Bike advocacy focuses on growing the number of women on bikes

The National Women’s Bicycling Summit in Long Beach next month, along with presentations by and about women bicyclists at the Pro Walk/Pro Bike: Pro Place 2012 Conference that directly precedes it, reflect the growing recognition that meaningful increases in bicycle ridership are only possible when we make our streets and roads more accessible for women.

Renee Rivera, executive director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition

Women are an ‘indicator species’ for a healthy cycling ecosystem in your community,” said Renee Rivera, executive director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition in Oakland and one of the presenters for a Pro Walk/Pro Bike program about doubling the number of women who ride bikes. “If you see a majority of men riding on your streets, those streets are not truly bike-friendly. I work for more women on bikes because when I see lots of women on bikes, I know our streets work for everyone.”

“The majority of bicycle planners and advocates are men,” said Rivera. “They don’t always understand the complex challenges women face in choosing to bike.”

Women account for barely 25% of bicycle ridership nationally and in California. One recurring obstacle that keeps many women from riding is the actual and perceived risk of sharing the road with drivers.

Photo by Richard Masoner/Cyclelicious

In a chapter on women and bicycling in their upcoming book, City Cycling, John Pucher and Ralph Buehler note that while women are less likely than men to be injured while bicycling, they’re more likely to perceive biking as unsafe. The authors cite research in the United Kingdom, Australia and Portland, Ore., which indicates that safety concerns, high traffic volumes and motorist aggression keep many women off their bikes.

“Overall, these findings serve as a reminder that perceptions of risk may be as important as actual risks, particularly for women, and that ‘traffic risks’ extend beyond risk of fatality or serious injury to include risk of ‘near misses’ and harassment,” write Pucher and Buehler.

Another factor is how role of women in two-worker households and families affects transportation choices.

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“In two-worker households, [U.S.] women are twice as likely as men to pick up or drop off children during their commutes,” write Pucher and Buehler. “Consequently, when cycling-friendly conditions support independent bicycle trips by children and other dependents, women are the principal beneficiaries of a reduction in these particular household responsibilities.” Put another way, getting more kids on bikes frees up their moms to ride too.

It works in reverse, too: the bicycling habits of women influence the choice of girls to ride. Women in low-cycling countries tend to move in and out of cycling at various stages of their lives,” Pucher and Buehler write. “In contrast, women in high cycling countries, such as the Netherlands, move seamlessly between cycling as a child, adolescent, young adult, and older adult.

In Long Beach, doubling the number of women and girls on bikes over the next five years is the mission of Women on Bikes SoCal. We’re helping underwrite a women-only class sponsored by the organization that would train women as certified bicycling instructors, increasing the number of women teaching people how to ride more confidently and safely.

Meanwhile, we’re working to reform traffic laws and bikeway design standards to help make our streets safer for bicycling in ways that many women say they care about.

Read more about Pucher and Buehler’s book and solutions for increasing ridership among women at the People for BikesLeague of American Bicyclists and European Cycling Federation websites.