Five Things I Already Knew About Women & Bikes*

12 Aug

*But was afraid to write about without data to back me up. This is first post in the series.

The League of American Bicyclists released their research on women and bicycling last week in a brief report titled Women on a Roll. The report compiles survey and other data from a variety of sources throughout the United States on when, where, why, and how women are riding bicycles (or not). The good news is that women overwhelmingly like bicycling and more women are riding, with evidence from the report like:

  • Bicycle riding ranked #9 of 47 popular sports for female participation, surpassing yoga, tennis and softball.
  • The overall number of women who bike commute grew 56% from 2007 to 2011.

The report then breaks down results into five key areas: Comfort, Convenience, Consumer Products, Confidence and Community. As a woman who has bicycled for daily transportation for three years, for sport for 12 years, and for fun her whole life, there was little in the report that surprised me. But I’m so grateful that they put hard data behind what I already knew was true, but often hesitate saying for fear of offending people.

The problem is that people are individuals, not demographics. Many women bristle at statements like “women are afraid of car traffic” or “women aren’t competitive” which carry a value judgment more than stating a fact. A significant number of female cyclists have preferences similar to typical male cyclists, and a significant number of male cyclists have preferences similar to typical female cyclists. So that’s my disclaimer before I begin…

What I knew about COMFORT: Women will go out of their way for better bike lanes and low-stress routes.

Bike Path

Some statistics from the Women on a Roll Report:

  • Women will ride an additional 5 minutes further than men to access a bike facility, like a bike lane or path.
  • 47% of potential cyclists in Portland, OR, who are “Interested but Concerned” about bicycling are women.
  • In another Portland survey, 94% of women agreed that separated lanes made their ride safer vs 64% of men.
  • A 2011 bike count in New York City showed that 15% of the cyclists on a street without a bike lane were women, compared to 32% on a nearby streets with a bike lane.

My Personal Experience: Although my friends and I will ride on the shoulder of highways with 45+ mph traffic like Highway 1 along the California coast, we avoid it if there’s any alternative. It’s true for commuting too, where time is more critical. When I ride the whole way to work I have three options: 11 miles on the shoulder of a 45 mph expressway, 12 miles on 35 mph 4-lane office park arterial roads with bike lanes or 14 miles where half is on arterials and half on off-road bike paths. Guess which one I choose.

My friend Cindy C commutes on busy Central Expressway when she’s pinched for time because it’s faster, but my other female roadie friends won’t. And I’ve never heard a woman say she enjoys the thrill of riding an expressway. Yes, I’ve had men say that, usually in the context of why they don’t enjoy it anymore: the thrill is gone. There’s a reason car insurance companies charge men under 25 higher rates. They’re risk takers.

Riding on Central Expressway

Not that women always choose streets with bike lanes. When I turn off of a faster street with door zone bike lanes and take its parallel neighborhood street suddenly I see women and girls, despite there being stop signs every 500 feet. It’s not a matter of experience either. I know an experienced couple that disagrees over which of these two routes to choose. She likes to leave five minutes early and take the lower-stress route, he doesn’t understand why. No names on this one, but you can guess.

The Impact: When a city installs bike lanes it says that bikes belong. Despite long-standing laws giving bikes full rights to the street, the public is more accepting of bikes on high-speed roads where there are bike lanes. Social acceptance is more important to women who often have a harder time ignoring the safety concerns of others. “You ride there? That’s dangerous. Are you crazy?” has greater negative impact when it’s said to a woman than a man. Especially when it’s her husband, mother or best friend saying it.


Having only male cyclists weigh in on bicycle infrastructure can skew it toward designs that fewer women will choose. In particular, the preferences of “vehicular cyclists” who believe bikes should be “driven” like cars in standard travel lanes instead of ridden in bike lanes are far less appealing to women. Given that 94% of women prefer separated bike lanes, I’d say that people who fight against them are being unintentionally sexist.

Is it that women are too nervous to learn to ride in car traffic? Nope. Over half of the participants in classes offered by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition are women. My take: women are willing to learn to ride confidently and safely, but they’d rather not have to ride in fast traffic that doesn’t think they belong there.

Do the results in the Women on a Roll report surprise you? Does it match what you see in your area? How do you think the preferences of women riders impacts bicycling in your city?



Posted by on August 12, 2013 in Issues & Infrastructure, Women & Bikes


12 responses to “Five Things I Already Knew About Women & Bikes*

  1. disgruntled

    August 12, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Like you, nothing that surprised me personally, but lots of stuff I’ve struggled to explain to others – so it’s nice to have something to point to that backs me up. Particularly the fact that women are so much more likely to be trip chaining and multi tasking and responsible for childcare, which complicates cycling even if it doesn’t make it completely impossible

    • ladyfleur

      August 12, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      Yes. I do a lot more trip chaining and errands than my husband and we don’t even have kids. That’s tomorrow’s topic, btw, “What I knew about Convenience.” It also bleeds into the equipment discussion as well, which is on part 3. I have a busy week coming up…

  2. Katie Schoeben

    August 12, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    Women are a growing participant in cycling on any type of road. The statistics are just starting to point this fact out. The industry and the government that establishes bike structure better get used to it, cuz we are not going away. There should be no discrimination in cycling. It is a non-gender, non-age restricted sport. I mean when we build infrastructure for cars do we evaluate if a man or a women is driving the car – nope. Janet, as always you eloquently point out interesting facts to mull over. All I know is that women get $#@% done.

    • ladyfleur

      August 13, 2013 at 5:11 pm

      Yes, women love bikes at least as much as men. What limits cycling of every type is having good places to ride, whether it’s in town, on the dirt trails or on the back roads, and it impacts women more than men who would rather the serenity of a bike path that a thrill-seeking experience.

  3. Elizabeth

    August 13, 2013 at 7:43 am

    The results didn’t surprise me at all. However, there are quite a few women who are more willing to bicycle with fast traffic than I would be. My preference is for low stress quiet routes such as Laurel street in Menlo Park or Russell bicycle boulevard in Berkeley. In the Netherlands, streets with 20mph + traffic are required to have separated bike lanes and we should have that here too as we are 30 times more likely to be hit on our bikes in the US than Holland. If you do get hit, chance of surviving a 40 mph crash is only 5% or maybe it was 15%. It’s odd to me that my cautious approach is often called inexperienced or novice when I have been riding a bicycle for decades.

  4. Arleigh Jenkins

    August 13, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Thanks for the post on this. For the most part I find reports like this to be a big slap on the forehead leaving with a “duh” on your tongue. Often we over complicate things and the bike industry is one of those things.

    • ladyfleur

      August 14, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      Yeah, it’s pretty obvious but people don’t want to rock the boat. By the way, my third post in the series is about consumer products so it’s all about what the industry builds and how they market it.

      It was hard to write because I have good friends in the industry (manufacturers and retail) and I’m not sure how they’ll take some of the criticism.

  5. Molly

    August 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    “people are individuals, not demographics” My husband rides on the sidewalk because he feels it is safer. I can’t go that slowly on the heavy bike with 3 children, plus I feel the need to sing to warn pedestrians and that is difficult when I am out of breath 🙂

  6. Matt Boulanger (@mattboulanger)

    May 2, 2014 at 9:24 am

    Thanks for linking to this in our twitter conversation! And giving me a new blog to follow!


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