It's a chilly November morning, and just over a dozen members of a black women's bike group—there's an advocacy organization for everything in D.C.—are gathered in the basement of a public library in Northeast Washington. One woman came because she was scared off biking by an accident and wants to regain her confidence. Another was recently laid off and finally has the time to bike again.
The session is spirited but technical, as a handful of instructors, all of them certified by the League of American Bicyclists, talk through cycling basics in almost granular detail. There are slides on how not to get doored ("be cognizant of where you are") and when to take the lane ("how fast is the traffic moving?"), as well as tutorials on biking hand signals (arm up is right, out is left, down is stop) and memorable acronyms like the ABC quick check: air, brakes, cranks/chain. There is even a segment dedicated to what to wear on cold winter nights. "Dress like it's your own personal rave," recommends an instructor named Anica. "You want people to think there's a party going on on your bike."
As biking has gained traction as a mode of transportation, women have too frequently slipped off the chain. Just one in four bikers in America is female, according to Federal Highway Administration survey data from 2009, but it's not a lack of interest in or support for cycling that accounts for the disparity (82 percent of American women have a positive view of bicyclists, per a recent poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates). Rather, as in so many other areas of modern life, it's a host of interwoven forces, from standards of dress to concern for safety to caregiving responsibilities that account for the difference.
"Dress like it's your own personal rave," recommends an instructor. "You want people to think there's a party going on on your bike."
Women in America are more likely to be poor than men. They earn 78 cents for every dollar men make. They make up two-thirds of tipped workers—and the federal "tipped minimum wage," for anyone unfamiliar, is a paltry $2.13 an hour (it's been stagnant for the past 23 years). Women hold 59 percent of low-wage jobs overall, and even in those positions, they are likely to be paid less than their male counterparts. With transportation being one of the biggest household expenses in America, it's little wonder that poor people are more likely to bike. "If you can't afford a car, you need to know that biking for transportation is a real choice you can make," said biking advocate Barb Chamberlain. "And it's more important for women because there are more of them working those really low-wage jobs."
For Chamberlain, executive director of Washington Bikes in Washington state, closing the gap means to "normalize bicycling," or convince women that riding doesn't have to be the province of white guys in spandex. To encourage more women to ride, she's started a bike style blog with scores of fashion how-tos and links to hundreds of other women's bike blogs. Her posts deal with practical dress concerns like how to handle copious sweating, purse problems, and helmet aesthetics.
Others emphasize the need to build a women-centered community within biking organizations, and particularly within leadership. Cycling advocate Liz Jose started holding women-only happy hours at a bike shop in New York City after she noticed a shortage of women behind the bike shop counters. "You get out to the happy hours," she explained, "and you see someone who biked there who looks like you and you say, 'Oh, she's not really hard-core! If she biked here I can bike here too.' " Soon she would formalize the support system, founding We Bike NYC, with its mission to empower women through cycling.
Another top concern for women cyclists is safety—which is to say, they accurately identify the risks. A bike count in New York City in 2011 found 15 percent of the cyclists on streets without bike lanes were women, compared with 32 percent on a nearby streets with bike lanes.
"Oh, she's not really hard-core! If she biked here I can bike here too."
Street harassment also factors into the calculus. That problem is so common for women in cities like New York that Jose's We Bike NYC started holding collaborative workshops with anti-street-harassment organization Hollaback, of recent Internet fame and consternation. "There is a lot of aggression on the road toward women cyclists," Jose explains, "and it's hard for some of our male allies to see and understand that because it doesn't happen as much when they're there."
Still other obstacles revolve around larger social inequalities. In the United States, women's travel patterns tend to be significantly more complex than men's, making it more difficult to accomplish daily tasks on a bicycle. Women take an additional 110 short trips from home per year compared with men, and even in two-worker households, women still make twice as many trips to drop off and pick up children as men (66 percent versus 34 percent), according to research from 2005. They are also more likely to report "lack of time," "inability to carry children," and "inability to carry more stuff" as barriers to biking.
Solutions to these problems aren't easy, but improved cycling infrastructure is a straightforward place to start. More than half of American women (53 percent) said increasing the number of bike lanes would increase their riding, according to research from 2012. And advocates say even a minimal investment can have a huge multiplier effect.
For her part, Liz Jones, the women bike manager at the League of American Bicyclists, sees better bike infrastructure as a relatively low-cost way to improve resident well being. "When you think about the cost of installing a bike lane or better crosswalks on a street, those types of infrastructure investments cost significantly less than widening streets or building pedestrian overpasses," she said. "And what we've seen on streets where lanes were put in, is it's good for businesses along those streets as well."
Larger-scale solutions, like reducing the burden of housework on women, mandating paid paternity leave, or rethinking the "always-there" work culture, can feel paralyzingly big. But Jones doesn't shy away from them. Rather she sees bicycling advocacy as another tool to have these big conversations about feminism and the gender gap. "Our society isn't built to give women the same luxury of choice," she says. "Most European countries have sorted some of this out by creating systems that take the power of our lives out of our employers' hands and mandate things like subsidized child care and yearlong maternity leaves. When society is more equal in key areas like pay and time, we become more equal in other things like biking."
Some have argued certain gender gaps, like the biking gap, simply don't matter. It's not as if this affects our livelihood, that argument goes. Why should we care if there's a disparity? In and of itself, it doesn't really matter.
Call it the Tao of cycling and snark if you want to, but for many people, biking is much more than a hobby.
For Jose, who first got into biking advocacy as a way to empower young girls, bikes are an extension of the body. "Young women around age 11 or 12 or 13 start to go underground, really shrink into themselves," she told me of why she chose to focus on that age group. "I wanted to encourage girls to love their body for the fact that it can get them places, and biking can be a really powerful metaphor for that." Everything that came after was an extension of that initial impulse.
"I wanted to encourage girls to love their body for the fact that it can get them places, and biking can be a really powerful metaphor for that."
Kristin Gavin, who founded Gearing Up, a Philadelphia-based program for women in residential and outpatient drug and alcohol recovery facilities, cites similarly spiritual benefits. She uses cycling to complement ongoing patient treatments for anxiety and depression, working with women over the course of several months to take them out for rides of 4 to 7 miles.
Just the other day, Gavin recalled, a woman in her group who had spent most the day in group therapy sessions started out the ride weeping. In a pre-ride exercise, where participants go around in a circle and say something they want to leave behind on the ride, the woman said she wanted to leave hopelessness. When she returned from riding, the woman was in better spirits. "I got away from it for a little while," she told Gavin. That feeling, however fleeting, was just what Gavin had in mind. "The whole world opens up to you," Gavin said of her own experience biking. "It's a liberating thing."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.