Why women don’t bike more in the US

The following is a response-gone-wild to my fellow Reed anthro alum and bike critic counterpart Elly Blue in Portland, Oregon. She just wrote a nice piece on gender equity and cycling, arguing that economic inequities between men and women play a large role in why women don’t bike more

Great post, Elly. Thanks for shining some more critical light on this important issue. I’m happy to hear some new thinking beyond the fashion and safety issues. Here are some thoughts I have on the issue of why more women don’t bike in the US.

In the Netherlands, male cycling rates drop around the time people get families but female rates increase. Overall rates are about 45% men and 55% women. Here in Denmark, cycling rates decrease for men and women around child raising time. Rates here are 45% women and 55% men. This leads me to suspect that Denmark actually has better gender parity despite fewer women biking. This is based on a hypothesis that men may do more of the heavy lifting in Denmark when it comes to picking up and dropping off kids than do their Dutch counterparts.

Also, the distance to grocery stores may vary.  In Copenhagen, there are usually about 5-10 grocery stores within easy walking distance of any apartment. The daycare (or bus pick up) is usually within a km or two of home. Plus, we have a wide variety of cargo bicycles for kids and bigger loads. When I lived in Amsterdam it was similar at least on the grocery front. Not sure about daycares and schools.

Another key point that needs to be mentioned in this is that in Copenhagen, the vast majority of cyclists are only traveling 2-5 km (1-3 miles). Commute distances over 5 km are less common here and few make it much over 10 km. You hardly break a sweat in a 10-20 minute bike ride. Plus, few people wear a helmet (compared to the US, not historical rates in Copenhagen), which makes things like Copenhagen Cycle Chic much more plausible.

On the economy point, I suspect it’s not the cost of the bicycle. A used bike in the US is easily 2-3 times cheaper ($1-200) than a lower quality used bike in Denmark ($300+). If pretty much every American can afford a car- even a beater- they can certainly afford a fancy bike and all the expensive (and unnecessary) ‘lifestyle’ goodies that they think they need to ride it.

In most US cities it’s the rich, yuppies living in the urban centers riding bikes. But in most of the world’s developing countries, it’s the rural poor who can’t afford anything else who bike. How can we then say that biking is somehow inherently an affordability issue for the rich or the poor? Local context and culture plays a huge role here.

Economy plays a big role in cycling, but I’m not sure it’s the reason women in particular don’t cycle. If it did, I don’t understand the logic that they can’t afford a $100-1000 bicycle but aren’t too poor to afford the average $8,500/year for a car.

I think it’s more likely that what people can’t afford is not the bike, but an apartment in the city center to live within short range cycling distance of all the things they need to accomplish all of these activities. This is particularly true once they have kids and are trying to fulfill the suburban family dream.

Now, fulfilling the strong social narrative of ‘being a good mother’ and whether you can do that on a bike or while living in the city is a different matter worth unpacking. Even here in Copenhagen, many of the people I have interviewed suggest that to be a ‘good parent’ you have to get a car, and you should move to the suburbs. That’s in Copenhagen. Cycle capital of the world and all whatnot.

There are those here too bucking the trend, which is easier to do, but they are still bucking the trend and have to jump through some hoops- most notably the high cost of finding an apartment that is ‘big enough’ for kids. Most of them just hold off for a few years until the kids get older and then have to eventually move out anyway. The cargo bike may just delay the seemingly inevitable.

I suspect there are also a lot more social pressures that poor people in the US face to get a car to demonstrate that they have been “successful” to their peers, whereas the educated elite more likely show off their status by being “smart/eco-friendly/health conscious enough” to choose to ride a bicycle.

Here in Copenhagen, which values modesty and social equity, standing out and thinking you are above others is a no-no. People prefer to be seen as ‘the kind of person who would ride a bicycle’. The kind of person who doesn’t think of themselves as being too big and above everyone else. Driving a hummer or big SUV in Copenhagen would likely raise scorn and eyebrows, which explains why I don’t think I’ve seen either in the past 3 years here. Even the crown prince and prime minister both prefer to be seen on bikes.

I think it’s pretty unlikely we can change American culture to be more modest, pragmatic and equal. But perhaps we can leverage the tropes we have like freedom, independence, and self-reliance to push bicycling further in the US. And in both cases, we will have to figure out how to make affordable, family friendly cities and reframe ‘the good parent’ and the ‘successful adult’ into one who rides a bike.

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6 responses to “Why women don’t bike more in the US

  1. Interesting response to Elly’s post. However the characterization of bicycling as rich yuppie types in the U.S., I think is overstated by many. Income class status of cyclists is roughly pretty evenly split from studies I have seen. Sure there are rich yuppie types riding, but more often I see those folks driving a Prius. In Santa Monica California where I’m at, I see just as many day laborers on beater used mountain bikes as I do roadies on $3000 bikes, and everything in-between.

    I think the bigger economic hurdle, that translates into gender disparity, is the lack of conveniently close services needed for day to day life in many areas in the U.S., and the tendency for women to be saddled with a lot of the errand running and trip chaining that is more difficult by bike when services are not close. This seems to be supported in Tom Vanderbilt’s book Traffic, which looks at driving behavior in America, and points out woman make more varieties of smaller and more frequent car trips than men. By economy I do not view that to mean just literal money with which to buy a bike, but time value, and how much unpaid work women do that costs time.

    • Good points, especially on gender and time disparity. On the class/cyclist issue, I think those are actually three distinct groups of cyclists who have different needs and do it for different reasons. The ones biking in the city who want to ride are the yuppie types I was referring to who are biking as a lifestyle choice. The day laborers are more likely “captive users” who would probably rather be driving a BMW but can’t afford one and the “roadies” are probably recreational cyclists who ride 40 miles on the weekend outside of the city. They’re not all just “cyclists”. The ones that have historically gotten the most attention are the recreational cyclists on the $3000 bikes. The ones who are now getting all the attention are the urban yuppies (eg, why are all of New York’s bike lanes in Park Slope and lower Manhattan?). The needs of captive users are often overlooked, is my guess.

      • I still think the net of yuppy is being cast a little too broadly, I would not consider anyone riding a bike in the city who happens to not be poor and thus captive, or not a sporty recreational cyclist, a yuppy by default. I think there is a little more variation than that.

        I would agree however that attention to the needs of many captive users is often woefully lacking. The Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition is trying to work toward correcting that. They are specifically targeting campaigns to provide bike racks in places day labors congregate with bikes, offering materials in multiple languages, giving out free lights, and pushing toward prioritizing bike routes in lower income communities, which often feature many people already riding, but who are often on sidewalks because so few streets with bike lanes or ideal alternative routes exist.

        I would hate to see an outcome where wealth all reverses and moves into city centers with new bike lanes and low transportation cost options, but rapidly rising rents, and everyone with lower income being pushed out into suburbs where people feel compelled to drive and spend much of their income on transportation. To some extent this is already occurring unfortunately, but we should strive for more balanced and equitable transportation and living options.

      • True enough, that I have actually been a bit of a short term visitor to the US the past three years since I’ve been in Copenhagen and there are likely more nuances and typologies of cyclist in between. Students come to mind as another demographic, as do hipsters.

        I totally agree with paragraph two and am equally deeply concerned about the potential for paragraph three.

  2. Please teach the rest of these internet hoolginas how to write and research!

  3. There may be some truth, that cycling subconsciously suggests modesty..because of the vehicle itself, the bike.

    However there are factions within the cycling community where hipsters might hold certain opinions of lycra-clad cyclists (with their helmets). A vice versa..ie. not much desire to cycle around in regular often.

    Probably alot of Copenhagers see themselves as just riding a bike, not as a cyclist or another part of their “identity”.

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