Are Women The Key To A Successful Bike Culture?

Bike and Notre Dame
This morning I was reading Copenhagen Cycle Chic’s report on the véloculture in Paris. It’s so wonderful to read about the success of the Vélib program. Since the program was introduced last summer, biking has exploded in the city of Paris.

When I lived in Paris many years ago, transportation options were limited to

  • Métro (efficient but underground so you can’t enjoy the scenery, also crowded and stinky at times)
  • Bus (also efficient but always crowded)
  • Walking (my preferred method of transport but took a long time to get anywhere)

Biking around Paris would have been so great!

Tim and I were there last July and we missed the installation of the Vélib bikes by one week. We saw the stations all over town, but they were all bikeless. We walked and took the Metro – but would have prefered cruising around Paris on bikes. I guess we’ll have to go back and give Vélib a try.

While Copenhagen Cycle Chic’s post was about biking culture in Paris – my key take away was this quote:

The key to any successful bike culture is to get women onto bikes. They are the group that is most likely to ride and yet least likely to actually do it, especially in urban settings.

So true.

In my urban biking travels I meet women every day who tell me:

  • they love my bike
  • they see me riding everywhere
  • they are inspired by me

Yet they don’t ride.

Usually my response is: it’s fun, it’s easy, you should do it, you should ride, join me. Lately I’ve also heard a few say I’ve inspired them to get out and ride to work, the store etc. To which I say – way to go!

A few of our male readers have told us that they ride but their wife/girlfriend/partner doesn’t. Or that their wife/girlfriend/partner didn’t used to ride, but I have inspired them to do so. That makes me smile.

In my tiny corner of North Seattle, I occasionally see other women on bikes going about their daily business, but not very many. The majority of the female riders I encounter are students commuting to the UW. I also see female bike commuters riding to and from work. I don’t see many female bikers getting groceries, picking up library books, taking kids to soccer practice or riding them to music class. (I don’t see many men doing this either for that matter)

What if more women used their bikes for daily transportation:

  • Would the volume of cyclists on the road increase?
  • Would more women on the road validate Seattle or any other city as a bike culture?
  • Do you think women are the key to a successful bike culture?
  • Will Womankind save Mankind?

Any ideas about what it’s going to take to get more women riding bikes?


11 responses to “Are Women The Key To A Successful Bike Culture?

  1. Could helmets be a contributing factor? I know a lot of women who refuse to mess their hair up with a helmet, or get a helmet friendly cut.

    In Europe, women just put a scarf around their head to protect their hair and off they go.

    I also think there are issues with both men and women who feel that bicycling makes them too exposed. They want their car cocoon to isolate them from the mean streets.

    Of course, once you get out on your bike you discover the streets aren’t so mean after all.

  2. peteathome

    Thanks for the comment.
    While I look way better riding without a helmet ; – ) I usually wear one. I can see how that would be a limiting factor to non-cyclists. You’re right – the streets aren’t as mean as they look from a car.

  3. I met a woman this morning riding an electric assist bike with her child on the back. She mentioned that a bunch of her friends thought it was cool and now want to get them also.
    I know this is a long way from real cycling but I reckon it’s a lot further from driving a monster 4×4 which is the vehicle of choice for mothers around here.
    The electric bikes on the streets round here are slow and of pretty poor quality but they are also quiet, don’t belch diesel fumes, use a lot less resources and won’t grind you into paste if they bump into you on the road.

  4. There are various factors involved, I believe. In North America cycling has been regarded as a ‘sport’ and a ‘hobby’ for decades and this branding is well-established. The full weight of sports equipment companies stands behind this perception. This angle excludes the majority of women.

    In Europe and Asia, cycling has managed to retain it’s ‘everday transport’ label, despite the rise of the automobile. It is regarded as an effortless, normal activity as opposed to a strenuous and insular sport for passionate insiders.

    Professor John Pucher – ‘The Bicycle Scholar’ – has a similar angle:

    One striking difference Pucher notes between North America and the European cities he studies are the people on the bikes. In Europe, the split is roughly 50-50 between men and women, with all age groups represented, whereas in North America, the majority are young, sporty men.

    The reason seems to be related to risk aversion. Women – particularly those with children – and the elderly have a much higher aversion to risk than healthy young men.

    The lesson, according to Pucher, is that we need to create cycling facilities separated from motor vehicle traffic so as to attract those who don’t care to be scared on their way to work or to the grocery store. When we’ve created something that women will want to cycle on, then we’ll really have something.
    From an interview with Pucher in Momentum Magazine

    Helmets are an issue, too. Not because of messy hair or vanity but because in tact with cycling’s branding as a sport, daily cycling has become labelled as ‘dangerous’, despite statistics that say otherwise. Helmet advocacy and legislation quite simply scares people, women included, away from cycling.

    Regarding the comment about European women and their scarves… I must say that I’ve only ever seen it a couple of times and it was a fashion choice. And I’m an expert… 🙂

    Regarding e-bikes, there are many makes on the way from Netherlands and Denmark that will take e-bikes to the next level.

  5. You’re probably right about scarves these days. I was thinking back to traveling in Europe as a kid. It was quite a while ago ( I refuse to say or I’ll reveal my age!). Back then, in the USA and Europe women wore more elaborate hairdos and would use a scarf to protect their ‘dos whenever there might be wind.

    Another article I just read speculated that in the US more men in the 20-50 year age group bike than women because women are doing all the schlepping of food, kids, etc. . The men just hop on a bike and bike off to work while many of the women need a bike that they can carry the dry cleaning and kids on. Most American bikes are not set up for this.

    However, I’ve noticed that men commuters prevail in the early 20’s age group, when few of the men or women are married and have kids to cart about. So it has to be something else.

    In the wider age group, though, I know from asking people at work that the “vanity” thing does apply. Women have told me they would have to get to work, then shower, put on makeup, do their hair and dress and they don’t have time for that. The people who do bike to work here are all men and are all slobs like me so don’t worry so much. I’ll bike to work in a suit and not worry about it.

  6. I have no idea what it would take to get more women on bicycles. I think the Pucher article was pretty accurate. We tend to view cycling in the USA as something for recreation, not as a mode of transportation. Friday’s Seattle Times had a good article about a first time female commuter who takes a masssively circular route to work, because she doesn’t feel safe in traffic.
    I think we have made the mistake in the USA, of making people believe that they can’t ride a bicycle unless they are an athlete, clad in spandex.

  7. I was going to reference John Pucher too, but I see it’s been done.

    I’d have to agree that to get women on [commuting] bikes, you have to a) make it safer and b) make it more about practicality than just recreation… but I also think that c) it needs to become FASHIONABLE. And not in that red-light-running-messenger-bag-fixie-hipster sort of way. More of a Copenhagen Cycle Chic sort of way. I’m personally more on the hippie side of the spectrum than stiletto- but you don’t have to be a hippie to ride a bike!

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  9. I live in the UK and am a keen mountain biker, however, I don’t often ride to work or ‘ride about town’. If I head out on the bike then it’s normally an off-road jaunt for the sheer joy of it. I think the conflict for me is that I associate biking with biking clothes. Excluding the helmet, which is an every time must for me, it seems a chore to have to change into cycling kit to pop down the shops or over to a friends.

    I think that also, the weather is a big factor here. If I could just hop on a bike in my work clothes, and pootle away without breaking a sweat, then that would be a great start to the day (and an excuse for a new ride-to-work bike!), but as it is, it takes me 45 minutes to ride to work, then as previously stated, I’d have to shower and change. I’m not much of a morning person and this would mean me getting up an hour earlier. The weather is pretty wet here and so there’s no way I could ride in work clothes. Also, I find that because I’m used to bombing around on my bike, it’s harder to take it easy. So riding to work would be a race, and I get super red when I exert myself. Not a good start to a school day!

    I went travelling in the States a few years back and went everywhere on my bike. I used to love just slipping a pair of cycling shorts on under my skirt and pedalling away. Weather aside, on nice days, why don’t I still do this? Maybe it’s because I don’t trust having to lock my bike up anywhere. I had my beloved ‘travelling bike’ stolen a week after I returned to the UK from outside the pool – and that was with two locks on.

    My commute to work is 11 miles. I’d love to be able to just jump on the bike without worrying about having sorted out the weeks clothes and left it at work on a Monday. But how realistic is this?

    Does there need to be a clear distinction between riding for pleasure or riding as a form of transport? Does that distinction need to be made in the clothes you wear, or just your frame of mind? When riding for pleasure I don’t mind if I get ‘helmet hair’ or muddy or fall off, but if I’m riding to work and these things happen, it’s another chore added to a long day.

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