Women on Wheels

Is This the Year of the Woman Cyclist?
Female bicyclists make up just a quarter of all cyclists in the U.S. That fact has spurred forums, workshops, research and a lot of conversation this year, which has led me to dub 2012 the Year of the Woman Cyclist.

Since the bicycle was invented and adopted in the latter half of the 19th century, feminists saw it as a means of emancipation. In 1896 Susan B. Anthony said, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

As Sue Macy recounted in her opening talk at the March 20 forum on women and bicycling that preceded the League of American Bicyclists’ annual summit, women in the late 19th century took to cycling in droves. So in some ways it seems like we haven’t come such a long way, baby, in the last 130 years or so. Cycling is still a predominantly male endeavor.

But if the women at the recent Recycle-a-Bicycle Youth Bike Summit in New York City have their way, that will change.

Among the presenters were half a dozen members of the Girls’ Bike Club affiliated with West Side Bikes, a shop in inner city Chicago. One of them works as a bike mechanic at the shop, the only female on staff. “You have to put up with a lot of sexism,” says Tania Castillo, 19, from customers “who come into the shop and say, ‘Can you call somebody to fix my bike?.’ I tell them, ‘I work here. Can I help you?’” She says it’s not their fault—they’re just not used to seeing a woman mechanic. She adds that her male co-workers are very supportive, and readily share their knowledge with her.

Shacora Hawkins, 15, went through an apprenticeship at the bike shop and still volunteers there. She says she’s “a founding mother” of the girls’ bike club. Both Castillo and Hawkins say they feel both safe and free on a bike, and I feel exactly the same way. “We can make a quick getaway” from trouble, I say, and they laugh in agreement. Knowing how to bike, and how to do even minor repairs, is also a great self-esteem booster.

Boosting Women Bicyclists

Cycling infrastructure—and especially bike lanes separated from motor vehicle travel lanes—is the best way to get more women cycling. That seems to be the message from the Netherlands, the only country in the world where female cyclists outnumber males, 55% to 45%. A Dutch woman made that point at the women’s forum.

The Alliance for Biking & Walking, which co-sponsored the forum along with the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, just put out its biennial Benchmarking Report, which notes that in several European countries with better bike infrastructure than the U.S., not only do more women ride, but a much higher percentage of older and younger residents also ride their bikes regularly.

The greater availability—even in the U.S. —of cargo bikes for carrying children as well as groceries and other stuff, has also prompted more women cyclists to ride, particularly moms. The growth of Kidical Mass—a family-friendly ride that’s spreading from Portland to cities around the country—is providing another boost to expanding the definition of the “typical” cyclist from a Lycra-clad 20-something white male to include a much broader swath of the population.

I did a lot of walking around D.C. getting to and from the conference, strolling downtown streets as the sunny days climbed past 70 degrees and the cherry blossoms burst forth. However, for four days I did no biking. So I was glad to get home and back to my daily riding regimen: for work, for exercise, for camaraderie, for fun, you can’t beat two wheels.