Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C.'s bicycling gender gap begins at the bike shop and at home

December 14, 2011 - 12:33 PM
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Bike for gender equality. (Photo: flickr/ubrayj02)

Bike shops can be intimidating. Racks of bicycles tower all around, many of the bikes glossy and decked out beyond belief, some costing in the thousands of dollars. In the bike shop, bicycles cease to be the pleasant transportation and recreation tool you know; they're broken into their component parts. They become chains and pieces of mechanical engineering in a place of jargon and gears, one that exudes the idea of men involved in serious business. Yet several women do enter to purchase bikes and bike gear. A weird thing happens when many couples come in — often, when a man and a woman come to buy the woman a sturdy, good bike, the man does all the talking with the bike shop employees.

"Often his idea of what she needs is not correct," said Katie Knight, general manager of Revolution Cycles in Georgetown, as she sat with eight women with her in front of a full and large room in a Foggy Bottom public library.

"Is there anything else where things happen this way?" asked civil engineer Fionnuala Quinn, also a director of the recent Women's Cycling Project, softly, her hands resting on the table draped in black Washington Area Bicyclist Association cloth.

"Cars," said Kate Ryan of WTOP News immediately with a knowing smile and nod.

Nine female panelists gathered at the West End library Monday night to lead the talk for WABA's first Women's Cycling Forum, which addressed a stark gender gap that divides male and female cyclists. A crowd of perhaps a hundred attentive people sat to listen to their dialogue, overwhelmingly female in composition but surprisingly diverse in terms of age, with many young cyclists present but also several with gray hair. Many of the female panelists had biked for years and worked with the industry in one way or another, and their conversation offered a healthy mix of both substance and personality. In D.C., as in most places around the U.S., two men ride for every one woman, yet in bike-friendly countries like the Netherlands and Germany, women represent around 50% of cyclists, as event organizer and WABA intern Jesse Cohn noted at the outset. I first wrote of this event last week, when Cohn told me she hoped the talk would be focused on solutions and explained the forum's plans. The two-hour dialogue did consider many solutions, and more importantly, identified the various ways and places that women are discouraged from biking, implicitly or explicitly.

The discussion focused on two places that hold women back from cycling — the bike shop and the traditional household setting.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: John Hendel)

The first big set of obstacles is cultural and starts early.

"You see that discrepancy between male and female cycling begins before age 15," said Tracy Hadden Loh, NTEC director at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. She observed a 20% differential between boys and girls. "What are we doing to teach little girls to ride bikes and that it's safe to ride bikes? Why aren't daughters riding to school?"

As the panel noted, the majority of women present and listening at Monday night's forum didn't have to be convinced of bicycling's virtue. When asked how many owned a bike and how many had bicycled to the library event that Monday night, the majority shot their hands up in affirmation. Outside the library, I noticed well over a dozen bikes locked up along the street. Behind me in the meeting room, I noticed a woman's white bike helmet on the ground. In front of me were two women in the bright orange shirts of the Black Women Bike social riding club, founded by panelist and planner Veronica Davis. What united this crowd was the desire to change and expand the image of the American bicyclist beyond that of the white, older man. The perception is troubling and persistent and has, in various ways, been debunked in the past. See Alex Baca's City Paper August cover story on the political undertones of what biking means in terms of race, class, and politics.

Other major cultural barriers include fashion and hair. Davis says the latter issue is especially important in getting black women to bike. No one wants to look unprofessional or have their hair messed up as they begin their day, and that fear is powerful. Ryan talked about how young girls get hung up on "the body image junk" at younger and younger ages. Hadden Loh brought up a controversial issue related to how hair gets messed up: "There's a limit to the way we can grow as a movement if we continue to fetishize helmets the way we do," she told the panel. She pointed to the fact that helmets are less prominent in Europe and Asia and said we should make cycling safe to the point where they're less necessary, a view I've talked about before. As women age, they also tend to be more responsible for family trips and shuttling children around, and these traditional roles of family often preclude cycling for much more than recreation.

But obstacles of industry and infrastructure pose perhaps even greater and more immediate problems. Take the culture of the bike shop, for instance.

As the mansplaining exchange I first mentioned reveals, the bike shop remains a barrier to welcoming women into cycling. Not all bike shops pose this obstacle, of course, and panelists spoke kindly of many local D.C. locations. But the atmosphere at many now and in the past traditionally treats cycling as a guys' club. One woman described the old model as "dudes talking chain something something." Two women on the panel work at D.C. bike shops and testified to this culture.

"I've been treated like an idiot at every single shop in the city," exclaimed Liz Sherwood, an employee of BicycleSPACE.

The bigger problem, as many noted but didn't dwell on, is infrastructure and how that dictates cyclists' lives. The common wisdom is that women would cycle more if there were more bike lanes and a greater perception of safety. D.C.'s new bike lanes in 2012 should help somewhat. But these panelists suggested more bike lanes near schools, perhaps starting in a small radius around them and increasing over time. Capital Bikeshare has provided encouraging statistics that more accessibility and safety will close the gender gap. Women make up about 40% of users, and according to GoDCGo director Katie Sihler and one of DDOT's bikeshare folks, women make up an impressive 52% of casual Capital Bikeshare users. No gap exists there.

The women debated whether to create more social groups such as Black Women Bike and the ladies' nights, whether an online forum of discussion would help, and how to encourage young girls to bike more. Hadden Loh described her beyond-busy schedule but passionately made clear that she would find time to mentor young female cyclists if such a program existed. Perhaps a snappy video would help change perceptions. What about a bike co-op? Educational classes about how to carry items on your bike, the very real issue of security when riding bikes, the truth about saddle size? They encouraged women to bike together at night to increase their sense of safety and suggested that women show initiative with their friends. What about profiles of individual cyclists to show the full range of people who bike? Several good ideas emerged as they talked, often presented with a mix of humor and insight that served less as an immediate, singular solution and more as an affirmation that these were important topics worth pursuing and talking about. They discussed whether these bike topics should be considered women's issues or simply problems that were relevant to any beginning cyclist. Permeating the entire forum was the sense of possibility, of optimism, and hope, reinforced by an attentive crowd and a past of many that included lifelong cycling. The trends suggest a cycling gender gap, while profound now, won't last forever.

"Our collection of women's clothing is so high because it sells — and then we order more," Knight said of Revolution Cycles. "Our role is not yet defined but it can be whatever we want it to be." 

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