Most American everyday cyclists are men. Why?

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I just read this article about women and everyday cycling that Xtracycle posted on their Facebook page. It’s a subject we love to talk about and one we’ve covered before.

The article (and some of the commenters) point to a lack of cycling infrastructure in most American cities as a reason women feel unsafe on the road.  They also mention that household and child rearing responsibilities make it more difficult for women to go by bike.

What do you think? We’d love a lively discussion in the comments. Are safety concerns keeping women off bikes? Lack of showers at work? Too many kid juggling duties?

Tim and I talk about this a lot in our household. Unfortunately we don’t have any major new insights. All we can think to do about it is to keep encouraging people to ride and to raise our own kids who we hope will grow up thinking going by bike is normal.

What about you? Any thoughts on the not-enough-chicks-on-bikes issue? We’re all ears.

– Anne and Tim

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34 responses to “Most American everyday cyclists are men. Why?

  1. I think it’s pretty hard to say exactly why this is, as each person is different and will have different reasons for doing or not doing something, but I have a feeling part of the problem is that it has been ingrained in our culture that cycling is sport, that it requires the right clothes, the right gear, a helmet, gloves, funky shoes, etc.

    I think a much higher percentage of guys are into sport in general, and this gives them a reason to get all kitted out and feel like they’re accomplishing something, to compete in a strange sort of way, or feel like they are proficient at something.

    I think this also explains to some extent why so many guys in the U.S. get up in all their gear, clipless pedals and all just to go the 3 miles to work through the city every day.

    Anyway, the main point was that there are a much smaller percentage of women (it seems) who are into the whole sport aspect of things, and in most places in the U.S. still, there’s not much to counter the idea that cycling is sport, even if you’re doing it to go to work or the grocery store or whatever (and in a lot of places, it really is – it’s like dodgeball, only you’re dodging cars instead of rubber balls).

    I think probably there are just more men who are interested in accomplishing the physical prowess of excelling at the sport of cycling and the thrill of riding in traffic.

    I’m sure that’s only one in a million factors in this whole thing, but I have a feeling it contributes to the numbers.

  2. IMO, “cycling” is a sport. Dave is right, that’s the prevailing attitude. I use an X to haul my two kids around (7yrs and 4.5yrs), and I get the weirdest looks from people. Including other cyclists…99% of the people I see on bikes here are guys. They’re wearing crazy lycra bike pants, and jerseys, and riding road bikes at breakneck speed. Or they’re all geared up for mountain biking, covered in dirt, and riding $$$ mtn. bikes.

    Either way, they gawk and look at me like I’m crazy for putting my kids on the X and leisurely pedaling to the grocery store. “But you’re not RIDING! You’re not going FAST and racking up MILES” or, “You’re not RIDING! You’re not climbing up the hill or flying down the trail!”

    Whatever! We’re having fun, and I’m getting exercise as well as saving a bit of the environment.

    Another reason I know lots of my friends don’t bike: how do you bike if you have more than one kid? Even with a trailer, two kids over preschool age are pretty impossible to haul along. Especially where we live (HILLS HILLS HILL)…My kids’ combined weight is about 100lbs…..without my electric X, there is NO WAY I would be out riding around.

    There’s not a lot of cargo bikes in the US…in two years I’ve only ever seen one other cargo bike in my area (a Kona Ute, ridden by a guy LOL). I think if there were more reasonably priced cargo bikes, it would be more common to see moms hauling their kids to school or the grocery store. It’s just hard to justify $1000+ for a cargo bike for many people when they already own a car….and face it…the car is WAY EASIER if you have more than one kid.

    Oh, and just for reference, we live where there are plenty of well-maintained bike lanes and MUPs, and I can bike to the local grocery in less than 10 minutes. I think the biggest obstacle to casual biking here is the huge hills. I know that I personally would ride more often if I didn’t have to tackle these hills with cargo LOL

  3. I have two contributing thoughts:

    1) Men are given more freedom to express themselves in their lives by our culture.

    2) It’s very physical, and women are taught that day-to-day expressions of physicality (such as arriving somewhere a bit sweaty) are inappropriate.

    It’s a shame, because with the body image issues women have to suffer through more than men, the additional exercise would be even more welcome, I suspect.

  4. So, here’s another issue I think might be going on. Subjective safety. In my experience, women tend to be more conscious of safety – they have an inclination to take care of people, to nurture, etc – and therefore someone going into an unsafe situation makes a bigger impression on the average woman than it would on the average man.

    In our society, cycling is over and over and over again made to look dangerous. Many of the ways it’s done are subtle, but from everywhere in our society the message resounds – “cycling is dangerous, watch out.” The message that you should never ride without a helmet, the message that you should wear all kinds of reflective gear and have headlights that could blind the sun, cycling safety is promoted by violent videos depicting mangled people – this all sends the idea both that cycling is dangerous, and that it’s your responsibility to protect yourself (we’re not going to actually enforce laws on motorists, just force you to wear a helmet).

    Anyway, I know for certain that all of this has an effect on a lot of people, not just women (50% of people here in Portland say they would cycle more than they do, except that they don’t feel safe) – but I suspect that it has a greater effect on women than on men.

    • Dave,

      I’d agree that safety is a concern for a lot of women (and men). (A few women have told me that their husband wouldn’t let them ride in traffic with their kid on the back of the bike).

      Many women who stop me to ask about my bikes and riding around town with kids want to know if I feel safe and if I worry about riding with my kids in traffic.

      I’ve been a “cyclist” in various forms since I was a kid and am used to riding in traffic. Even though I’m comfortable riding in traffic, I do understand how some people would have a hard time making the leap to “urban” cycling on roads that are dominated by cars.

    • Yup- when my first kid was 1 I wanted to get a bike seat. My husband pretty much talked me out of it. Telling me I would fall down, it would be wobbly etc. My friend and bike shop owner also talked me out of it. Said I should use a trailer only. He gave me one but I found it unwieldy and too big and got shamed scared of biking and thought I had to use a bike path and didn’t know how to get bike and trailer and kid to a bike path in my small car.

      I’ve since shown them :-) sadly it was 4 years later.

  5. hills deter me sometimes. I just don’t have the physical condition to do some of them that might be easier for a man. I’m just talking about commuter type riding, not saying that women can’t be athletic. I just know that I ride more often than my husband and he’s still more able to handle hills than I am.

    Safety, showing up sweaty, fixing hair and make-up are also issues, though these are less important to me than just being daunted by a tough ride.

  6. I’m a female, married to a guy who bikes to work all year…in Wisconsin. Why don’t I bike more often? The main reason is our son, who is 1. Yes, I am concerned about safety….but I think a bike is safer than cars most days. I love the idea of a cargo bike, but have never heard about it until now. If more “moms” were aware of the option, you might see more women out on bikes. If someone wants to market cargo bikes to women, they might tap into a huge market; it is healthy, environmentally friendly, and keeps kids out of cars. I’m going to find out more about cargo bikes right now.

    • Melinda,

      I hope you had a chance to check out some cargo bikes.
      Xtracycle does market to women…if you look at their site, you’ll see that they highlight moms and kids riding around town. The Madsen is also marketed to women…just look at the colors of their bikes! Have fun with your cargo bike enlightenment!

  7. In my case, as a stay at home mom of two little ones, I’d say my biggest obstacle is lack of support. Even though I’d love to bike more, there are financial and health issues in the way, and more importantly it seems my entire extended family thinks it’s unsafe. It’s not in my nature to challenge that (yet, anyway), so it’s not something I do. I WANT to. But I haven’t figured out how to get there yet. Maybe if my husband was a cyclist, or if I lived right on the BG, or if I even had more time to myself where it would just be me biking and not bringing the kids… but right now none of those things are happening. I can only assume I’m not the only one out there in this situation.

    • Carrie,

      Support is a big one! Having some cheerleaders is key to getting started. I hope you’ll keep thinking about it and someday make the leap. There’s plenty of time…as your kids get older, it only gets easier.

    • Carrie, I hear you. I have a good deal of lack of support. I live in a area where mom’s ride SUV’s. Not bikes. Ppl now tell me my bike is cool etc and are fairly encouraging but at the same time I know they think I’m insane. It’s lonely and sometimes hard. But you can do it. Like Anne said, you have time. It took me 4 years before I really started. My kids are 6 and 3 and we are now getting on a roll. :-)

  8. I recently got my wife into the idea of bikes. and if it werent for the money crunch right now i would have picked up a electra for here. She hates when i ride in traffic or anywhere there is cars. My thought is fear is keeping them off bikes. In general, the mother of the house tends to be the voice of reason and jumping on 2 wheels and throwing yourself out into traffic is not safe.

    I am father of 4. i ride a Kona Ute and have in the past put 2 of the kids on the back for grocery rides.

    PS. in our house, helmets are not an option. gravity is a law, and in many places helmets are too. I think theres a connection. :)

    • haroscarfel,

      Yes, traffic is a concern.

      As my kids (six and eight) have made the transition from the back of the Xtracycle to their own bikes, I’ve discovered so many new (non-car-clogged) routes. I rarely ride busy streets with them. If your usual route is a busy road, there’s a good chance the street one block over is relatively traffic free.

      I hope your wife decides to give it a try.

  9. hey! Let’s Go Ride a Bike just posted today about the gender stuff and biking! I wrote a post of my own inspired by it (http://suburbanbikemama.blogspot.com/2009/09/why-i-didnt-ride-today.html)

  10. I don’t know why the link didn’t work. But I posted it today. right now- it’s the two posts in…
    :)

  11. Here in Minneapolis it appears to me that there is a larger percentage of women cyclists than are reported elsewhere. It’s not 50%, but it looks like more than 25%.
    Part of my perception may be because I see cyclists downtown during the day. Most commuting. I also ride 80% of my commute on a roads to trails dedicated bike path where I see both commuters and recreational riders.

  12. Lots of great comments here. I’m a mom and I bike, and I echo the comments about safety and equipment. After I had kids I felt MUCH more tentative about biking in city traffic, especially with my kids, so I bike less – it’s that hardwired material instinct for self-preservation. I will chose to bike on days when I don’t have to haul my kids (3 and 7) to school and daycare, as much for logistical reasons as for safety, which is a shame, because biking with them is actually quite fun.

    A wider range of more affordable family-friendly equipment options would help. As the kids grow and their skills and weight change, we find ourselves adding to our collection, which so far includes a trail-a-bike, bike seats, a double trailer, and a tandem outfitted for a kid and an adult. I definitely turn lots of heads when I ride the tandem with my daughter pedaling behind me and my son behind her in the toddler seat! Sometimes I put my little one in the trailer and and ride with my older kids on her own bike, I don’t want her riding on the street, and my rig is to big for the sidewalk, so we’re split between a row of parked cars. Not fun riding. I fantasize about a Bakefeit – having them in front of me so I can see and talk to them while riding instead of having them behind me out of earshot. Of course, then there’s all that weight – the 2 kids together are about 80 lbs., and I live in a hilly city.

    I think marketing directly to women and moms is a brilliant idea – cargo bikes, bikes you can use without sacrificing your regular clothes, work appropriate clothes that you can bike in, etc. I think those seemingly little logistical things are more of a barrier for women. If we can get more women properly geared up and on the streets on their bikes, then maybe it’ll catch on with even more of us.

  13. Cycling is still seen as(is?) unsafe in North America. You have to fight for your physical saftey(alone & without a steel carapace) in a testosterone/cortisol charged battle with traffic. This sort of thing seems normal to many men because there is an physiological/psychological precedent for them in that area but, it just does not interest your typical female at all.

    Also, the helmet issue, as a woman you’re going to get horrible helmet head. If helmets become law there will be near-zero female commuters, unless work has shower facilities.. but I don’t see that happening in the near future.

  14. There’s nothing like cyclng. That being said, my days of juggling work/kids/soccer practice are long behind me. (my son is 31. I still work full-time)) Yet, I feel safer /more in control cycling then I feel when I drive. I’ve gottten to the point where I almost freak out when I drive, I find it so stressful. I didn’t start cycling until I was 36 and got very serious when I was 48, (completed my first STP) I am totally risk averse. All of my routes are based on my safety. I always pretend that I ‘m invisible, i.e. no cars can see me, and if I can’t make “eye contact” I’ll stop. I love to climb hills, just not at a “HPC” uber-brisk pace. I think that’s the total turn off for my women, you see “Bicycling” and it’s “GO FASTER NOW!!” or “Momentum (which I love) and it’s all ‘cycle girlzz. There’s no middle ground. You either a CAT3 racer or a Punk Rock Riot GIRL. How about just going for a ride? Riding to the grocery store?’ I’m a Cascade Bicyle Club ride Leader and I still haven’t figured out the majic words to get more women to ride with me.Ithink Dave is spot on. “cycling” is a sport in the USA, not a mode of transportation.

    • Marge,

      Good points.

      Pretending to be invisible is a good tip. Assuming no one can see you will keep you safe!

      I agree that there’s no middle ground for women. And for some reason bike fashion is a hot topic right now. Maybe adding a fashion bent to the discussion will get some women on to bikes and out of their cars, but that doesn’t speak to everyone. Not all women give a damn about fashion no matter what type (badass fixie chick, cycle chic or bike racer for that matter)

      I think the message should really be about freedom. There is nothing like the free and easy feeling of riding a bike. No parking hassles, no siting in traffic jams, riding down hills really fast with a big smile on your face. All good things. I still get euphoric riding around town on my bike.

      How do you get that message across to people?

  15. Good points all. I think there is actually data behind the “helmet hair” issue though can’t call to mind where I read it. Maybe in Pedaling Revolution? Of course we need helmets because of the way our infrastructure is built, mixing cars and bikes. Helmets are not the root cause of women not biking, just another symptom of bad infrastructure.

    One issue nobody mentioned is the culture in bike shops, which tends to be male and exclusionary. Some bike shops are very friendly and welcoming, but for every one of those, there is one that make you feel like a dope for not knowing enough about bikes.

  16. All of the above, plus an increased unpredictability or need for flexibility in daily outings, given typical work/family gender gap in the modern US. Guys who commute to work have a more set schedule and route. Women who may commute but also may have child drop-off, shopping, or other errand responsibilities may feel that the car makes all the unpredictable side-trips and kid-wrangling a safer bet. That side stuff feels like a challenging family adventure to me, but quite daunting for my wife.

    • Good points, Julian.

      Raising kids under the age of 5 is challenging enough by itself. Adding cycling to the mix when you’re walking around in a fog most of the time is daunting to say the least! There’s plenty of time!

  17. @Anne: I certainly can understand how people wouldn’t want to ride in traffic on busy streets – I’m generally pretty comfortable riding, but I choose small, quiet streets as much as possible. But I also don’t think that much help is given by the general ideology that’s presented in our culture. It seems to me sometimes that it’s almost presented as so dangerous nobody would want to do it, so that nothing has to be done to make it safer (because nobody wants to do it).

    While I agree there is some risk involved, there’s much more risk involved in driving a car or even in walking in an urban setting, statistically. However, driving is made to seem as easy, convenient and safe as anything else in life, and nobody thinks twice about driving with kids in the car (even though there are a lot of child deaths in automobile crashes). The story we get fed makes a big impact on our perception of things, and probably prevents a lot of people from ever even trying to get on a bike.

  18. Like Vanessa above, I liked being part of a similar conversation this week at Let’s Go Ride a Bike.
    One suggestion on the other discussion about women & bikes was that women still tend to do the majority of the kid/errand runs in homes with children so that was one of the things holding women back in terms of cycling. This is far from the case in my home for a couple of reasons: 1. Both my husband & I took turns being the at-home parent & are pretty well-matched in terms of kidcare & home errands 2. We have three kids (7/7/4) who go to two different schools so we divide and conquer. He rides the Xtra with one guy on the back in one direction & I ride our bakfiets with the twins.

    We live in New Haven, CT which hasn’t yet become a completely bike-friendly city. I do ride in traffic but am a total & complete rules-follower. I never cycle through a red light no matter how quiet a street it seems and how long the light seems. I do, however, sometimes get some pretty interesting comments from folks who clearly believe I am putting my kids in jeopardy. I work in a school so likely can dress a bit more casually than in some other professions and I tend not to be too fussy about my looks so I don’t care about the whole helmet hair issue that I’ve heard other women say prevents them from bike commuting.

    I know the web has been a huge source of inspiration for me. Having twins first, we had a tough time figuring out the cycling with two kids at once thing (I didn’t like how low a trailer sat behind us, especially here in the city) until we discovered cargo bikes. I could not love our bakfiets more and I am so happy to stop and talk to anyone who asks about it. I also push the Madsen as another option. New Haven just has had two Madsens arrive (yay!) & we are starting to see more Xtracycles. It is happening…

  19. Interesting conversation. although i prefer our talks about those who bike while packing heat

  20. As a woman who would like to cycle but doesn’t I would say my first problem is safety/lack of bike lanes. I believe there was a study done in London that also showed more men road bikes then women mainly because of the lack of bike lanes there. Women in general are probably more concerned about safety because we are always lectured about how we should be. Men are more encouraged to take physical risks. Men are also not as easily criticized for being bad parents if they put their children in what can be seen as a risky situation.

    As the typical bike seat isn’t made for a woman’s body. So most women have this concept of cycling as being very uncomfortable, when if they just spent a few dollars on a new seat that could change.

    I’m really considering lobbying my local state and city councils to consider redesigning our many of our roads to include a bike/pedestrian lane. What is happening is that when gas prices spiked or as people are losing their jobs I see more people on the roads riding bikes or walking/jogging on the road. Yet while there are more people then ever doing this, my city has really dropped the ball on making sure accidents between drivers and pedestrians/cyclists don’t happen. In one area they never repainted crosswalks when they repaved the road. Most of my female co-workers would also like to bike to work, but they really consider it too dangerous. I just find it insane that in our society we have created a system in which people cannot even consider the healthier, better alternative because we have designed our entire culture around an unsustainable, dangerous and expensive mode of transportation.

  21. I have 4 and 6 year olds and would love to use a bicycle for my main transportation. I have run into problems trying to achieve this, many of which have already been addressed. I have two main reasons for not cycling more–I live in an urban environment with lots of hills and no bike lanes. I am not an experienced cyclist and simply do not feel safe riding in traffic with two little ones behind me. Everyone except my husband thinks I’m crazy to even consider it. I searched for over a year for the right bike for me and ended up with a Madsen. I liked the bucket concept–felt it was safer for the little ones–and the price was much more reasonable than a bakfiets or even a xtracycle radish. Unfortunately, the limited gearing and weight (60lb bike+ 100lbs of kids) have limited my ability to use it as much as I’d like. I end up enduring instead of enjoying my time spent on it. If I lived somewhere relatively flat or if the bike had more gears to help with the hills, it would be great. My husband has no problem riding with the two kids behind him on the X. Men are generally more physically capable than women so that is a factor to consider in this discussion. If I only had myself to consider, I would buy a lightweight, multi-geared bike and ride a lot more. Even riding with one infant is pretty simple. It’s when you have two older children that you run into complications. I’m disappointed but am not ready to admit defeat yet. Perhaps I just need a different setup. Until then, I walk as much as possible.

    • Naomi – if your budget allows, talk to the women at http://www.cycle9.com about electric assist … One of them has a family and hills and local car culture just like yours, and loves her eMADSEN. No shame involved in adding electric to a car replacement cargo bike. It makes hills, distance, big cargo, and accelerating in traffic possible.

  22. I’ve been biking to work for about a year and a half now. There are a few female bike commuters at my work but largely they are men and nobody really blinks an eye. I think there is a subtle suspicion of women who do something outside the norm. Why are we rocking the boat? Aren’t you afraid? Don’t you get cold? The assumption that I am just a liberal, elitist (oh, yeah, that one is true . . . ). I’ve always felt very out of the female, cultural mainstream. I tend to speak up more. I don’t mind disagreeing with the accepted opinion. I never cared to cater to macho BS that seemed to predominate in the southern culture in which I grew up, etc. I believe American women (since I am American I can only speak to American culture) are socialized to go along and get along to a greater extent than males. Bike commuting is just too outside the norm for a lot of women. We are often told “oh, you can’t do that” and to be afraid. My father still tells me that I couldn’t possibly do without a car, even if we lived in a large transit oriented city.

    Although many women don’t give a lick about fashion or how they look, we tend to get rewarded for looking pretty and behaving in a traditional, acommodating fashion. Making nice is often more valued than being competent. It saddens me to say that even with the benefit of higher education and numerous professioal accomplishments, I have been complimented on my appearance much more than my brains. Without wanting to sound like a drama queen, I do consider the risks of venturing outside the mainstream because, like it or not, what other people think does matter. Ultimately, I usually do what I want but when it came to bike commuting and showing up to work in a bike helmet and having to repair helmet hair in the bathroom, what other people would think did cross my mind.

    While interesting, I don’t see much point in focusing on why women bike commute less than men since car drivers significantly outnumber bike commuters anyway. Portland is not representative of most communities. Bike commuting is simply not prioritized and the financial, health and community benenfits of bike commuting are discounted.

  23. Great article on the subject today:

    http://newmobilityagenda.blogspot.com/2009/10/women-as-our-metric-for-sustainable.html

    It again points out the contract with Europe: “In the Netherlands, where 27 percent of all trips are made by bike, 55 percent of all riders are women. In Germany 12 percent of all trips are on bikes, 49 percent of which are made by women.”

  24. We are a family of four with two young kids. I usually cycle to work and try to use the bike for all short trips. I have various child seats and a trailer for carting the kids around and they really enjoy traveling by bike. However my wife still prefers to drive.
    Her reasons for choosing to drive are:
    1. It’s too dangerous on our roads (Lack of infrastructure)
    2. It’s very difficult to manage two children, a bicycle and the groceries (Lack of physical strength)
    3. Where we live gets extremely hot and it can be exhausting riding a bike, (compared to air conditioned car)
    4. She isn’t confident to repair her bike if something goes wrong.
    5. She’s not a bike nut like me!

    We’ve discussed these issues at length. She has some willingness to ride and thought she could do it if she had a bike like the Christiana bike on this post. She is not totally against the idea of riding but the options she currently has don’t inspire her to do it too often.

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