Nice Ride Minnesota, the Twin Cities’ pioneering bicycle-sharing system, is serving about 4,000 annual members and more than 40,000 unique 24-hour subscribers in its fourth year of operation. Those numbers reflect continued vigorous growth for this outstanding public-private transportation partnership, but its full impact may extend far beyond the users who so far make up a relatively small slice of the metro area’s 3 million-plus inhabitants.
That’s because of bike sharing’s quiet ability to transform decades-old monocultures of driving and male-dominate cycling one pedal revolution at a time.
One commentator called it a “game-changer” for cities that matches Gen X and Millenial preferences for temporary use of all kinds of stuff over permanent ownership. Not surprisingly, then, Nice Ride’s core demographic is 25-to-40-year-olds, said marketing director Anthony Ongaro.
“What makes bike-sharing programs special and potentially game-changing is that one only possesses the bicycle while one is riding it,” Alex Marshall wrote on Governing.com. “Usually when I bike or, for that matter, when I drive, I’m constantly aware that I have this valuable possession with me, and must tend to it. If I bicycle to work, I have to worry about locking it, and I have to ride it home again, even if the weather has changed or, simply, my temperament.”
Drawing in more women
And that kind of freedom from material entanglements isn’t all. According to Sarah Goodyear at The Atlantic Cities, bike share is also a key to drawing more women into bicycling as transportation.
“Bike-share programs remove many of the barriers that women commonly cite,” Goodyear wrote, drawing on findings from Women Bike, an initiative of the League of American Bicyclists. “The systems make biking easy to access and convenient to multiple destinations. You can ride the bikes in regular clothes. They’re simple to adjust and comfortable to ride. And you feel like you’re part of a community on a bike-share bike. You also don’t have to deal with the frequently off-putting snobbery and machismo still found in too many bike shops.”
Well, that covers two of the demographics most important to the long-term prospects for cycling and, by extension, the livability of cities large and small. Young people obviously are the future. And women are the chief “indicator species” for biking’s growth.
In 2009, however, only 24 percent of the nearly 4 billion U.S. bicycle trips were made by women. It’s nothing intrinsic in the second X-chromosome, though. Comparable figures in the Netherlands and Germany are 55 and 49 percent, respectively. It has to do with a nation’s, or a city’s, mobility culture and the systems and infrastructure built up around it.
Expansion of bike-friendly facilities
In Minnesota and most other parts of the United States, we’re seeing rapid expansion of bike-friendly facilities such as painted lanes in streets, separate cycle tracks, sharrow markings and bicycle racks. Bike sharing, also on sharp growth trajectory nationwide (even deep in the heart of oil-drenched Texas), offers easy access to two wheels to try out these improvements.
Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., boasts 54 percent female membership, Boston’s Hubway 47 percent and our own Nice Ride 44 percent. A 2012 study showed 43 percent of bike-sharers throughout North America were women. This year, Nice Ride’s Facebook and Twitter followers are skewing more than 50 percent female, Ongaro said, a big reversal from previous years.
“Bike-share systems, it turns out, allow Americans a glimpse of some of the conditions that exist in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, where the cycling gender gap doesn’t exist,” Goodyear wrote. “As bike share becomes an integrated mode of transportation around the country — and as bike retailers realize that women represent a huge and underserved market — the gender balance just might start to shift here in a real and lasting way.”
The ‘five C’ obstacles for women
Bike sharing addresses most of the “five C” obstacles to women’s adoption of cycling identified in a new report from Women Bike: comfort, convenience, consumer products, confidence and community.
The study found that two-thirds of U.S. women believe safer, more comfortable bicycling would improve their community’s livability and that the ranks of female bicyclists increased 20 percent in the past decade vs. a half-point decline among men and boys. Interestingly, considering the bike trip numbers, 60 percent of bike owners between the ages of 17 and 28 are women, yet they remain underrepresented in both leadership and membership in bicycle advocacy groups.
The report also points out the health and weight-control benefits of bicycling for women and their low risk of injury or death in biking accidents relative to male bikers.
All these findings should augur greater participation in cycling by American women, but the most important factor may be the highly visible gateway of bike sharing. The same goes for anyone young or old, or even male, who may be interested in trying it without a long-term commitment.
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