As a regular bike commuter, it’s hard not to notice who I’m riding alongside.
More often than not, it seems, they are men.
I’ve observed male dominance in the Puget Sound area bike lanes since I started commuting on two wheels a decade ago, and it doesn’t seem to be all that different today. Though I and other women I know relish the time on our bikes, the barriers to entry seem daunting for many.
When I asked a number of female friends why they don’t bike commute on a regular basis, the answers varied. They don’t like to get sweaty before work. They don’t have access to showers and changing rooms at the office. They’re afraid of riding in traffic. They don’t have the time. They worry about changing flat tires or other mechanical failures.
Since my research and experience is purely anecdotal, I decided to turn to data to investigate the real story of women and bike commuting in the Seattle area. I called Stephanie Frans, commute program manager for Cascade Bicycle Club, to learn about females on the road.
The facts, it turns out, back up my perceptions. Last year, about 26 percent of bike commuters in the Seattle area were women, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation. The good news? That percentage has risen slightly every year since 1992, when 20 percent of bike commuters were women.
Other research points to the reasons why women don’t pedal to work. Last year, the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals surveyed 13,000 women about their biking habits. When asked about the barriers to bike commuting, the top answer was lack of convenience. More specifically, the women cited distance to work, showering, the weather, time spent biking, and the amount they need to carry to work as reasons why bike commuting was not convenient to them. Many women said family obligations get in the way.
“Women tend to bear more household responsibilities such as dropping the kids off at school and daycare,” Frans said, who finds she bike commutes less frequently since having a baby.
The No. 2 response was a lack of infrastructure. Women cited the absence of bike lanes and paths, unmaintained roads, and no dedicated bike parking at work as factors that discourage them from cycling.
On the flip side, the survey also recorded why women choose to bike commute. The top reason? Because cycling is fun. The other popular answers were because of encouragement from others, because they don’t like the bus or car, for lifestyle reasons, to avoid parking headaches, and for health.
Clearly, some women already believe the benefits of bike commuting outweigh the drawbacks. Cycling advocacy groups want to figure out how to make more females feel the same. Cascade Bicycle Club, Frans told me, has been working over the past handful of years to address disparities in cycling. That includes the gender gap, but also disparities in ethnicity, age and geography. Cascade just finished a strategic planning process in which staff discussed how to make cycling more inclusive.
“We’re still trying to figure it out,” Frans said.
Cascade Bicycle Club’s focus on women includes specific programs and activities geared to females. The club holds group rides that cater to women and puts on a girls mountain bike camp. Cascade also worked with Seattle Department of Transportation to create Bike Smart Seattle, a program that ran from 2008 to 2010. Bike Smart included neighborhood rides and workshops geared specifically to women.
“We want to reduce the intimidation factor,” Frans said.
The annual Group Health Commute Challenge, which takes place in May, actively recruits female teammates and captains. This year, 37 percent of the captains were women.
Some local cycling teams also feature women. Frans joined the all-female Team Group Health because she wanted to race with other women.
“I didn’t want to have to compete with dudes,” Frans said.
As a bike commuter, I hope more women continue to try out life on two wheels. While I’ve had the occasional truly miserable ride (multiple flats, hail storm, black ice), for the most part bike commuting becomes one of the best parts of my day. If I leave a work meeting stressed out or frazzled, a mere half-hour on the bike melts the worry right away. Rather than sit through frustrating Seattle traffic jams in my car, I can zip by any back-ups in the bike lane.
Over the years of commuting, I have learned some strategies to make cycling more enjoyable. For fellow women considering hopping on the bike, here are a few of my tips:
Invest in gear. If you plan to commute in any sort of weather, staying warm and dry makes all the difference. (I say this as someone who REALLY does not like to be cold.) Buy booties to cover your shoes (both for cold and rain protection), biking gloves in a variety of thicknesses, and rain pants and jacket that really shield you from becoming drenched. I’ve had more than one guy at a bike or outdoor store tell me that rainproof gear will make me sweat too much. To the contrary, I’ve never regretted a good rain layer. For me, a little sweat is far better than becoming miserably cold in a downpour.
Learn how to change a flat. If you commute on city streets regularly, flats are bound to happen at some point. You can rely on a husband, boyfriend or local bike shop, but it’s far more convenient and time efficient to figure out how to do it yourself on the road. If you find it tricky to wrestle the tire out of the rim (a trick requiring significant strength, if your rims are high), buy a set of tire levers. I carry them with me, and they made changing a flat go from a frustrating, lengthy endeavor to an easy fix.
Outfit your bike. Certain add-ons make commuter bikes far more comfortable. I recommend fenders to shield yourself from the rain, racks for saddle bags (perfect for work gear), and thicker tires that don’t puncture so easily. Will these additions slow your bike? Most definitely. But you’re commuting, not racing. For me, the comfort makes the weight worthwhile.
Learn your route. For anyone cautious about city riding, becoming familiar with roads and bike paths makes the trip far more enjoyable. Study a map and perhaps even practice the route on a Sunday, when traffic is less extreme than during rush hour. Note potholes, railroad tracks, streets where bike lanes suddenly end, and any other potential hazard. Before long, you’ll be riding your route to work like a pro.