Thursday, April 15, 2010

Why Women Bike . . . and Why They Don't

To follow up on yesterday's piece by Janice Turner on "dull cycling" in the UK, the ever-stylish biker April Streeter reports from Portland on a survey of why women in the US cycle, and why they do not. (And if you are a female cyclist and have views on why women cycle, or perhaps do not, in your country, let us hear from you too.)

Woman on bike with bright red saddle bags photo
Sporty cyclists few in Amsterdam but individualized and stylish cycle gear abounds. Photo A. Streeter.

In Amsterdam, they say, cycling is like breathing - everyone does it and nobody really thinks too much about it. Kids learn to cycle before they are of school age - push cycles abound - and ride (without helmets) to school with or without parent supervision. But we're not in Amsterdam, and women especially have myriad reasons why they don't ride a bike.

To get to the heart of the reasons women do and don't cycle, The Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals has created a web-based survey around attitudes toward cycling. By word of social networking, 7,300 women have already responded to the survey, which will run through May 15. Some insights have already emerged, and what is startling is that the top reason (90% of respondents) women do cycle is because of the health benefits.

Grey Lady on Wide Bike Path photo
Wide separated bike paths in Amsterdam make biking a pleasure for women of all ages. Photo A. Streeter.

Health benefits are definitely important - it's just amazing that it is the top respondent reason for cycling. And what's even more amazing is that (at least in these NYC numbers), it doesn't take all that much cycling or walking to have a positive effect.

"If more women and girls bicycled more places more often, they could achieve better health while having a very positive impact on their community and the environment." - Kit Keller, APBP executive director of the APBP.

The second most important reason women purported to cycle is to be in the outdoors (88% of respondents). This is also great reason, and while not knocking it, I found it a bit ironic, because among many non-riding women that I have spoken with, the outdoors (i.e. the weather) is a huge reason women say they don't ride. I'm not a competitive cyclist and instead consider myself a transport cyclist, and I don't like rotten weather or being miserable. But over time I've also realized I'd rather be out in weather on my bike (properly attired) than using any other means of transportation, including walking.

Cycling Girl With Red Umbrella photo
If the outfit, the bike, the gear, and the route are all good, then cycling is too. Photo of a woman cycling in Taiwan by Richard Masoner via flickr.
And that's probably due to the fact that I (along with 73% of respondents) feel that cycling is a real tension and stress reliever. I have far more mental freedom on a bike than driving a car, and it is exactly the right type of freedom, for while my body and the part of my brain controlling my reflexes are active, there's still a bit of the unconscious mindspace left over to generate new ideas and solve old problems.

The last two most popular reasons women cycle, according to the APBP survey were; "It saves me money" (72%), and, "It's very green and I'm doing my bit" (70%). Having taken the survey myself, I realize that these are choices that I likely put an "X" next to when thinking about the question of why I bike. Yet looking at them now, they seem quite abstract, and secondary to the joy of cycling (which in its own way may seem abstract to non-cyclists) and the fact that for me it's the most fun to be had while achieving transport. "Fun transport" was not one of the choices on the survey, however.

Red-Haired Beauty On Yellow Bike photo
It's a job - this young Amsterdamer rides all day, every day, taking tourists on "yellow bike" tours. Photo A. Streeter.

I felt that it is a pity that the survey (a final report will issued in May) also didn't include a category choice for "I can show off my sense of style" as one reason for cycling. To men, this choice might seem absurd - perhaps to competitive and sports cycling women, too. To me, however, what was once a big hassle - choosing what to wear that is bike appropriate - has now become an interesting challenge and also a form of community with other urban women cyclists in other cities. When I see a great and practical outfit on a great and practical bike on a stylish woman, I really like it.

The future of urban biking is important to the quality of life of cities. APBP's survey is an important document to overcoming the hurdles of getting and keeping women cycling, so it will be very interesting next month to see the data and analysis of why women don't ride. Safety, we know, is a big hurdle. Here, for example, are urban issues' blogger Mary Newsom's top necessary conditions for her to cycle to work in Charlotte, N.C.:

"1. First, safe bike lanes wide enough so I didn't feel I'd put my life in danger.
2. Second, a chain guard to keep the grease from getting onto my office clothes.
3. Third, a good place to shower at the office."

What are your pre-conditions?

# # #

About the author:
In this slot at the end of contributed articles, we generally try to place a few sober words that will permit our readers to know a bit about the author. But this time the temptation is too great, so now you have a short bio note in April's own words. "April is a former bilingual cocktail waitress who left the warm beaches of Hawaii to pursue an upstanding career as reporter on the new and exciting digital world for MacWEEK magazine in San Francisco. When she finally couldn't stand the thought of writing about one more wireless local area network router, she recast herself as an environmental and sustainability journalist for Tomorrow magazine in Stockholm, Sweden. A few years later, she escaped the Scandinavian chill to become editor of Sustainable Industries magazine in Portland, Oregon, where she today is a freelance writer forever on the lookout for a good/local/organic/sustainable/fair trade Swedish burrito."

Source: April wrote this piece for Treehugger yesterday and sent this to us at the same time with permission. You can find her original at Thanks for sharing April.

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  1. Thanks for this post and insight. I am a male cycling enthusiast living in Beijing. It is here that I discovered the joys of biking, initially MTB and then road and everything else on two wheels. I don't have a car and try and do everything by bicycle.
    It is pretty ironic that some of the greatest inventions of humankind are at such polar opposites, the internal combustion engine and the human powered bike crank. I really hope my legs stay alive as long as I do so that I can continue to bike everywhere and only leave the minutest of transport footprints that I can. Our everyday living is enough of a burden on Mother Nature we really need to make an effort for ourselves (our bodies and our minds - thanks for the part about the feeling of freedom on a bike, the relaxation, it is utterly true) and for her.
    As for the part about fashion on a bike, well, I dress to bike, not to look good and if, by accident, I do look good, cool, I will not refuse that :-)
    Re preconditions. i think most working people will need a place to shower, this is actually part of the experience in Belgium where bikers can actually claim their bike mileage. The ability to have a set of clothes in the office will be useful, maybe some form of laundry service would be appreciated as well, so you can get your bike clothes clean if you need it as well as your office clothes.
    Bike lanes are a definite yes, as well as priority of bikes and pedestrians at street crossings, alternative routes (with proper signposting please!) for bikers as well as use of disused railway, canal or maintenance roads for longer distance commutes between vilages and towns. Much has been done in that respect but much more needs to be done, similar to public footpaths in the UK, public rights of way by bike need to be established and enforced.
    Keep up the good work!

  2. Robert Moskowitz, CA, USASaturday, 17 April, 2010

    It has been decades since engineers proved that women’s bikes are structurally less stable and therefore less efficient than men’s bikes. You gals have to pedal harder just to go the same distance in the same time as your male companions. But women still favor the “no crossbar” style of bicycle frame. Is that so they don’t have to wear pants, but can mount and dismount their bicycles with modesty while wearing skirts? Now that I’ve been alerted to the “sense of style” that some women are happy to express by bicycling, I’m waiting for a new line of clothing designed expressly for the female cyclist.

    And no doubt, so are they.

    Robert Moskowitz, CA, USA

  3. The ultimate reason to use a bicycle is because it brings you to a place where you need or want to be. Decisive is then whether the bicycle is an attractive, i.e. efficient, safe and convenient mode to make that trip, and to be more precise: more attractive than other modes. Most people won't use the bicycle for the climate, the environment, health or whatever noble reason if it isn't a practical means of transport in the first place. Of course there are individual differences in the perception of efficient, safe and convenient, and it is likely indeed that these differences to some extent correlate with gender. The main question is how we should use our understanding of these differences to create a more attractive cycling environment for both women and man.


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