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Why Do Teenage Girls Lose Interest in Biking?

The cycling gender gap in America is real: Women accounted for less than a quarter of bike trips in 2009, according to the National Household Travel Survey. The question is what causes the disparity, and how can it be eliminated?

Jennifer Dill, a planning professor at Portland State University, is taking a close look at why girls' attitudes about biking change over time. In a longitudinal study of 300 Portland-area families, she observed that a gender gap in attitudes toward cycling isn't apparent in younger kids, but when girls reach adolescence, they don't view cycling as positively as boys do.

kidbikeattitudechange
The gender gap in attitudes toward cycling starts in adolescence. Graphic: Jennifer Dill

Here Dill delves into the nuanced differences between kids who view biking positively versus negatively, and what that says about why girls lose interest in cycling:

A few factors were correlated with the changes, including perceptions of traffic safety and confidence riding with traffic. For example, for the negative girls, their agreement with the statement “traffic in our neighborhood makes it difficult or unpleasant for me to bike alone in our neighborhood” went up, while it went down for the other girls and for all the boys (figure below). The negative girls’ comfort level riding alone in different street environments also went down, while it went up for the other girls and went up or stayed about the same for all the boys. These findings indicate that programs that help girls feel more confident riding, such as classes and group rides, may be important for getting more girls riding. Infrastructure that reduces interactions with motor vehicles may also help.

changetrafficperceptions

The girls [with more negative attitudes toward biking] were also more likely to increasingly think biking takes too long. This parallels other research I’ve done showing time as a reason women do not bike. There also seem to be social aspects to bicycling for girls. The negative girls increasingly said that having no one to bike with was a barrier (figure below). For some reason, the opposite happened among the boys. The negative girls were also much less likely over the two years to say that their friends thought they should bike more.

someonetobikewith

Rain as a barrier for biking also increased among the negative girls more so than other girls and all the boys. Not liking to wear helmets correlated with negative attitudes among both the girls and boys, though it wasn’t a barrier for many of the kids.

There were many things that were not correlated with the negative changes in attitudes, including attitudes towards driving (wanting to drive) and thinking biking is cool (or not). This may be the influence of living in Portland, where bicycling is generally viewed as normal, and perhaps even “hip.” The changes were also not associated with objective measures of the neighborhood environment, including street connectivity or bike infrastructure. However, the neighborhoods in our study did not vary that much; this might be a factor in other places. And, remember that perceptions of the neighborhood were important.

More recommended reading today: Mobility Lab shares new research showing that early experiences with transit can influence lifelong ridership. And City Observatory shoots down Ross Douthat's fantasy of "breaking up" large, liberal cities.

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