilege if I could actually afford to take the bus on those days.
    As for riding on the road goes, it’s how you are legally supposed to ride in the United States. It is also much safer, as more cycling accidents occur on sidewalks rather than on roads. Not to mention many areas either do not have sidewalks or have sidewalks that are in such poor condition that they aren’t safe to ride on…. or conversely in large urban areas (such as where I live) there are so many people on the sidewalks that riding them would be impossible!
    It enrages me when drivers act as if they own the road. On a near-daily basis I find myself getting yelled at and tailgated by drivers who want me off the road… and these are roads with passing lanes! Bikes are by law, supposed to be granted full lane. I obey traffic laws when I am on my bike, and only wish that drivers could do the same for me.
    I strongly feel as if cities need to do more to make the streets safe for cyclists. Bike lanes are a great idea, but I think that they need to be accompanied by some sort of campaign to educate drivers on the rights of cyclists.
    Also, what is this difference between people cycling “to lose weight” verses other cyclists? Why should that make a difference in whether or not cyclists should be granted use of the roads?

  • blickblocks

    My own personal experiences of cycling, presenting both as masculine and as feminine:
    Masculine: drivers pass closer, yell more generic “get off the road!” type stuff
    Feminine: drivers give more space passing, yell more sexist “ride me instead!” type shit
    I have short hair (asymmetrical actually, sorta butch on the left and sorta femme on the right), so I really only experience the latter if I wear a skirt or my pink helmet.
    I’ve been chased and harassed by drunk drivers before, one time for several miles. I was so scared, being a trans woman, that they might become physically violent. Honestly I think that’s something to consider beyond the typical fears of riding alongside cars.

  • Saskia

    Re: the comparison with Europe: I think it’s important to remember that in many European families, there is only one car available, and thus a bicycle is the accepted mode of transport. For example, here in the Netherlands, everyone bikes. Schoolkids don’t take the bus, they bike distances up to an hour (weather permitting). We can only drive at 18 years old, not sixteen, and no one gets their own car till they’ve graduated college and started a job. Until then, a bike is what you use to get around. So women biking is much more common anyway.

  • perfectly_skewed

    I was up and down Pembina from Osborne village to U of M all summer. Angry dudes with huge trucks routinely got hugely angry at me for daring to own my land, especially when turning. The underpasses in this town are generally terrifying as well. I agree with one of the above commenteds, we’d all breathe a little easier if some of these drivers were just educated a little on cycling.