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."