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Six lessons for Portland from the League’s new ‘Women Bike’ report

Posted by on August 8th, 2013 at 9:19 am

woman on a bike

Common, but not quite common enough.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Even in Portland, people who really ought to know better (links to FB) still claim now and then that biking is a thing for young dudes.

Still, in a town where only 31 percent of people on bikes tend to be female (it’s about 25 percent nationally) we’ve got a long way to go until, as in Germany or the Netherlands, our biking population is evenly split by gender. Portland’s failure to change this ratio for 10 years can be discouraging to people who think everyone deserves to feel welcome on a bike.

That’s why there’s a lot to celebrate in a new report by the League of American Bicyclists that rounds up dozens of statistics about women and bikes. Culled from industry reports, political polls and academic studies, a few of the report’s figures are pretty surprising…

1) All U.S. growth in occasional bike riding seems to be happening among women.

Sunday Parkways

Here’s the only fact in this study that really knocked my socks off: between 2003 and 2012, though the national bike commuting rate has been rising rapidly among both men and women, the number of American men and boys who ride at least occasionally (at least six times per year) has completely flatlined. A National Sporting Goods Association web survey of 38,000 households found that the number of males who ride is stuck at 20.2 million, despite national population growth of 8 percent over the same period.

Meanwhile, the number of women and girls who say they ride a bike at least six times a year is up 20 percent, to 19.1 million.

League spokeswoman Carolyn Szczepanski described this as “one of the most surprising things I found,” and I agree. For Portland, this should be a reminder that a bike network doesn’t just serve people who spend a lot of time with it; it needs to be intuitive to those who use it now and then.

2) There are business openings for bike shops that serve women better.

Sharifa Roach of Black Bird Bicycle Repair

Sharifa Roach of Black Bird Bicycle Repair.

According to the Gluskin Townley Group’s 2012 American Bicyclist Survey, only 37 percent of women bought their current bike from a shop, compared to 48 percent of men.

Probably related: 89 percent of bike shop owners are men, according to a 2013 report for the National Bicycle Dealers Association. (Of bike shops, 33 percent are owned by a husband-wife team.) Though we have some great shops with women in charge (Coventry, Clever and Splendid Cycles come to mind), a lot of shops in Portland, whoever the owner, still feel like boys’ clubs when you walk in. You can call that a problem, but I call it an opportunity.

3) If we can safely separate bike and auto traffic, female biking is likely to rise.

Broadway's parking-separated cycle track

Broadway’s parking-separated cycle track.

Yesterday’s news that the federal government seems to be preparing to endorse cycle tracks is likely to boost the number of women in the saddle. While 13 percent of men say they’re “confident riding on all roads with traffic,” only 6 percent of women say the same. The national shift toward building physically separated cycle tracks, which has yet to take off in Portland, is in part a response to this gender gap, which was captured in a September 2012 poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates.

Portland’s network of off-street paths also has some glaring omissions, like the obvious lack of routes alongside the east side of the Willamette or Interstate 84.

If there’s an obvious reason why Portland’s bike gender gap has persisted for so long, this is it.

4) Public bikesharing tends to be a hit with women.

bikeshare demo

A study last year by Susan Shaheen of public bikesharing systems in North America found that 43 percent of all bikeshare members are female, far above the national norm for bike trips. If Alta Bicycle Share ever recruits the sponsors that’ll bring such a system to Portland, expect a similar trend here.

5) When biking gets beyond commuting, women win.

Even more than men, women use bikes for more than just the commute trip.

Like it or not, women in two-adult households tend to make twice as many trips as men to drop off or pick up children, according to a 2005 study, and women who bike are twice as likely as men who bike to use it for shopping and errands, a different study found. If we think these trends will continue, we should be making bikes and bikeways that people will use to carry both children and purchased goods.

This also means that if we increase the number of women on bikes, we’ll be strengthening the argument that good bike parking and access can be better for retailers than a few auto parking spaces.

6) Professional bike advocacy is doing OK at hiring women, less so at making them leaders.

Catherine Ciarlo on a bike

Former BTA director and mayoral aide Catherine Ciarlo.

I was pleased to learn that 45 percent of paid bike advocacy staff are female, but depressed to see that of 89 board members at the six biggest national bike advocacy groups, only 20 are women. Here in Portland, women are slightly less rare on the boards of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Community Cycling Center: they’re currently 9 in 28; both groups have had female executive directors in the past, though for the BTA it’s been a while.

Another notable stat from the report: women represent 22 percent of the Congressional Bike Caucus. That seems like a big imbalance … until you realize that women only represent 18 percent of Congress. Biking isn’t the only area where this country has a long way to go.

Want to talk more about these issues with like-minded advocates? Join a nationwide Twitter chat at 5 p.m. tomorrow (Friday, 8/9) by following and using the hashtag #womenbike.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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    spare_wheel August 8, 2013 at 9:30 am

    “3) If we can safely separate bike and auto traffic, female biking is likely to rise.”

    A perfect example of truthiness. Repeat an unsupported claim often enough and it becomes accepted as THE TRUTH. Mode share split in Germany is equal even though physically separated infrastructure has been systematically dismantled and replaced with bike boulevards, bike lanes, and signs indicating cyclists have full right of way.

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      Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) August 8, 2013 at 9:35 am


      How is that an unsupported claim? There have been studies and surveys showing a link between separated infrastructure and the perception of safety/likelihood of more people (including women) to ride. Beyond that, it’s just obvious. A more pleasant riding environment away from drivers would attract more people to biking — especially those who are most concerned/risk-averse. Thanks for the Germany example, but that in no way discredits the idea/claim that separated infrastructure would increase the amount of women who would bike if more of it existed.

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        spare_wheel August 8, 2013 at 2:55 pm

        I have to call you on your misleading coverage. The report made no specific call for physically-separated infrastructure. In fact here are the data they referenced:

        Quiet street (bike boulevard) (2.91)
        Off-street path (2.74)
        Two-lane local street with bike lane (2.70)

        3 = comfortable
        2 = Uncomfortable, would ride
        1 = Uncomfortable, wouldn’t ride on it

        A direct quote:

        “Bike facilities and low-stress roads, like bicycle boulevards, can play an
        important role in this transformation — with pronounced impact on the number of women riders. It’s not surprising that while Portland has created an expansive network of bicycle facilities, the percentage of women bicyclists grew from 21% in 1992 to 31% in 2012.(22) According to a 2009 study of bicyclists in six cities, “the most important determinant of bicycling for women was their comfort bicycling.”

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        • Michael Andersen (News Editor)
          Michael Andersen (News Editor) August 8, 2013 at 5:06 pm

          Glad you’re looking at this closely, spare_wheel. I should have been clearer in my post: the statistic referred to here doesn’t relate to questions about specific bike infrastructure, but rather a 2012 poll that asked how many people felt confident riding “on all roads with traffic.” I’ve added a sentence to the post above to make the source clearer.

          The fact that fewer women express this confidence led me to the conclusion that off-road paths and physically separated cycle tracks would function as alternatives to riding “with traffic.” That’s my own analysis, and you’re free to disagree.

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            Sarah August 9, 2013 at 8:59 am

            As a woman, who rides a bike, I’m always discouraged to read that cycle tracks will help women get in the saddle. I HATE THEM.

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              Sarah August 9, 2013 at 9:03 am

              I’d much prefer to ride in traffic than be in a pedestrian/door zone stuck behind a slow-mover. It’s claustrophobic in those things, and god help you if you need to make a left. Please never ever ever support that infrastructure for the sake of women. Sure, maybe someone’s going to jump at the bait, but certainly not all of us.

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            Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly August 9, 2013 at 9:06 pm

            You make a false dichotomy. Few people are comfortable riding “on all roads with traffic.” (For example, I am not comfortable riding on Interstate highways with traffic.) To conclude from this that we need segregated bike paths is a bit far-fetched.

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      Daniel L August 8, 2013 at 10:27 am

      Your claims about Germany are pretty much not true. Germany has had, and continues to have lots of separated infrastructure. There has been a push in the last few years to do more low car streets, as there has been in other places like the Netherlands and Denmark that already have large bike share. These streets are nice to ride on, but it also creates more pleasant neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean they’ve given up on physically separated infrastructure, particularly on the more major streets that cannot be traffic calmed.

      In some cities in Germany (Munich mostly, and I believe a couple streets in Berlin) they have also done some improvements by removing narrow separated bike paths and putting in much wider bike lanes in order to increase the bicycle capacity and overall safety. Here in the US we’d still likely call many of these separated cycle tracks because there is a substantial buffer, sometimes with plastic bollards, but because they are not grade-separated like most of the German cycle paths they just call them bike lanes.

      Neither should in anyway be construed as Germany “systematically” dismantling separated bike infrastructure. Separated infrastructure is still the preferred infrastructure in Germany, including in Munich where most of this experimentation has happened, the bike lanes are special case exceptions, not a broad new trend.

      Also you should be wary of cause and effect relationships. If you look at trend data Germany’s bicycle share has been growing, much of the infrastructure changes have been a result of that growth and probably not a primary cause of it.

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        spare_wheel August 8, 2013 at 2:25 pm

        “In some cities in Germany (Munich mostly, and I believe a couple streets in Berlin) they have also done some improvements by removing narrow separated bike paths and putting in much wider bike lanes in order to increase the bicycle capacity and overall safety.”

        Its not just a few streets, its many streets and, yes, I have personally ridden some of them. Moreover, its amazing that you are unaware of the cyclist-led movement to invalidate dutch-style mandatory sidepath laws and declassify cycletracks.S

        Moreover, mode share in Dutch towns with very little physically-separated infrastructure is still quite equal (Yes, these towns exist). Maybe…just…maybe there is no one-size fits all solution to every cycling problem. Maybe traffic calming, road diets, speed reduction, and good old fashioned non-physically separated bike lanes/cycle-paths can also play a role.

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    Spiffy August 8, 2013 at 10:29 am

    I’m currently in the process of teaching a 41 year old woman how to ride a bike…

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    Cindy August 8, 2013 at 10:37 am

    “3) If we can safely separate bike and auto traffic, female biking is likely to rise.”

    How about the lack of education on how to ride with traffic? How about the DMV, driver’s education, etc… educating drivers to slow down and understand that cyclist are considered vehicles and it is a shared roadway? I imagine if there was more education and supported rides for new cyclist that would positively encourage riding with traffic that we would see more woman on the roads! I turn to the local bike shops and their lack of support on this issue. It would be great to see community involvement from our local bike shops. This seems like a more viable option.

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    Esther August 8, 2013 at 10:58 am

    I’m curious as to how number for other forms of transportation stack up for women as compared to men. Do women spend more time driving and taking the bus overall? I think that #5 is key here, not only because of “children and groceries,” but because women have so many pressures on their time and generally make less money than men for the same work. I have several women colleagues who have switched to bike commuting from public transit in the last year- in both cases because it’s better for time and money.

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    daisy August 8, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    The stat that jumped out at me: 60% of bicycle owners aged 17-28 years old are women. That’s amazing! It also shows how ridiculous it is that so many bike shops devote so much more space to men’s clothing and such. When women complain about limited options (ie Levi’s not offering women’s cuts and sizes in their commuting line), some folks say that there isn’t a market. This stat shows that there is a market, but it’s incredibly underserved.

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    Robin August 8, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Thanks to BikePortland for highlighting this study and information.

    I was interested in attending the Levis event on Monday, but decided a “girlcott” was in order since they decided that offering women’s clothing was not important to them.

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      Marne August 8, 2013 at 3:26 pm

      I was going to sign up to volunteer at the Levi’s event until I went to their web site to see what awesome women’s commuter clothes they were offering.
      Thanks for posting this report Bike Portland and for talking about the importance and challenges of increasing the number of women biking.

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      Jackie August 9, 2013 at 9:51 am

      I didn’t bother going to the Levi’s event for the same reason. Meh.

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    B August 8, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    Now if we could just get them to quit shoaling stoplights..

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      daisy August 8, 2013 at 4:40 pm

      Who, women? Really? This is just the kind of thing (“joke”?) that contributes to making cycling hostile to women.

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        B August 9, 2013 at 9:13 am

        No joke, I expect all road users to be courteous and aware of their surroundings regardless of gender or mode of transportation. If you find this to be hostile towards women I wish you luck in functioning in the real world, but it doesn’t affect my opinion of oblivious entitled behavior.

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          daisy August 9, 2013 at 11:05 am

          Of course all users should be courteous. The article focuses on women cyclists. Your comment suggests that women in particular are shoaling.

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