The U.S. Gender Gap in Bicycle Traffic

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.

Screen shot 2013-03-13 at 10.43.57 AMBut, 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.

Screen shot 2013-03-13 at 10.45.46 AMOne 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.

Screen shot 2013-03-13 at 10.47.41 AMA 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.

21 thoughts on “The U.S. Gender Gap in Bicycle Traffic

  1. I’d never thought of cycling as a “masculine” activity before.

    Does anyone know of any other research that has been done to encourage more female cyclists? It would be interesting to see if their recommendations match what you’ve dug up!

  2. The most obvious reason — and one alluded to in the opening paragraph — is that women are most likely driving someone else they need to go and combining multiple errands in a trip. It’s hard to take a child to music lessons or soccer practice on a bicycle — and stop for groceries on the way home.

    • I think P is right. Some of this is a part of issues to do with working women’s “second shift.” But, this is also obviously only speaking to a certain portion of the population: heterosexual, married couples with children. And this might easily account for some of the reason that those women are not biking as often as men. So, some of it is a sort of “time availability” issue. But, they’re not the only women not biking (though they might comprise a larger “potential biker” population).

  3. As a woman who has biked in cities, there is a reason I don’t do it anymore that isn’t brought up in your article: increased sexual harassment. It seems (perhaps) that men feel more comfortable shouting out comments when women are moving faster away from them? Or because the action of biking highlights particular body parts? When I do bike, it is the men on the street that make me feel less safe, not the cars.

    • This is another issue–how public space is subtly policed in ways that provide extra obstacles, pressures, hassles, and struggles. While this sounds more offensive and scary that “girl watching,” it’s a similar issue. Beth Quinn wrote a great piece on the issue (http://gas.sagepub.com/content/16/3/386.short) that illustrates how practices like this are pieces of larger systems of power and inequality. Great point. Thanks for commenting. It’s a significant issue, and one I did not mention in the post.

    • 100% valid point, Molly. I’m a 7 days-a-week cyclist and regardless of what season/what i’m wearing, there’s gonna be hollerin. and sometimes it’s a shrug and whatever, but sometimes people need a U lock to the face.

  4. i actually think risk has little to do with it. the bigger issue is the difference in the way men and women present themselves. women who wear business clothes, heels, and make up to work are far less likely to cram that stuff in a bag, take a sink shower, and get ready at work. HOWEVER, there a huge numbers of women in scrubs riding to work every morning. doesn’t matter if they don’t wear make up and sweat on their way, because they can wipe off with a power shower wipe, swipe on some deodorant, smooth helmet hair and be work presentable. that is not to say that the risk taking gender gap isn’t a factor in cycling, which i would categorize as different from commuting.

    i have also considered that i will continue to commute (and cycle) through pregnancy as long as i remain in a technical job that does not require business attire.

    – dani h, philadelphia, pa, commuter, cyclist, mountain biker

    • Love this comment! Gendered workplace norms for hygiene, dress, and presentation might play a role. And this is certainly also addressing only one group – women who work at jobs that require attire not conducive to a quick change or cleanup. And the issue is probably also that there are actually a great deal of reasons that are working against women’s biking. But, gendered workplace performance demands are certainly something to add to the list. Thanks.

    • hey dani! i totally agree with this. so many folks i know say they WOULD bike but they don’t have any way to change (and, on hot days, to take a shower) before rolling into work.

  5. Why has no one mentioned the personal safety issue? I don’t ride in certain areas at certain times because I feel exposed and unsafe. It has nothing to do with “masculine stores”. Hell, I spent quite a bit of time in bike stores. But my commute to work makes me feel unsafe and exposed, and a bicycle is not as safe as a car. I tend to only commute when I can meet up with someone for certain sections of my ride.

    I also prefer not to ride the bus, because I am harassed every time I do.

    • I would like to note that I can bring my work clothes, shower at work, and eat at the cafe when I get there. 100% of my concern for bike commuting is personal safety. Either I have to ride on the highway in the dark, or I have to take back roads where I am exposed and alone.

    • Thanks Leauxra. I address in the post a bit, as a small body of research seems to indicate that women may either perceive biking as riskier than men, or are more turned off by the riskiness of biking than are men. But, it seems like you’re also discussing safety in terms of public harassment (which is something molly addresses above as well).

  6. Hi Tristan — thanks for writing about women and cycling — as an urban (Boston) woman cyclist, this is a big topic for me…why don’t more American women ride bikes? Because there is no safe space for us. I dread riding amongst/in between cars and negotiating busy intersections, and I’m a pretty experienced city cyclist.

    As I wrote in an open letter to Mayor Menino last fall, “Make it safer for women and children to ride, and the quality of life will improve city-wide”: http://jenniferbruni.com/2012/10/02/reflections-of-an-urban-cyclista-part-2/

    I’m tired of also seeing the media here pit cyclists vs motorists in this “Us vs Them” battle…I bike, take the train/bus, walk AND drive a car…transportation is not an all or nothing scenario for me.

    • Thanks for posting this. It was a new issue for me, though I quickly realized that it’s one that has a lot of people thinking. This is a great resource. I appreciate it.

  7. As a female bicycle commuter I am acutely aware of the gender disparity in cycling. While I do know a few women who ride for transportation as much as I do, we are vastly out numbered by men. I find the whole notion of bike shops being masculine surprising – in my experience they cater very well to those whose tastes are more feminine. The perception that riding in the street is unsafe keeps many women I know from riding more. It is difficult to convince people that cycling can be safe when done properly. As the mother of two young children I enjoy the increased interaction and cooperation that comes from being car-free. It requires more time and forethought, but the benefits far out weigh the drawbacks.

  8. As a female cyclist in the netherlands, let me list the things that are different here. Helmets are not compulsory, we usually have kids wear them until peer pressure wins:/ those biking at speed always wear them, but the commuter generally would not.
    Cycling paths are a big priority, they have red paving and a big white stripe separates path from street. Along busy areas, cycling paths are entirely separate from roads, forming an independent network. This means I can bike to my nearest town, 10km, and be there in half an hour (free guarded parking in the city centre) or get there by car in 20 minutes, pay €3/hr for my parking, and walk 5 minutes to the centre of town which has limited access to vehicles, and is mostly pedestrians only.
    We have everyday bikes on which you sit upright not in racing position, and these bikes are sturdy enough to carry children or groceries as well. Special bikes for women with children and ebikes for commuters and the elderly are big in shops, and there are bicycle shops everywhere, because everyone has a bike. My son bikes to secondary school, 12 km away, daily, and if he were a girl it would be the same. Usually the kids ride in groups, but the school routes receive special attention from road safety so it is separate biking paths most of the way, and they are well lit, so cycling alone is not a problem either. Traffic lights are green for cyclists separately.
    So our whole culture is geared to cycling, and making it safely possible. Even our traffic law states that if a bike and car collide, the car is to blame. This helps keep drivers careful.

  9. Pingback: Do Cupcake Rides and Heels on Wheels help or hurt the cause of women’s cycling? | Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty

  10. One thing not mentioned here is the pervasiveness of Lycra-mad cycling guys.

    I think it’s something to seriously consider when it comes to women not wanting to be 100% in the bicycle culture — many women don’t feel comfortable wearing head-to-toe Lycra, for a variety of reasons.

    One great organisation in New Zealand and Australia is Frocks on Bikes:
    http://frocksonbikes.wordpress.com/

  11. Thanks, Adonia, for linking to the list of women’s bike blogs I’ve been collecting. A quick scan across them will show many confident women doing all kinds of riding for all kinds of reasons, from commuting in traffic to dirty, fast mountain-bike racing–plenty of risk to go around.

    Recognizing that I’m overgeneralizing, I’d say that most women I talk with would disagree with the commenter who says bike shops aren’t that masculine. As someone noted to me recently, they’re about as welcoming to most women as the average fabric store is to most men.

    Women bike and men sew–but not in the same numbers as the reverse, for now. Any space that is highly specialized and designed primarily to cater to people who already engage in the activity sets up barriers to people who are new to that activity.

    The women I’ve heard from would go on to add that the issue isn’t just the shop, it’s what that shop can offer because the big players in the industry don’t do that much to provide bikes in the right frame sizes and configurations.

    Fit issues are a big deal in having a truly comfortable riding experience that makes you want to repeat it on a regular basis. Get into a car and you can adjust the seats, rearview mirrors, steering-wheel angle, and much more to make it work for sizes from 5’0″ to 6’6″–not true for bikes, which need to work on a much more individual basis, more like buying shoes that really fit than a simple container like a car. (Just as with shoes, cheap ones don’t fit well and wear out quickly.)

    And if you’re a woman of substance like my friend Andrea it’s even harder to find either bikes or bike clothing in your size (http://bikestylespokane.com/2012/05/08/fat-girl-on-a-bike/), because apparently biking is not only primarily for men, when it is for women it’s for women who don’t weigh that much, furthering female stereotypes around body image.

    Cycling has been portrayed as primarily an athletic endeavor engaged in by high-T males with low body fat and looks of excruciating pain fixed on their faces as the sweat pours off. This athletic framing erects another set of mental barriers. If cars were sold the same way we would all feel afraid to drive because we weren’t Danica Patrick.

    As bicycles start being portrayed as symbols of accessible health, neighborliness, and friendly social interactions we’ll start to break down some of that framing and it will become more approachable and seen as more doable both for women and for non-athletic people in general. (http://bikestylespokane.com/2013/02/07/bikes-are-being-used-good-work/)

    Read Elly Blue’s test for sexism in bike communications for a great take on this: http://takingthelane.com/2012/09/17/is-this-thing-sexist-introducing-the-bike-test/

    As for fashion barriers I ride in whatever I’m wearing to work, from skirts and heels to pants and boots, and just don’t ride fast enough to sweat. I’m usually the only woman walking into a meeting with high heels and a bike helmet. I didn’t start there–I learned this. We need women who already ride talking to other women who can ride, in the best traditions of the feminist movement.

    Once upon a time it would have been a surprise just to have a woman in a business meeting at all–remember those days? We’re further along in recognizing the gendering of bicycling because we’ve already seen that at work in other arenas, so I’d hope we can get past it much faster this time around.

  12. I think it’s really important to consider the caveat–in America (as Eva also responded to). I’m an American female living in France, and one of the biggest cultural differences that has struck me here is how transportation works. In the U.S., I learned to drive at 15 and have often had jobs that require me to drive for 20-30 minutes, with NO other (remotely reasonable) option. No bus route, no metro system, and absolutely no safety considerations for bicylists or even pedestrians. In France, I lived in a central-city area for three months and found walking to be the fastest way to get nearly anywhere within the city, and a combination of walking/metro basically always worked well. In the suburban area I live in now, I walk less than 10 minutes to a bus stop with frequent stops and a very convenient bus that takes me into the city center in 20-30 minutes. If the car is not structurally (i.e. because of urban/suburban infrastructure) the default mode of transportation, then I think there is going to be less of a gender gap right away just because it is a more normalized thing to do, period.

    However in most areas of the U.S., biking is a choice from the default ‘car’ option, so it’s more complicated… I think the danger factor is really huge; also I think that is further skewed because women are ‘supposed to’ be more self-protective than men. Even if men see it as equally dangerous as women, the import of that danger is (often) different, I think. This ties into the idea that from a really young age girls are supposed to “be safe”–I think there could also be a link made to sexuality here. In high school, most of my female friends took much longer to start driving than my male friends, partly because their parents were extremely concerned about them Being Safe–this was correlated (in this particular group) with waiting to have sex, being extremely well-versed in methods of contraception, etc. The guys, on the other hand, were encouraged to drive early on as a means of being able to Be Gentlemen, that is, provide service (but also some control over) female members of the group, and on the sexual activity front, their parents and peers were not saying ‘stay virgins’ like the females were being told. (Also for the record–this social group existed totally within an extremely “liberal,” progressive private school noted for being “the hippy school” in my metropolitan area, so…)

    But back to bikes… another big factor I think is that we do not practice bike riding (with children) as a form of transportation very much, in America. What I mean by that is that in European countries (cities especially), children are not passengers in cars as much as they are taking busses, taking the metro, walking, biking. On the bus that I take every morning, there are bunches of kids ages 8-18 who get on and off the public bus to get to school. I also see lots of kids walking unaccompanied to and from school. I’m an au pair to kids ages 2 and 4, and we walk to and from their school (the 2 year old is still in a stroller). Every day, I’m joining a line of mothers and tiny children either walking or scootering to school. It’s a serious form of transportation, and learning how to do it starts early. In the US, bike riding is more of a recreation skill for most people (I think) and it’s one of those ‘things of childhood.’ I remember going on bike rides with my dad really fondly, but it was always to the pool or specifically ‘to have fun.’ The bike was always part of leisure time, not part of a daily routine.

    So I think in the U.S., the odds are against anyone using the bike for legitimate transportation anyway, so it takes a lot to overcome that and decide to bike. The workwear expectations is definitely a factor. (Also, the stronger social stigma against women having any kind of sweat/body odor/physical needs, such as a shower after a bike commute!!) The expectation that on the way home, you’re going to pick up dinner and/or groceries and/or whatever else needs to be acquired for a household (and therefore “need” somewhere to put it–again, in Europe, this is not automatically answered by a car; you’ll see people coming out of IKEA with major purchases and stepping onto the metro) does tend to rest more commonly on females. AND the threat to personal safety… in France, in the city, I’ve often felt like pedestrians rule the road, because everyone else will stop for us. In the U.S. where I’ve lived, anytime I’m walking along a road I feel like a total oddity–there’s no one else, even along major routes where clearly there is a lot of total traffic. Very little of that traffic is non-automobile. Men in general are less primed to be fearful of isolating situations like that. I know I was taught–explicitly–to be very on-my-guard in any solitary situation, because I “was in constant danger of being attacked.” When I’m at home, my parents tell me not to go running at night in our (extremely safe, “nice” suburban) neighborhood because I “will” get raped. Again, they are not conservative in most ways (they’re the ones who sent me to the ‘hippy school’) but I think that is basically a cultural norm in America… if you’re a woman, you’re in constant danger. Hopefully I’m wrong about that.

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