Understanding the Gender Gap for Urban Bicyclists

by Annelise S

A week ago, the New York Times shed light on this issue with a feature entitled ‘Women, Uneasy, Still Lag as Cyclists in New York City”. The article features Julie Hirschfied, owner of Reade Street bicycle boutique, Adeline Adeline. Hirschfeld opened the store with the intention of catering exclusively to female cyclists. One year after the store’s opening, Hirschfeld could no longer deny the lack of enthusiastic female bicyclists in New York City, and she expanded the boutique to cater to male cyclists, as well. Despite the fashion and charm of Hischfeld’s store, and despite the miles upon miles of new bike paths in the New York City, women were still reluctant to hop on a bicycle. Why, you ask? “Women want to feel safe,” Hirschfeld explained. She claims that if the perception of danger vanishes, “women then will ride, and ride more than men.”
In most major global capitals like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, women make up the majority of cyclists. In American cities, the gender gap among cyclists is still lagging in New York in particular. “Within the Unites States, New York is far behind in terms of the percentage of women cyclists compared to cities like Washington D.C., and San Francisco,” says John Pucher, professor of planning and transportation at Rutgers University.
“ I’m convinced that one of the reasons New York City has a such a low percentage of women cyclists is that it’s dangerous.” This perception of danger is rooted in the reported cycling fatalities and incidents in New York. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, New York City had 12 cycling deaths in 2009. “Other cities in the United States and Canada have indeed made cycling much, much safer than it is in New York”, states Pucher.  While the actual danger levels are equal for both male and female bicyclists in New York, women feel discouraged because they may often feel less inclined to engaged in something that is perceived to be risky, with high-profile bicycle fatalities and reports fueling the perception. Beyond safety concerns, many claim that a leading factor contributing to female cycling reluctance is fashion and appearance. Emilia Crotty, operations director at Bike New York, says that women flooded the classes she taught on cycling basics—evidencing a strong female interest in biking, but that they feared showing up to high-profile corporate jobs or meeting friends for cocktails when sweaty and/or weighed down by cycling gear. “The concern for riding in street traffic is No. 1” says Crotty. “Then it’s ‘I don’t want to be sweaty.’” Crotty’s advice for women cyclists to feel more comfortable: 1) put more things in your baskets rather than your bags, 2) wear A-line shaped skirts rather than pencil skirts, and 3) choose heels with traction over pointy stilettos. Beyond traffic safety and appearance, the final major factor keeping women out of urban bike lanes is identified as name calling and hassling. Any female cyclist or pedestrian in New York—or any city for that matter—understands the filtration malfunction between many local’s brains and mouths. The Times article highlighted Heike Bachmann, an active female bicyclist, who tolerated name calling from male cyclists inclined to shout “Hey, Mary Poppins”. What is it about a woman on a bike that attracts such unwarranted attention and objectification? “I quickly gave up on the idea of biking with a skirt on. A pity really, because the thought of commuting to work wearing light and fluttering fabrics is especially appealing during summer time. But from now on, I’m all about ugly lycra Capri pants.” says Jessica Reed, of the Guardian UK. Reed recalls construction workers demanding that she flash her chest, older men asking if she had panties on, teenagers making kissing sounds, and even one pedestrian who stopped in the middle of the road only to bend down with a huge grin, trying to catch a glimpse up her skirt. Fed up with the relentless cat-calling seemingly brought on by her green mode of transportation, Reed exchanged her much-loved dutch bike, bought herself a hybrid, and began dressing head-to-toes in black spandex. She reports that the catcalling ceased immediately. Should women have to police their own clothes, rather than men watch their own behavior?
How do you deal with the woes of female cycling? How can we remain as forward-thinking risk-takers in the face of reckless drivers, relentless catcallers, and sweaty pit stains? 

PHOTO CREDIT: check out Jason Oliver Goodman’s photography project called ‘A Girl’s Bike’. Goodman happens to be the guy who animated the intro to ‘Mad Men’, and in 4 months, he documented close to 200 women and their bicycles around New York City. The photos are gorgeous. http://www.dogoodernyc.com/#48014

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