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In the Twin Cities, men bike to work at twice the rate women do. That’s actually better than a lot of U.S. cities

downtown biking
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.

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.

Fostering curiosity

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.

Cali Jirsa, owner of Cherry Cycles
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Cali Jirsa is the owner of Cherry Cycles.
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.

Share of men and women who bike to work by metro area
Note: Atlanta and Dallas are not included because small numbers of cyclists made the share of men and women who bike tough to estimate.
Source: Census Bureau

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.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 06/11/2019 - 11:50 am.

    Keep in mind that this is just commuting data. I would guess that everyday trips, to the park or the store, are more gender balanced in general, due to the demands placed on many women in the workplace around appearance and dress.

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 06/11/2019 - 07:52 pm.

    Looks to me like women are overrepresented as commuters, in Minneapolis, relative to their participation rate in cycling overall. Perhaps it’s just my (mis?)perception, but I see way more men cycling than women. Certainly in races and other organized to semi-organized events, men seem to far outnumber women; more like 10:1 than 2:1.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/12/2019 - 09:21 am.

    I think there are few explanations for this gender gap.

    To begin with it’s absolutely true that when adults started riding bicycles (here in the US) in the late 80’s and early 90’s of the last century, those adults were predominately male. Part of the issue at the time was that adults entering or re-entering the cycling world for the most part saw themselves as participating in a sport. Adult male cyclists of that era bought expensive road bikes and gear, and decked themselves out as if they were racers or professional cyclists, so there was a certain intensity and competitive edge to those cyclists.

    Another issue was the vehicular/bike driving mentality that these adult males brought into the cycling culture. Encouraged by a fraudulent “study” that claimed to discover is was safer to drive in traffic than on bike trails these already competitive minded male bikers hit the streets to claim their lanes and ride in traffic as if they were driving cars and trucks.

    I don’t know what kid of gender assumptions I’m making here, but it looked to me at the time that this competitive, expensive, and dangerous style of biking didn’t have a strong appeal among women.

    People seem to have finally realized that dedicated and separated bike lanes are indeed safer, as is riding with a wary rather than a combative view of traffic. But those spandex speed demons pretending to be racers are still out there, and most of them are men.

    Another issue is the culture itself. One of the characteristic of this phenomena is that we’re trying entice adults into cycling and commuting by bicycle. The individual cycling profile is a huge factor. Most Americans don’t grow up riding bikes for transportation. When I grew up (I’m 57), you rode bikes all the time until you got your drivers license; but by the mid 80’s American kids weren’t even doing THAT anymore. For decades now riding has been a “family” activity, and bicycles tend to be just another neglected toy in the garage.

    When we look at a place like the Netherlands you have to remember that the Dutch ride their entire lives, no one is trying to get Dutch adults onto bikes, they’ve been there since they were 4 or 5 years old. In a culture like that you ARE comfortable riding in the streets regardless of gender. Furthermore, you don’t see ANY speed demons in spandex riding in Amsterdam, and if you see them in the countryside they’re likely to be tourists who brought their road bike with them. Cycling isn’t sport, it’s transport. And you won’t see a single helmet, AND they have a fraction of the injuries and deaths that we have per capita of cyclists.

    I think if the gender gap ever closes in the US it will be when our cycling profile looks more like the Netherlands. American parents simply don’t encourage their children to use their bikes as transport or even play. Like everything else in an American child’s life a bike ride is an organized/supervised activity. Accordingly when these kids reach adulthood they’re not acclimated to riding on their own in a variety of conditions, they still have to LEARN how to do that even if they know how to ride a bicycle.

    I live about a block away from a middle school here in SLP. Hundreds of teenagers and every day I see those that aren’t busing or SUVing with parents, walking home. You’d be lucky to find 4 or 5 bikes locked up outside during the day. I’d bet good money that 90% of those kids have bicycles sitting in their garages but it never occurs to them or their parents that they could ride to school. And IF they did want to ride it would be a big safety lecture with helmet requirements rather than a healthy, independent, relatively fast, and fun way to get to and from school.

    At any rate I wonder if women would be more comfortable with commuting if they essentially grew up doing it, rather than trying start doing it as adults? In theory EVERYONE would be comfortable but that competitive intensity might be putting more men on bikes right now.

    I find the comments about bike shops kind of intriguing. I wonder if bike shops are still pushing road bikes and sport biking more than fun-relaxed bikes and commuting? That could be off putting to some women I imagine. Even in the photo for this article you see two women (one without a helmet), riding in normal clothes, on comfortable bikes, with a spandex male cyclist on a speed bike behind them! Maybe if we promote the fact that you can be a cyclists without pretending to be a bicycle racer, more women would be attracted to cycling and commuting?

  4. Submitted by Jeffery Thole on 06/17/2019 - 09:46 am.

    More bikers is not necessarily “better” as the article suggests. When bike lanes replace driving lanes, traffic backs up causing more time on the road, and more pollution in the air. Vehicle traffic may also divert through residential neighborhoods to avoid the backups thus creating safety hazards elsewhere.

    • Submitted by Erika Wilson on 06/28/2019 - 11:43 am.

      …is this satire? The minimal time added to your commute because of absolutely necessary bike infrastructure is not what’s causing the majority of air pollution, it’s your 2-ton death mobile you’re sitting in – alone – next to all of the other people, presumably alone, idling in their cars.
      More people biking = less people driving = less car traffic = less emissions. But yeah, that extra minute of idling in traffic is really what’s polluting our earth. Go off, Jeffery.

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