Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The District's bike lanes need more women

December 5, 2011 - 12:37 AM
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Our bike-lane gender gap. (Photo: flickr/ken_mayer)

D.C. women, the men have you beat — on bicycles, at least.

Statistics have revealed the bicycling gender gap for awhile now. Although many D.C. women are more than happy to take to the handlebars, their numbers fall short of the men who do so. I first talked about this disparity in late September when examining the 2010 statistics from the American Community Survey. The numbers noted that just under 9,300 District residents biked to work on a regular basis, 6,303 men compared to 2,985 women. In other words, about two out of every three bike commuters in D.C. are men, with women representing just over 32%.

Yet 32% is better than the national average of 27.2% of Americans who bike regularly, according to a study the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council cites. D.C. has a high-profile biking population that notably includes both genders. Women comprise around 40% of Capital Bikeshare members. Perhaps the District has reduced its gender gap thanks to all the biking infrastructure established in recent years as well as biking groups such as the female-oriented Black Women Bike ... but the numbers still reveal a stark gap in which people choose to bike. Why do so many more men choose to bike than women?

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association recognizes the bicyclist gender gap and will hold a forum on the topic a week from today: the first-ever Women’s Cycling Forum on Monday, December 12, at the West End Public Library from 6 to 8 p.m.

"We need to understand women's needs from every single perspective," WABA events coordinator Nelle Pierson told me. "We need to hear from women across the region from all cycling identities."

 The bicycling organization promises a round-table discussion with many of the District's bicyclists and planners, all held with a goal of assembling conclusions into concrete recommendations for the city.

Current panelists include Ellen Jones from the Downtown Business Improvement District, transportation planner and Black Women Bike founder Veronica Davis, GoDCGo program director Katie Sihler, and Tracy Hadden Loh of the conservancy organization Rails-to-Trails. Moderating the discussion will be Jesse Cohn, WABA's women’s outreach and advocacy intern and the individual largely responsible for spearheading the forum. When Cohn started at WABA in September, she was tasked with finding a new way to spotlight these issues. But how to make a difference with 12 weeks and limited funds? Cohn reached out to the District's different biking advocates, planners at Alta, bike mechanics, and people at DDOT and elsewhere to talk about the issues of female representation in cycling.

"These women all had great ideas about how to increase female ridership in D.C.," Cohn told me. So why not bring them together in a forum?

Several reasons for the gender gap have been proposed in the past, and WABA thoughtfully rounded up several of them in their invitation to the Women's Bicycling Forum. "Men are three times more likely to ride than women," WABA notes on its website. "Though this gap is smaller in the DC metro area, there are still many more men cycling in the region than women. Why is this? What causes this disparity and what can and should be done to change it?"

Reasons and observations include:

Our traditional economic, cultural, and transportation systems don't allow for women bicyclists: "Bicycling is, in much of the car-centric U.S., either a privilege or a punishment. That's why more women aren't bicycling," writes Elly Blue at Grist.  "It isn't because we're fearful and vain; it's because we're busy and broke and our transportation system isn't set up for us to do anything but drive."

Fear of danger, fear of unprofessional sweat: The discussion surrounding New York City's biking gender gap raised questions about the way men and women respond to the perception of danger as well as the quite natural concern that some women may have about showing up to the office covered in sweat, according to Bust magazine: "While the actual danger levels are equal for both male and female bicyclists in New York, women feel discouraged because they may often feel less inclined to engaged in something that is perceived to be risky, with high-profile bicycle fatalities and reports fueling the perception. Beyond safety concerns, many claim that a leading factor contributing to female cycling reluctance is fashion and appearance."

New York City may have more male bicyclists than female but the number of female cyclists is growing faster. Why? Streetsblog points to biking infrastructure and the importance of physically separating bicyclists from drivers. "Providing more physical separation for cyclists is, basically, DOT’s chief innovation in the realm of bike policy under Janette Sadik-Khan. The major bikeway projects of the past three years — protected on-street lanes like those on Kent Avenue, Allen Street, and Prospect Park West — are all designed to make cycling more accessible to a wider range of people."

Owning the bike: "Women are often seen as the ‘indicator species’ for bicycle transport. If we want a change in transportation norms, getting more women on bikes, in the U.S. in particular, is the way to achieve it," writes Cycling Mobility. "This is a space and opportunity for women to design their own image of themselves. It’s about ownership."

Is the gap really so great? "Women pretty much dominate the bicycle advocacy segment — it is where their interests lie and they are good at it," writes Diane Lees of Ohio at Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. "So, they are helping to change and improve infrastructure and finding ways to contribute to the bicycle industry in their own ways."

Perhaps more rallying together is what's needed: Yes, D.C. has some groups such as Black Women Bike ... should we have more? In Seattle, female bicyclists ride together on the first Monday of the month as part of an event titled "Menstrual Monday."

All these reasons and more may be discussed a week from today in WABA's discussion. Cohn understands the temptation to discuss barriers but is curious about what practical and concrete steps WABA can take to increase women's ridership numbers.

"I'm hoping it's a solution-based discussion," Cohn said.

The women's outreach and advocacy intern is especially curious about the ways WABA can help educate and reach out to the District's residents. Infrastructural changes strike her as an important part of the discussion since "women seem to be more risk-averse" but WABA may have greater immediate influence in driving other efforts. Infrastructure would be a long-term consideration, however. Just as the District's bike lanes need more women, the District may need more bike lanes if it wants to close this gender gap. In the meantime, WABA hopes to gather people's perceptions of biking and the gender disparity on their website. "I'd like anyone out there interested in the topic to fill out our online form," D.C. Bike Ambassador Daniel Hoagland told me.

The forum is currently scheduled to take place in the Small Room of the West End Public Library but the room only holds 55 people and 50 have already signed up. Hoagland and others at WABA are currently in the process of seeing whether they can shift the discussion to another room at the library that holds twice as many people.

You can sign up for the forum here.

Update, 2:40 p.m.: Good news from WABA — Hoagland and his associates have successfully received a larger space at West End in which to hold the Women's Cycling Forum. The event's capacity just jumped from 55 to 155.

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