In Urban Cycling, a Gender Gap Persists
The New York Times
June 30, 2009
By DOMINICK TAO
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times Michelle Paterson, left, the first lady of New York State, prepared for a ride along the West Side Highway this month. Studies have found that women ride bikes less frequently than men.
When Barbara Ross started commuting by bicycle in New York City in 1994, she had a feeling that she was different. Simply put, Ms. Ross was a woman who rode her bicycle to work — in a city where most of the people who travel by bike are not.
“I don’t want to sound sexist. I’ve been riding for 15 years in Manhattan, and in the beginning, there were very few women riding on the street,” said Ms. Ross, 46, who works as a human resources manager.
While things have changed over the past several years, with cycling rates on the rise and hundreds of miles of new bike lanes being installed around the city, the gender gap among cyclists in New York and elsewhere in America still remains.
As a whole, men in the U.S. make three times as many trips by bicycle than women, according to research [pdf] by John Pucher, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers, whose work is being financed by the United States Department of Transportation.
The numbers are actually worse in New York, where only 21 percent of trips by bicycle are made by women. According to a voluntary survey by members of the New York Cycle Club, the largest organization of its kind in the city, only about a third of the club’s members said they are female.
Grace Lichtenstein, a spokeswoman for the 1,800-member club, said group rides are often a good way to get acquainted to riding in the city — and for female riders, the club’s spring riding classes have proven to be a popular option for women in the city who want to ride — but not too hard.
The club’s “C” training group is the gentlest, while the “A” group is the most rigorous.
“It’s remarkable how the C group attracts so many more women, and the A group attracts so many more men,” Ms. Lichtenstein said.
“The easiest one of these is the one in which we do get a majority of women,” Ms. Lichtenstein said.
For answers to why the a gender gap exists, Mr. Pucher turned his attention to several European countries, where cycling is not only a more popular way of getting around, but where women cycle just as much, if not more, than men.
“Someone was telling me, maybe American woman don’t like to sweat as much as European women. Maybe that’s why American women don’t cycle to work, but Dutch women do,” Mr. Pucher said. “But I think that’s a bunch of baloney.”
Reducing the gender gap, Mr. Pucher concluded, requires addressing issues like safety — and, interestingly, fashion.
“I think the No. 1 reason you have so few women cycling in New York City is because it’s seen as a dangerous activity,” Mr. Pucher said.
With the exception of areas like Central Park and designated bike trails — which female cyclists populate almost as zealously as their male counterparts) — bike riding in most parts of the city is hardly leisurely. “It’s like going into battle,” Mr. Pucher said. “You need a helmet and gloves.”
Indeed, a ride through Midtown during the rush often means dodging trucks and speeding taxis, weaving through flocks of ear-budded pedestrians, swerving around gouged asphalt, and rocketing across intersections when the traffic signal does not say “go.”
Mr. Pucher said to make cycling more appealing to women, and children and the elderly, for that matter, cycling in the city needs to be safer — with more protected bike lanes, and better enforcement of the laws when motorists double park or drive into lanes reserved for cyclists.
The other half of the equation, fashion, is an issue that might not seem important, but for many, has much to do with everything.
Ms. Ross, who volunteers with the environmental group Time’s Up, which got her riding in the first place, and who was not previously aware of Mr. Pucher’s research, said the reasons for her own initial fear of not hitting the streets on a bike was safety first, then fashion.
“My first thought was safety,” Ms. Ross said. “Once you feel more comfortable, and more confident, you will ride more.”
She added: “Women at first think they have to wear spandex. They just don’t imagine they can wear heels and a dress. Men often say, ‘How can you bike while wearing high heels?’ I say riding to work in heels is easier than walking to work in heels.”
In countries like the Netherlands or Denmark, where people in large cities regularly commute to work via bicycle — the slow, leisurely variety, and in specially protected lanes closed to vehicular traffic — questions like those posed to Ms. Ross might seem naive.
When the Danish filmmaker and photographer Mikael Colville-Andersen saw a woman riding a bicycle around Copenhagen in a stylish skirt and boots, her long blonde hair spilling over the top of her upturned collar, he felt compelled to take a picture of the woman.
Not that such a sight is terribly uncommon in Copenhagen, known as the world’s cycling capital. It’s that the light was just right.
He posted the photo online, and it became the first of many like it on Colville-Andersen’s Web site, Copenhagencyclechic.com — a blog devoted to the bicycle as an everyday appliance, compatible even with looking good in a skirt while pedaling to work.
The reaction, though, from many of the blog’s stateside readers, is often disbelief.
“People go, ‘Oh my God, she’s riding in heels!’” Mr. Colville-Andersen said.
During the weekday rush hours in cities like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, men in business suits and women in designer clothing are a regular sight in city streets. Few, if any, wear clothes specially designed for cycling.
“We have the same relationship to our bikes that we have with our vacuum cleaners,” Mr. Colville-Andersen said. “We all have one, but we don’t think about it.”