I’ve written on traffic as a gendered space before (here). Women, as it turns out, make up the vast majority of congestion among automobiles on the road. And, as I wrote, there are really two ways of looking at this issue: (1) women are either causing more traffic (a popular view until it was challenged by feminist traffic scholars); or that (2) women are enduring more traffic. The latter of the two is the one that has received empirical support. For a variety of reasons that stem from inequitable divisions of household labor, care work, and more, women are more likely than men to be driving someone else somewhere they need to go, chaining trips together to complete multiple tasks in a single “trip,” and on top of this, they’re also more likely to leave just a bit later than men, hitting peak hours of bad traffic.
But, driving isn’t the only form of traffic, and it’s not the only gendered traffic space. Many people in cities bike, and biking, as it turns out, is gendered too. Most estimates suggest that men are about three times as likely as women to be biking in the U.S. (see also: here). This is significant, because men don’t bike more than women everywhere in the world. But they do in the United States. In some European countries (like Germany, the Netherlands, and Demark), biking is undertaken much more evenly between men and women. The U.S. Department of Transportation found that only about 24% of biking trips were made by women in 2009. So, not only are more men biking, but they’re biking—on average—more often than the women who bike too. There are a few explanations for this that have to do with gender and space.
One contributing factor may be that bike stores are “masculine” spaces (here). Though the conclusions from Genevieve Walker’s analysis of bike stores are a bit offensive (e.g., if we want more women to bike, bike stores need: “really good information,” “good clothing options,” and “a hot guy standing behind the counter”), the notion the bike stores are “masculine” is interesting. It reminds me of Carey Sargent’s analysis of how musical instrument stores are culturally gendered in ways that reproduce our cultural understanding of “rock musician” as masculine. She explicitly draws the comparison to bike shops, among other kinds of stores that cater to specific consumer “lifestyle choices.” Sargent puts it this way:
Music stores draw on particular masculinities associated with rock culture, but they are not unique environments. Bike shops, high-end sporting goods stores, and ski shops also invoke common (gendered) interests and commitments among shoppers and workers. As the lifestyles of workers and customers become endowed with value as products, the interactions of workers and customers involve a complex dance that not only involves buying and selling, but also asserting oneself as a “real” biker, skier, or musician and not merely a retail worker or shopper. (here: 668-699)
This surely contributes in ways that make bike shops more and less inviting to different groups of people. In fact, it’s probably also true that considering bike shops as only gendered misses a useful discussion of the ways in which they are also racialized and classed spaces as well.
A second contributing factor may have to do with safety. A great deal of masculinities scholarship discusses the cultural association of risk-taking behaviors with masculinity. Consider Matthew Desmond’s work with wildland firefighters or James Messerschmidt’s analysis of the gendered risk-taking behaviors that played a critical role in NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. As Desmond writes, “[T]he drama of manhood must be performed ardently, publicly, and without end, and one way this is accomplished is through activity that threatens male bodies” (here: 7). While biking to work through crowded city streets is a bit different from forest fire fighting, the point is significant: are we “doing masculinity” when we’re taking risks? Is risk-taking a masculinizing behavior? Biking—particularly biking in the city—demands a certain level of comfort with risk. Limited evidence suggests that women may perceive biking in the city as more risky than men, suggesting that another way of considering this problem might be through urban planning and figuring out how to create spaces for bikes on which more bikers feel safe.
Addressing both of these issues, and perhaps something more, Walker writes, “There is no silver bullet to close the cycling gender gap—an excellent bike-shop experience that circumvents the circle-jerk nature of road racing is one aspect, while increasing infrastructure is another, and building confidence and community another still” (here).
I’m not sure what we ought to do, but the fact that so few women bike (compared with men) merits more attention. It’s an interesting gendered traffic space, and there are probably many more ways of considering the problem than I’ve discussed here. But it’s a great illustration of the many issues that contribute to the gendering of space.