Mind the Gender Gap

Yesterday’s New York Times blog item about why New York women are underrepresented among the city’s bike commuters didn’t sit well with the authors of Streetsblog Network member Let’s Go Ride a Bike.
Trisha, one of the blog’s authors and a bike commuter herself in
Nashville, sees the piece as part of a trend (epitomized by a recent
Treehugger post called "6 Reasons the World Needs More Girls on Bikes"). Too often, she says, people looking at female cyclists take a cosmetic approach to a complex subject: 

494801835_9dba1859cf_m.jpgThis is how mothers roll in Japan: on a "mamachari." Photo by anthonygrimley via Flickr.

certainly don’t want to discount concerns about safety and fashion,
which were issues for me when starting out and two things Dottie and I
are trying to help others overcome.

What annoys me is that none of the articles I’ve read on this
topic lately go any deeper into why those things present serious
obstacles for women but not men, even though men have the same concerns
(no one wants to show up for work disheveled and stinky after all). Why
bother, when it’s so obvious that men are just much less self-absorbed
and a million times braver? It couldn’t be that there are higher
expectations for women’s appearances in the workplace, or that the
burden of transporting children or household errands like grocery
shopping more often falls to them—the first reasons that came to my
mind. These are not insurmountable, of course (just ask these cycling superparents, both moms and dads, or the other stylish women bike commuters we
know), but they require some thought, negotiation and planning that
your average male might not have to overcome in his quest to bicycle

But instead of giving weight to these concerns,
or looking into others, these articles stay on the surface. Women are
dismissed as frivolous and their absence is mourned not because of the
missed opportunity to allow them to discover an activity that can
improve their quality of life, but because their presence would improve
the scenery. As a girl who likes to look good on her bike, I can’t
argue with that statement, but I can argue with it being the number one
reason we should get women on bikes — sorry, Treehugger.

Network member Fifty Car Pileup, who has written about the gender gap before, also had a thoughtful response to the Times piece.

makes me sad about this whole debate is that in the United States, we
tend to think of ourselves as being especially enlightened when it
comes to women’s issues. Yet women here are still confronted every day
with the idea that being sweaty, or even physically active outside of a
gym, isn’t feminine. If you’re not worried about it yourself, you’re
constantly being reminded by the media that other, "average" women are.
Transporting children by bike is almost unheard of.

Meanwhile, Dutch parents have the Bakfiets, of course. And in Japan, women ride their kids on cycles called "mamacharis," or mama chariots. Maybe we’ll get there someday.

Other good things from around the network: imagineNATIVEamerica writes about the debate between New Urbanists and the proponents of sprawl; the Hard Drive reports some Oregon drivers don’t see why they should have to put down their cellphones; and The MinusCar Project expects "green business" initiatives to be more than business as usual.

2 thoughts on Mind the Gender Gap

  1. for reals? how about the idea that in the US we have been planning for bicycling for men 20-45. For the most part, planning for riders who tend to be recreation cyclists, and have no fear – it does not appear to me at all that bike planning since the 70’s has been about transportation. The powerful lobby of vehicular cyclists and John Forrestor school of thought, and the car, has made limitations on who cycles not based on gender but based on comfort level, and willingness to ride in (sometimes hardcore) traffic.

    How about bike planning for all riders – young, old, whoever – so that some of our trips (1/2 of which are under 5 miles) can be taken by people who want to bike and doesn’t require tons of bravery. In my perspective, safety issues – whether perceived or real – is what is keeping people from using their bike as transportation – not fashion. Lack of planning and investment in safe streets for all modes is what is keeping people from using their bike as transportation.

    So many people realize the wonders of bicycle as a means of transportation – from all backgrounds – I’d love to see more diversity in our perspectives as a whole in transportation.

    Liked this statement on 50 car pile up blog, “I’d prefer to read blogs that actually dig a little into transportation policy and politics.” Totally – and about the impacts of transportation on our communities. wow, this kinda really got my blood boiling (and I did wear a skirt on my ride to work today – hah!)

  2. On the other hand, as a counter point my mom has commuted to work via bicycle for some time. She doesn’t arrive to work sweaty because she rides at a moderate speed, basically using the time to relax. The distance to work for her is roughly five miles. Of course, she works in the garment industry anyway, so even if she was sweaty it wouldn’t matter if you are stitching clothes.

    I’ve never felt much of a connection between her and the bicycling community The bicycles she use are essentially disposable bicycles purchased on sale from the Evil Mega-Mart ™, which the organized bicycling community frowns upon greatly. There is less investment involved so when it does inevitably get stolen, she isn’t out hundreds or thousands of dollars. She rides at a slow enough speed to ride on the sidewalk, again which attracts the ire of the cycling community. I’ve given her a helmet before, and she doesn’t use it.

    In reality, you see hundreds, if not thousands, of people, mostly immigrants, riding bicycles to work today in my community. The stigma of bicycling for women is no different than the stigma of walking for women, especially late at night. Although there are safety concerns, they are greater than they actually appear, and are reduced significantly if you don’t get into the vehicles of strangers. Maybe we are all Southern gentlemen and think that ladies should never have to walk long distances, carry anything, or open a door themselves. The women themselves have to rise above the “stigma” that society, and to some extent they themselves, have created for them (ever been in a factory breakroom and hear conversations about why “the boyfriend” makes the woman ride the bus to work?)

    Looking at the comments on the Treehugger article, I have to concur with many of them that found the article condescending and patronizing.

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