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Women’s Bicycling Forum Confronts Obstacles to Getting More Women Riding

NOW President Terry O'Neill told the Women's Forum that they need to put women -- not bicycles -- at the center of their analysis. Photo: Brian Palmer
NOW President Terry O'Neill told the Women's Forum that they need to put women -- not bicycles -- at the center of their analysis. Photo: Brian Palmer

This year marks the third time a Women’s Bicycling Forum has preceded the National Bike Summit in Washington, DC, and, despite weather emergencies and an epidemic of flight cancellations, this is by far the best-attended one yet.

Despite impressive momentum, the movement to get more women on bikes faces many obstacles. Yesterday, National Organization of Women President Terry O’Neill laid out some barriers to women's cycling that don't often make it into the conversation. When bike advocates focus on safe infrastructure, group rides, and kitten-heel-friendly bike fashion to lure women, O’Neill says they might be missing some important points.

Overlooked Factors

Commuting to work by bike is all well and good if you live near work, O'Neill said, but low-wage women workers in the service industry -- who live on the poor side of town and work on the rich side -- might have long commutes on dangerous arterial streets at non-traditional hours. Telling them to bike that route is a losing battle.

But it’s also an opportunity to make important connections with other movements, she said -- like the fight for affordable housing in all communities, so that more people can live near their jobs.

Women are also more sensitive than men to the dangers they face, not just from cars but from predators, O'Neill noted. Being exposed and unprotected on a bike might be a deal-breaker for women who have been victims of sexual assault or stalking.

Plus, it’s well-known that women’s days are more complicated than men’s. Grocery shopping, child-care dropoff, and soccer practice all create multi-point trips with different cargo. As Megan Odett of Kidical Mass DC says, a $100 investment will allow you to do about 75 percent of everything you need to do on your bike with your kid. But to make all your trips on a bike requires an investment of thousands: Cargo bikes and electric assists are not cheap.

O’Neill suggests that the women's bike movement should shift its focus. “What do we do to bring women to bikes?” is the wrong question, she said. “Put women at the center of your analysis and you'll ask, ‘What do we need to do to make bicycles a smart, natural no-brainer solution for the challenges women face in their everyday lives?’”

Women Dominate in Cycling... With Kids

Odett is trying to “foment a revolution” to get the women's bike movement to pay more attention to the needs of parents -- both men and women, but with women taking on a disproportionate amount of child-care responsibilities, it becomes a women’s issue.

“The bike community needs to understand they need family people there,” Odett said. “It’s a lot easier to retain a cyclist than to create a cyclist."

"With so much of the growth in cycling from younger people, the cycling community needs to ask itself what’s going to happen in five or 10 years when all these new women cyclists and new young cyclists start having children and start making hard choices about where they live and how they get their families to the places they need to get to.”

A new study from the Gluskin Townley Group [PDF] shows that women make up 54 percent of people who bike with kids -- the only slice of the U.S. cycling population in which women are the majority.

The Privilege of the Naked Bike Ride

That’s what’s so frustrating about an approach like that of Lilian Karabaic, a Portland-based board member of Cycle Wild and author of an upcoming book on the "Bike Fun" movement, who spoke in the afternoon. Though no one could argue with her push for more donuts on bike rides, many people walked out of her talk offended.

“We don’t keep [kids] riding by talking about concrete and curb cuts," she said. "What keeps someone riding is fun! How do we get adults that haven't ridden to become riders? You don’t create more riders with suits and ties; you don’t get more riders with spandex.”

Karabaic is all in favor of bunny-ears bike rides and naked bike rides. She thinks those are more fun. But she fails to acknowledge the obvious: Her bunny-ears rides are kept safe by the bicycling infrastructure and driver education that the "suits and ties" crowd keeps yapping about.

You know, I don't get turned on talking about soil science, either, but I'm still appreciative of the people who grow my food.

Karabaic might not love talking about concrete, but concrete -- in the form of protected bike infrastructure -- is an essential ingredient to get more people on bikes and keep them alive, whether they’re wearing tutus, spandex, or pencil skirts.

What’s more, Karabaic is dead-set against bike advocacy that focuses on environmental responsibility or weight loss or even saving money.

“Sure, maybe I like to save money,” she said, “but it’s not like my inherent will as a person is ‘ooh, budgeting.’ It’s not super crazy sexy to me.”

But “sexy” isn’t everyone’s top priority. “I biked out of necessity,” Nelle Pierson of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association told me. “I had to bike. There was no alternative on my giant college campus. I had no money, I had to pay for my education. I had no alternative. So for her to say people base their transportation decisions off of ‘fun’ made me feel like that’s a pretty privileged approach.”

Not that Pierson is against fun -- WABA puts on its share of fun rides, not to mention the Bike Prom and the Tour de Fat, a quirky day-long festival with live music, craft beer, and food trucks sponsored by the New Belgium Brewing Company.

Fun Plus

Of course, there's a place for selling bicycling on the unbridled joy it can bring. “Fun is a big part of the Kidical Mass and family biking platform,” Odett said.

But fun is different for parents. Taking your kids for entertaining and eye-opening experiences is a daily duty for a parent. So for a parent, "fun" can be just another need that gets met on a bike, along with transportation and exercise.

Over the course of the Women's Forum, many people talked about how they make bicycling more inviting to women -- from women-only rides with ice cream at the end to maintenance clinics in a less intimidating environment.

But for women to really dedicate themselves to cycling for transportation -- and not just the one-off weekend ride in tweed or in costumes -- they’re going to have to find that cycling is the best choice for their lives. Saving money and getting in shape are not trivial reasons why people get into bicycling. Finding a way to ride with kids is key for biking to be possible for parents.

And knowing you can ride with a reasonable assumption that you’ll arrive safely at your destination is paramount for everyone. The advocates working to make biking safe aren’t to be derided for being uncool. The entire Bike Summit empowers and celebrates them for their work.

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