Gender and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance
Two office workers biking in Osaka. Flickr photo by JanneM.

Two office workers biking in Osaka. Flickr photo by JanneM.

There’s been an absolutely fantastic debate going on online today about the gender gap in urban cycling. This NYT City Room post started off the debate. It notes that in the U.S., men make 3x as many trips by bike than women do and provides two reasons for this. The first is that women are more concerned about safety and suggests that a better bike infrastructure would solve the problem. The second reason the Times provides is that women are more concerned about fashion than men are, though the article does point out that women in Copenhagen don’t seem to have any trouble being stylish and biking.

Streetsblog’s featured post for today is a pretty masterful response from Let’s Go Ride a Bike. They start by trashing a completely offensive post from Treehugger that claims that the #1 reason to have more women bikers is the “The World Will Be Better Looking.” They then point out that any explanation of why women don’t ride has to not be true for men as well. Key quote:

“What annoys me is that none of the articles I’ve read on this topic lately go any deeper into why those things present serious obstacles for women but not men, even though men have the same concerns (no one wants to show up for work disheveled and stinky after all). Why bother, when it’s so obvious that men are just much less self-absorbed and a million times braver?”

Right on.

So what is the reason? I think that risk aversion (whether the risk is real or perceived) among women is, as the City Room post claims, a big factor. That separated bike lanes have such success in increasing female biking rates in New York is just very strong evidence for this. I think that Let’s Go Ride a Bike was spot on when it talked about women running more errands and picking up the kids more from school and the difficulty of doing these things on a bike (which just gives sustainable transportation folks one more reason to be feminists). And though everyone is correct that women can bike as stylishly as men, there’s certainly a widespread perception that both heels and skirts are incompatible with biking, a perception which must keep some women off of bikes.

I’d add a fourth factor though, which is the generally macho culture of urban biking. It is scary and while the cycling community does incredibly great advocacy work to make it less so, there is a significant cultural undercurrent that takes pride in braving the mean streets on a bike. This Pearls Before Swine comic perfectly sums up the very worst of the worst:

Biking culture can combine the masculinity of what is still often seen as a sport with the masculinity of being a mechanic (bike repair discussions and car repair discussions, not that different). I think that this becomes much more true in cities like New York or Boston, where biking is scarier and so becomes more macho still. Here in D.C., the cycling culture feels way more accessible to everyone (thanks WABA!) though I’d love to see local statistics.

Closing the cycling gender gap is really important if we want to increase ridership rates—it’s probably the low-hanging fruit. So one more reason to support separated bike lanes and a reminder for anyone who recognized themselves in the comic strip to shape up.

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