More Gender Gap Analysis from the Media

The press lately has been fascinated with women on bikes. Reading these articles brings us a mixture of pleasure, optimism, frustration and annoyance. While mainstream acknowledgment of transportation bicycling is positive, the coverage regarding women has been shallow. Back in June the New York Times and Treehugger published articles that focus on women’s appearance and risk aversion – flaccid analyses that Trisha took head on in Mind the Gender Gap. Our female readers made their thoughts known loud and clear, which I highlighted in Women’s Voices.

My sister and nephew

My sister and nephew

Now Scientific American has jumped into the discussion with its article, “How to Get More Bicyclists on the Road: To boost urban bicycling, figure out what women want.” While there is the typical assertion that women are more risk averse than men, based on “studies across disciplines,”  there is also an interesting note that even within the same city, women’s cycling rates shoot up when one counts riders on protected paths.

In New York City, men are three times as likely to be cyclists as women. Yet a bicycle count found that an off-street bike path in Central Park had 44 percent female riders. “Within the same city you find huge deviations in terms of gender,” Pucher remarks.

Then the article pleasantly surprised me by examining the gender gap on a deeper level.  Recognizing the affect of gender roles, notably child care and household shopping, it concludes that protected paths are not enough if they do not provide helpful routes for errands.

Women also do most of the child care and household shopping, which means these bike routes need to be organized around practical urban destinations to make a difference.

“Despite our hope that gender roles don’t exist, they still do,” says Jennifer Dill, a transportation and planning researcher at Portland State University…

And when cities do install traffic-protected off-street bike paths, they are almost always along rivers and parks rather than along routes leading “to the supermarket, the school, the day care center,” Pucher says.

Child care responsibilities are a real factor: my sister tried bike commuting with her son on a trail-a-bike, but gave up when the time crunch caused her son to be the first kid dropped off at daycare in the mornings and the last picked up in the evenings. The affect of gender roles is backed up in the article by a survey that found that “needing a car” is an important factor influencing women’s cycling rates – but not men’s.

Needing a car is likely tied to the household errands women often perform, Handy says, and could be addressed in part by outreach programs showing that women can “jump on a bike the way they jump in a car.”


But the same survey found that “comfort” is another such factor. I find it hard to believe that “comfort” is not an equally important factor for men, what with all the men driving around in plush autos with air conditioning, cup holders and iPod docking stations. Perhaps men are less likely to choose this factor in a survey, but in reality I question the disparity.

The article ends with a shout-out to Janette Sadik-Khan, something I can always get on board with.

“A woman cyclist became head of the [NYC] DOT, and wonderful things started happening.”

Overall, the article offers surprising depth compared to other press on the issue, simply by acknowledging the affect of gender roles. However, for a “scientific” publication, I would like to see more analysis.  I remain unconvinced that most factors affecting transporation cycling rates do not apply to both women and men.

What would you like to see added to this gender gap conversation?


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43 thoughts on “More Gender Gap Analysis from the Media

  1. dukiebiddle says:

    I suppose the whole comfort thing begs to be defined. I’m not sure where I read this, or how scientific its assertion, but I’ve read that bicycle salespersons have said that women are many times more likely to purchase a practical bicycle. Us stupid men, the argument goes, are far more likely to be drawn into performance marketing. We buy into the bent over postures, the impractically skinny tires, the uncomfortable bumpy ride of an ultralight, etc. because we subconsciously equate performance with a measurement of our manhood.

  2. bikinginla says:

    From the discussions I’ve had with women cyclists, I think that as beginning cyclists, women tend to be more intimidated by the concept of riding in traffic. However, as their skill levels increase, their comfort level rises as well. As far as men go, I suspect that the ones who insist on all the comforts of home in their cars aren’t the ones who would take up cycling to begin with.

    Part of the problem is that most off road paths are developed with recreational cyclists in mind, rather than with the idea that people will actually use them to go places and do things.

    And then there’s the idea of traditional gender roles to begin with — in this modern age, the concept that shopping and taking care of the kids is the woman’s job should have been dead and buried years ago.

  3. ChipSeal says:

    Or guys just like high-performance machines.

    It seems that in the UK, women cyclists are more likely to be crushed by trucks at intersections than men are. (Eight to zero this year, if I remember correctly.) This most often happens when the cyclist rides up on the inside of a stopped truck before the light turns green. Why Englishwomen at such out-sized risk compared with Englishmen is a mystery to me.

    This though is certain: If more women cycled, more men would cycle also, in turn!

    • dukiebiddle says:

      Apparently, a study paid for by London (then buried by the sponsor of that study) concluded that women were at greater risk than men to being crushed by trucks at intersections because a) they were more likely to follow the law and stop at red lights, causing them to be less visible and at far greater risk to right hooks, and b) that women responded to road danger obsequiously, by attempting to be less visible and offensive to the more threatening automobiles.

      • Charlotte says:

        That is fascinating! I bears out in how my husband and I deal with traffic, I guess I should be more aggressive. I do try to not upset the drivers around me.

        • dottie says:

          Yup, me too, although I am forceful about taking the lane when safety demands it.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          Here’s a link to the article about that study.

          After rereading the article, is seems that the female passive riding aspect was not actually a conclusion of the study, although the red light stopping thing was. The female passive riding thing was an additional aside taken from an official of the Cyclists’ Touring Club.

  4. Pete says:


    It seems to me that Practical is the big word.
    Cycling infrastructure is mostly based on recreational needs. This means that practical biking is under-supported, untraditional and often a far too dangerous means of getting things done. The question of whether women are assigned to tie together the practical aspects of life in our society is an important question; but I’m not sure it’s the central question in this context.

    The question I like to ask is how can our infrastructure support safe access to the practical transportation needs that we have as a society?

    • cycler says:

      Paractical ties into the “making cycling dull” article I quoted below. If Cycling is a boring dependable practical method of getting places and doing things instead of an extreme sport, average people (women, men, kids, seniors) will make it part of their lives. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg issue though, Having people “be brave” and cycle in a less than perfect environment does help create more demand and more constituency for improvements, but also having more facilities so that people don’t have to be so “brave” makes people more likely to feel comfortable biking.
      Instead of relying all on supply side or all on demand side we can both encourage people, through social factors, to bike, and begin to create safer infrastructure. Hopefully it will start to snowball, with each side reinforcing each other to create a better cycling world for everyone regardless of sex or family status.

  5. For the most part, I don’t like the gender gap discussions. I think they simplify issues, further divide cyclists into “camps”, and re-affirm stereotypes.

    My personal opinion, is that the biggest determinant to whether women cycle, is whether other women cycle. Consumer choices are made based on trends more than on actual needs – or maybe a better way to say it, is that it takes a trend to make consumers realise that they have a particular need.

    Until recently, cycling has been virtually absent from popular fashion and women’s culture discourse; it has been presented as a predominantly male trend – and a niche one at that. I think that is where the perception of risk comes from (the association between bicycles and racing, off-road mud and fixed gear tricks), and not the supposedly natural risk-aversion of females.

    • I agree that this is a somewhat divisive subject, but only if you are talking about single woman. When I ride alone, I will ride anywhere, with or without bike lanes or quiet streets. I am equal in ability to any rider.

      When I have my son on the bike with me, that is a whole other story. With all of his added weight and my decreased maneuverability I am forced to take more sedate routes, and separated infrastructure whenever available.

      As my husband only carries our son on weekends when he is home, I pick Declan up from preschool on my bike almost everyday. My husband does not experience this issue on anything like the frequency I do, and in fact, because I have a better set up for carrying a child, I usually carry him on the weekends, too.

      So looking at infrastructure based on the needs of woman makes sense. We all benefit in the long run. Just like if you want to make sure that a family eats a healthy diet you have to get the Mom’s of the country to buy into shopping for healthy food, if you want the future generations to use bicycles for transportation, you need the Moms on board.

      • Mamavee says:

        I agree with you AJ. I have one bike at home now and it’s the bike built for 3 or more. ( including me) and I have been “searching” for a solo two wheeler for a bit however in reality I actually rarely ( sadly) have time to ride anywhere by myself so it seems like a luxury right now. before I had kid carrying capabilities I was not able to ride with them at all. Four years ago when I got the “bike bug” I only had the chance to take perhaps 3 rides alone b/c I had to wait for B to come home and then the days got shorter and I didn’t have a bike with lights. Now any solo bike I have must be night riding ready b/c night meetings are the only places I go where I will not have have kinder passengers… a bit of a self involved ramble to further explain the Childcare issue of biking.

        And I agree- more women begets more women. I try to be out there and talk it up and encourage others!

      • I understand completely what both of you are saying; I am just looking at it from a different viewpoint.

        To play the devil’s advocate: You are talking here specifically about not just women, but women in the traditional role of motherhood, who therefore have demanding transportation needs associated with this role. One could make the argument that there is also a class of men with traditional jobs that have demanding transportation needs: construction workers, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc., etc. They need to lug a lot of stuff around on a daily basis – some of it fragile and expensive – and so, to some extent have the same cycling concerns as women who must transport children and groceries.

        In other words, I see mothers as belonging to a “specialised transportation cyclist” group more so than to the “women” group. The cycling needs of a mother who transports children and groceries are closer to those of a male carpenter than of a woman who is not a mother in this role. Personally, I think it would be more useful and less of an explosive topic if things were seen in this manner.

        • Steven Vance says:

          I like this comment.

          BikePortland has touched a little on the specialized transportation group’s fringe bicyclists who buy cargo bikes to carry what they need to carry. Like, the mobile coffee shop guy.

          Also, Copenhagen Cycle Chic or Copenhagenize (I can’t remember) talked about a guy who does home energy audits so he bought a front-loading cargo bike (the Larry vs. Harry Bullitt) to carry around his specialized equipment.

        • sara says:

          I appreciate the idea of ‘specialized transportation cyclist’ and I would say that cargo bikes are useful to parents carrying kids just as they would be to workers carrying lots of equipment. However, I might also submit that safe bike routes might be of greater concern to parents carrying kids– moms or dads alike. My family falls far from the traditional gender roles as both my husband & I have taken turns being the at-home parent. With three kids who now go to two different schools, we both are responsible for getting one or two of the boys to school (by bike). We live in a city that doesn’t have particularly cyclist-saavy drivers and while that doesn’t stop me from bike commuting with my kids, it DOES make me certainly more nervous when a driver cuts me off for a right turn when my kids are on/in my cargo bike than say when I just have my groceries, even breakable like eggs.

          Maybe I am wrong, but I am struggling to completely equate parents riding with young kids on their bikes and workers riding with tools, no matter how fragile…

          • Of course you are not wrong, and I do not mean to suggest that children be equated with tools. But neither is it entirely useful to equate women with carrying children (as the “gender and cycling” articles do); many women would in fact find this offensive. I and many other women I know may choose to never have children, and I do not feel that child-rearing is what defines my gender in today’s society or defines my needs as a cyclist. You refer to “parents” throughout your comment and I appreciate that, but the articles discussed in this post apparently view child transportation as something that is and will forever remain synonymous with women, and that is an association I do not altogether agree with. Neither do I agree with viewing every female as a mother or a potential mother, but that is a separate issue…

            • cycler says:

              I’m going to skirt around the whole issue of whether kids=tools, but I will say that having a big load of anything really affects my cycling habits. If I have a really heavy or poorly balanced load, I don’t feel comfortable taking the lane or cycling vehicularly, which makes me less likely to feel comfortable in traffic or on busy streets. I’m much more likely to take the long way/ bike path.

  6. stevevance says:

    I compiled Census/American Community Survey statistics for fun the other day. I noticed that the number of female bicyclists in Chicago declined from 2007 to 2008.
    I don’t have the skills or knowledge to analyze the data, and I won’t research why this happened.
    See the statistics for yourself here:

    I would like to add my own story: I was working with a developer on their indoor bike parking installation. The design had people entering the facility through an entrance 100 feet from the sidewalk and through an alley. A work colleague told the developer, simply, that “women won’t use this facility.”

    I believe some readers of this blog attended a seminar or interview with a school colleague of mine, Stephen Vaughn, about women’s barriers to bicycling. He continues his research, and I don’t know much about it, but I’ve forwarded this blog entry to him.

  7. Cycler says:

    I really like the nuance of your posts about gender and bicycling, especially given the context of wearing the clothes you feel comfortable (and pretty) in to do the things you love, and just get yourself from point A to point B.

    There’s a lot to think about, but one quick thought.
    Women tend to trip-chain running a lot of errands in sequence. Carrying large loads on a properly designed bike is no problem, but I’ve run into a problem which is as I accumulate parcels and increasingly heavy panniers, I either have to leave all my stuff unlocked and only semi-enclosed at each additional stop, or unload the bike at each stop and schlep quite a lot of weight around with me at each store. Mostly I just take my bag with wallet/ phone/ keys, and hope that no one steals my pannier full of groceries while I’m in the drug store….
    I suppose a Bakfiets with a locking fairing would solve the problem, but I can see it being a real barrier to trip chaining.

  8. […] show a gap between male and female cycling to work rates), Let’s Go Ride Bike posts an entry about the media’s analysis of the cycling gender gap. I didn’t posit any thoughts about the gap I noticed in the blog entry I […]

  9. Cycler says:

    Oh, I also really enjoyed this well written essay
    which touches lightly on the gender issue in service to the idea that bicycling in cities should be “dull” : normal, everyday, not the province of testosterone soaked daredevils and adreneline junkies.

    I wonder if women are socialized to be more risk averse through envisioning the consequences of an injury, both for themselves and for the people who they feel responsible to and for. I think that men are more likely to think of unfriendly traffic as a challenge to be met or a game to be won instead of a barrier and an obstacle.

    • dottie says:

      Thanks for linking to that article. One of the best I’ve read on the issue, although fully protected bike lanes everywhere is not going to happen any time soon, so we need other ways of getting more cyclists out there in the meantime.

    • LauraG says:

      The Chicago “decline” in women cyclists is well within the margin of error. In other words, there’s a fairly high likelihood that you’re just seeing statistical noise.

  10. Catherine says:

    Would “concern over clothing/sweat/general appearance” count as “comfort”? If so, that could be the culprit as women, generally, are held to a higher standard of personal appearance in general and specifically in the workplace. Side rant: the female equivalent of what passes as “nice enough” for men (chino type pants, button down collared shirt and loafer type shoes) is almost universally denounced as “frumpy”. Also, men are allowed to sweat and otherwise have obvious signs of the fact that their body is in fact functioning.

    Also, I don’t tend to think of women as “risk averse” because that implies that the “male way” is the norm and women are somehow deviating from that norm. I think that women are the norm (generally things which are alive and intact attempt to remain so), and men (with some help from our culture and their testosterone) are the deviants. So men are risk-philic.

    • dottie says:

      Men are risk-philic. I like that! I’m glad you pointed out the higher standard of personal appearance for women. That is a big factor, I think.

      • dukiebiddle says:

        The personal appearance expectations on women aspect, I think, has huge ramifications on female bicycle commuting, (I apologize for bringing up this tired horse) especially when considering helmet advocacy. Many critics of women who do not want to wear a helmet portray them as being shallow, which I think is completely unfair. Some women feel it’s professionally necessary to put 20 minutes into their hair (when I was a little kid in the late 70’s early 80’s, men did too). Some people have easy hair, some have more difficult hair. When a sizable portion of the pop. chastises people for not wearing helmets, the people who feel they need to more work into appearance are compelled to opt against using a bicycle as transportation.

  11. anna says:

    For me — and I don’t think this is typically “female” but probably still more important for busy women with kids — one of the most important things is accessibility. I want bike racks: in front of supermarkets, schools, universities, work places, cinema etc. Everywhere. It is a well-known fact that generally women do more trips per day than men do, thus easily accessible bike parking is an important issue that is often ignored. And it’s even harder to park bikes with e.g. shopping bags on them or even a trailer for kids in the back.

    Safety, well. I prefer cycling on busy roads rather than crappy bike paths. But then I’m an experienced cyclist. At first it may seem risky to bike on a heavy road. To me it’s fast and uncomfortable at the same time (because of exhausts, noise etc.), but I still feel perfectly safe. Most of the time it’s the environment that makes cycling unattractive, and very often this is caused by many cars stuck in a traffic jam polluting and honking (at least in the European cities I have seen). That’s why cycling on Sundays on the same roads is more comfortable — less cars, less noise, less stress.

    Comfort is an issue? I find cycling to be very comfortable, just the surrounding very often is more than annoying. But that’s got more to the with the fact that only few people cycle rather than me cycling. Unless one uses the wrong saddle of course ;-).

  12. I was a newspaper photographer. I can recall all those “first woman” stories from the early 70s: first woman police officer, first woman construction worker, first woman CEO, etc., etc., etc.

    They were a combination of demeaning and congratulatory. Sort of like the old saying, “It’s not that the dog can dance on his hind legs so well, it’s that he can dance at all.”

    Those stories were followed by first (fill in your ethnic group of choice) stories.

    The good news is that whatever the target group is has arrived when you don’t see any more of those “first” stories.

    • dottie says:

      Interesting perspective. The “dog can dance” analogy hits upon what I find frustrating about these articles. Even though some are written by women, they are tinged with that demeaning and congratulatory combo.

  13. […] Service's rejection of a request to use Rock Creek Parkway for an organized bike tour event. And Let's Go Ride a Bike has more on the biking gender […]

  14. […] Service's rejection of a request to use Rock Creek Parkway for an organized bike tour event. And Let's Go Ride a Bike has more on the biking gender […]

  15. […] Service's rejection of a request to use Rock Creek Parkway for an organized bike tour event. And Let's Go Ride a Bike has more on the biking gender […]

  16. […] Service's rejection of a request to use Rock Creek Parkway for an organized bike tour event. And Let's Go Ride a Bike has more on the biking gender […]

  17. Stephen says:

    There’s obviously a number of factors involved in why women generally don’t ride as much as men do, at least in the U.S. My vote is for security as one of the most important. Most women want, perhaps are even genetically predispositioned towards, some degree of security. Many large SUV drivers are women. They generally don’t marry undependable guys. And they don’t go charging down busy city streets on single-speeds, or race in packs of lycra-clad weekend warriors, blowing through stop signs and pounding on car hoods. They want to ride, however, and enjoy the outside, get some exercise, and spend quality time with children. (Men like me do too. I hate to race!) All this is to say that I agree, at least at the opinion and anecdotal level, that providing more facilities, and better-designed facilities, can increase the feeling of security on a bicycle, and facilitate more women riders. And that in itself will create more riders, which will create more facilities, etc. Once again, it will be women who slap sense into men, who are the ones mostly making the spending decisions on roads vs. trails, signs, regulations, etc.

  18. […] offers a preview of what to expect from David Byrne on Friday. Does it surprise anyone to learn there’s a gender gap in media cycling stories? Minneapolis’ mayor moves forward with plans to make bikes more welcome. […]

  19. philippe says:

    FWIW, in Paris, a majority of velib (the bike share program, heavy, un sporty but convenient bikes) are women. 65% from the top of my head.
    I would say, without any data to back my feeling, that a majority of Paris cyclists are women.

  20. […] More gender gap analysis from the media […]

  21. … [Trackback]…

    […] Informations on that Topic: […]…

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