A Seattle Times story made waves last week, exploring the gender gap in cycling in that city.
Reporter Gene Balk looked into the issue after a reader wrote him with the observation that lots of cyclists on an oft-used Seattle bike crossing were “young white guys [pedaling] fast to jobs downtown, getting in a workout.”
“Are bike lanes basically a subsidy to the group that is least in need of a subsidy?” the reader asked.
Balk found that indeed, Seattle has one of the biggest cycling gender gaps in the country, and lots of bikers in the city are men.
Census data show the Twin Cities have a cycling gender gap, too.
In the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, men who work were twice as likely to commute via bike as women who work, at 1.2 percent, compared to 0.6 percent.
The gap holds up when you look at the Twin Cities’ most bike-dense areas, in Minneapolis proper (5.1 percent of men bike to work compared to 3 percent of women), and in St. Paul (2.1 percent of men bike to work and 1.2 percent of women do).
Causes and solutions
The benefits of biking are many: it’s generally inexpensive, it’s good exercise and, according to new research from the University of Minnesota, commuting by bike makes you happier.
But not everyone’s reaping those benefits to the same degree — and not just in the Twin Cities and Seattle.
Gender gaps in cycling can be found across in cities around the world.
They’re attributed, variously, to notions that women don’t feel as safe biking in traffic or being exposed on the street as men; are expected to adhere to a higher standard of put-togetherness at work; or are more often responsible for shuttling kids around, which makes biking more difficult.
A 2010 women’s cycling survey found that women’s main concerns, when it came to biking, were related to being on the road with cars: 73 percent of women surveyed said distracted drivers were a safety concern; 64 percent cited speed of cars; 57 percent cited cars turning in front of them. Thirteen percent of women said they were concerned about being attacked by a stranger.
The survey also asked women what would entice them to start biking or increase the amount they bike.
A quarter of women said having showers available at their destinations would help, and about 10 percent said friendlier bike shop employees would improve their likelihood of biking. But better infrastructure, including more bike lanes, more off-road bike paths, better connectivity/more direct routes and wider lanes topped the list, with nearly half to two-thirds of women citing them as things that would improve conditions for biking.
A Portland State University study also found women who biked were more likely than men to take longer routes in order to use protected paths.
“Women appear more likely to go out of their way to bicycle on low-traffic streets and bicycle boulevards, and slightly less likely to go out of their way to use streets with bike lanes,” the authors wrote.
Dedicated bike paths also make it easier to ride in groups — something that Linnea House, the interim executive director of Move Minnesota, an organization that promotes alternatives to cars, says can be an entry point for people new to biking.
Researchers point to places like Germany, where 49 percent of trips made by bike are made by women (in the U.S., that figure is 25 percent), and the Netherlands, where 55 percent of cyclists are women, to make the case that infrastructure can eliminate the gender gap in cycling.
“If there aren’t at least as many women as men, then it’s usually because cycling is not safe enough. It’s an indicator that you do not have good enough cycling infrastructure,” Gil Penalosa, a Toronto transportation consultant, told the Guardian.
Melody Hoffman, the author of “Bike Lanes Are White Lanes: Bicycle Advocacy and Urban Planning,” cautioned against comparisons to places like Germany and the Netherlands where the culture is less car-centric in the first place.
“I think safer streets and better infrastructure could potentially bring more women into biking. At the same time, Minneapolis has been a very bike-friendly city for a long time now,” she said, pointing to issues like the socialization of women to take fewer risks, the need to transport kids and the expectation that women look nice at work as obstacles to cycling.
“Women have been told they have to show up looking prim and proper,” she said.
Cali Jirsa grew up biking, but she didn’t start riding a bike to get around in Minneapolis until she couldn’t take the bus. Metro Transit workers went on strike while she was taking classes at the University of Minnesota. The trip from her home in Uptown to the U was too far to walk, and taking a taxi to get to class every night was prohibitively expensive. So she biked, a mode of transportation she discovered she liked.
“I really felt a lot safer on my bike as opposed to waiting for the bus,” she said.
She started learning to fix bikes volunteering at the Grease Pit, a volunteer-run bike shop that also teaches repair. She liked being able to help people bike, learned more about the trade and is now the sole owner of Cherry Cycles, a bike shop in Loring Park.
Shops have a role to play in making cycling more accessible to underrepresented groups, too, Jirsa said: One barrier to entry is that people who are new to biking don’t always feel like they’ll be welcomed into a bike shop as a novice who has questions.
“If the shop doesn’t foster that curiosity, then you’re not going to foster the relationship with clientele, and then you’re not going to grow women in cycling,” she said.
Although the number of women bike mechanics is increasing, bike shops are often male-dominated.
Part of Cherry Cycles’ mission is to make biking accessible to people who are underrepresented in the cycling community, including people of color, femme, trans, two-spirit, women, LGBTQIA and other people who are underserved.
Jirsa puts on bike-fitting demos and classes on fixing flat tires at Cherry Cycles. She also hosts Grease Rag Ride and Wrench, a nonprofit that provides bike education and builds community around femme, trans and women cyclists.
A smaller gap
The Twin Cities’ biking gender gap is smaller than the gap in some U.S. cities. Among the country’s largest metros (not including Atlanta and Dallas, where small numbers of cyclists made the share of men and women who bike tough to estimate), the Twin Cities had one of the smallest gender gaps in terms of bike commuting, with women biking at half the rate men do. That’s slightly smaller than Seattle’s gender gap, where women bike at about 40 percent of the rate men do.
The Twin Cities metro also has one of the highest overall rates of bike commuting nationwide, at 0.9 percent (in San Francisco, the metro with the highest share, 1.9 percent of people bike to work. In the Seattle metro, it’s 1.1 percent).
The gender gap isn’t the only gap activists are working to close in biking in Minnesota, said House, of Move Minnesota. There are also gaps for people of color and seniors, she said.
“Even as more people are biking — biking to get around and get to work and run their errands and live their lives, there’s still lots of gaps,” House said.