Even in the Most Bike-Friendly States, Women Are Left Behind

Local transportation planning could be missing the mark for women cyclists. Here are 6 ways to change that (for everyone).
Bikes and Gender

Photo by Bigandt_Photography / iStock.

Madi Carlson bikes around Seattle with her two kids, mostly on the designated bike paths or multiuse trails that separate bikes from traffic.

“I don't like getting honked at 10 times in a day.”

And on all her rides, Carlson has noticed something of a gender gap: Far more women cyclists use those paths than men. Men, she says, appear more willing to ride in traffic, claiming a lane despite the cursing, honking, and aggressive driving that is often directed at cyclists. While many men seem willing to put up with this undesirable attention, many women will go out of their way to avoid it.

“I don’t like getting honked at 10 times in a day,” Carlson says. “It’s one thing to be legally allowed; it’s another to be comfortable taking your legal right to share that road.”

Tess Brandon, meanwhile, has been bicycling since 2012, when she joined a team and began training for the 202-mile Seattle to Portland ride. As comfortable and confident as she is on her bike on long weekend rides around King County, she rarely bike commutes from Seattle to her job in Bellevue for a variety of reasons. Drivers, she says, are “extremely aggressive,” and maneuvering in traffic and around parking garages is dangerous.

Their experience isn’t unique among women. Cycling, even in bike-friendly states like Washington, tends to draw more men, while many women who bike say they’ve been the subject of rude behavior, or say they feel their safety is at stake when they head out on the road.

Their stories present an opportunity for transportation planning that’s mindful not only of the importance of cycling—for people and the environment—but also of meeting the needs of all cyclists. Climate action plans to reduce emissions in many cities address new cycling infrastructure, yet few officials recognize how strongly gender can impact the kinds of cycling infrastructure people are willing to use.

Studies have shown that women tend to be more risk-averse and have different standards for safety in public spaces than men. Women, then, can be considered a bellwether for transportation planners. Stories like Carlson’s and Brandon’s suggest that local transportation planning could be missing the mark for women cyclists. But are there actual gendered differences in the experiences and behaviors of cyclists, and how could transportation planning respond to that?

According to the League of American Bicyclists, men outnumber women cyclists 2 to 1, but few people have sought to understand how gender affects transportation choices. When Anne Broache wrote her graduate thesis on the barriers to women cycling in Seattle, she interviewed women cyclists and uncovered themes of fear and perceptions of unsafe conditions.

Broache, who works on communications projects for the Washington State Department of Transportation and volunteers for the American Planning Association, found that fear of personal safety was by far the leading concern of all women cyclists—79 percent of the women she surveyed cited distracted driving as the biggest safety barrier to them cycling. Studies in other countries, for example, in research by Transport for London, also have found that although safety is a leading concern for all riders, women and new riders express the most concern for personal safety. They’ve found that women cyclists also prefer routes that are separated from traffic.

Heidi Guenin, a certified urban planner in Portland, Ore., who studies the intersections of transportation, land use, public health, and social justice, echoed these findings. “For women, there’s factors like street harassment, income inequality, and the fact that we do most of the domestic and household work and caregiving,” Guenin said. “When we dig into the barriers to women biking, it’s pretty consistent that this is what we find.”

Hispanics had a fatality rate 23 percent higher than White cyclists, and African Americans had a rate 30 percent higher.

But are women more at risk or just more cautious? Are women asking to make cycling safer for everyone?

These questions are difficult to answer because few transportation agencies have tracked the demographics of people involved in cycling accidents. A few years ago, London saw an increase in cycling and an increase in cyclist fatalities. Demographics collected at the accident scenes helped city officials uncover a gendered trend: Transport for London found that even though women made only a quarter of annual bike trips in London, they represented 39 percent of adult cycling fatalities.

In addition, the “Pedaling Toward Equity” report by the League of American Bicyclists noted that Hispanics had a fatality rate 23 percent higher than White cyclists, and African Americans had a rate 30 percent higher. Many transportation agencies don’t collect and report this kind of data on gender, race, and ethnicity, which makes it difficult to assess causes and risks. Yet choosing where or even whether to bike at all isn’t just about collision data. Many women who choose to cycle prefer protected lanes both to feel safe from cars and to avoid the rude behavior of drivers. Collision data, it turns out, doesn’t support the perception that bike lanes are actually safer.

Carlson knows what the data says, but it doesn’t influence her decision to stay on protected lanes and trails. She spoke of the subtle ways gender impacts her experience cycling.

“Even though biking is an empowering thing for women, we are still subject to sexual harassment,” she said.

But by helping cyclists feel safer, which is important to a cyclist’s confidence, protected and separated lanes do provide other benefits, such as establishing distance from the verbal harassment of drivers. The threat of sexual harassment and aggression is amplified when a woman feels exposed and vulnerable riding in car traffic. These threats, then, lead many women to exclusively use separated bike paths, which aren’t always available.

Yet if physical separation is the only solution offered, both the harassment of women and the harassment of cyclists will go unchallenged. And, as some critics argue, because separate lanes enable drivers to continue dangerous and aggressive behavior toward the cyclists that do ride on the road, it is essential that the solutions include everyone: drivers, cyclists, and transportation planners.

Urban planning can empower women cyclists. Some cities are pushing back against the harassment by improving street lighting and using public awareness campaigns to change street culture. In Portland, Guenin works with businesses to encourage their employees to lower emissions on their commute. This could involve investing in showering facilities for cyclists or providing a company vehicle or car rental if an employee needs to pick up a sick child from school. These kinds of things might originate with women advocating for their own needs and those of their families, but in the end they benefit everyone.

Understanding how gender impacts transportation can accelerate progress toward gender equality as we design our cities to better meet the needs of all residents. It can also help cities achieve their goal to lower emissions, by getting more people to choose cycling instead of driving. A handful of studies already point to a gendered difference in personal contributions to emissions. Women tend to have shorter commutes, are more likely to use public transportation, and are more likely to link multiple trips together.

An approach to transportation that empowers women and lowers emissions would begin with a meaningful understanding of how gender impacts transportation, and move forward by addressing gendered needs in transportation planning.

We can make progress by:

Collecting and analyzing gender, ethnic, race, and age data related to transportation

The current statistics reported by most U.S. cities only count the number of men and women biking to work. Data about everyday transit use as well as cycling accidents and fatalities would better inform decision-making.

Helping to remove gendered barriers to cycling

Gendered barriers include the disproportionate family responsibilities carried by many women. Whether women have the time and flexibility in their schedules, as well as what additional people and cargo they are transporting, can influence their ability to cycle.

Supporting women’s leadership in transportation

According to Gender Science, Technology, Environment, an organization funded by European Cooperation in Science and Technology, women are underrepresented in the leadership of transportation agencies and boards. A measurable goal would be agency leadership that more accurately reflects the communities it serves.

Including gender in equity programs

As cities are implementing equity programs across the United States to address issues like affordable housing and mass transit, they often focus on race and income. The goals of these programs can be best met when they also include gender.

Supporting cycling programs for women

Whether through agencies or organizations, supporting equal participation in cycling requires money allocated toward programs that meet the needs of women. For example, Portland has invested in women-only bike clinics and group rides.

Engaging the cycling industry

Bike shops have an opportunity to support women and family-friendly cycling, due to the role of women in providing most of the transportation for other household members. The League of American Bicyclists’ report “Bike Shops for Everyone: Strategies for Making Bike Retail More Welcoming to Women” focuses on the potential for inclusive community building and customer engagement as the key to growing the cycling industry.