Why Don’t More Women Ride Bikes?

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Though the number of men and women in the U.S. is nearly equal, more than 75 percent of all bicycle trips are taken by men.

According to 2009 census data, there were about 4 million more women than men living in the United States (155 million to 151 million), yet according to a study published in 2012 by researchers at Rutgers University only a quarter of all bicycle trips in the U.S. were made by women.

The numbers are similarly slanted in Canada and the United Kingdom. Yet countries such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, who have more robust cycling infrastructure, see an almost 50-50 split in rider numbers.

So why then don’t more women ride bikes in the United States? It’s a vexing question, but according to several experts we spoke to, the answers are fairly straightforward, having to do with factors such as concern for personal safety and roles within the immediate family structure.

“Women are especially worried about having a safe place to ride,” explains Kate Powlison, research analyst and communications coordinator for the advocacy organization Bikes Belong. “For instance the 1 percent of the population who will ride a bike anywhere, no matter the conditions, is overwhelmingly male, about 80 percent.”

Other factors include the role of women in larger American society, says Carolyn Szczepanski, director of communications for the League of American Bicyclists.

“Generally speaking women are more responsible for childcare in the U.S. And they are more responsible for getting their kids from place to place,” explains Szczepanski, specifically addressing the smaller number of women bike commuters. “That means they have to deal with more trip chaining where they go from one place to another to another running errands. In turn they have to consider how they are going to carry whatever shopping items they may have picked up, or transport their children.”

Obviously that’s often not possible on a bike.

Szczepanski adds that the stereotype of who a cyclist is, a hardcore racer dressed head to toe in Lycra, can be off-putting for some women. “But fortunately that is starting to change,” she says. “Now we see more people getting interested in cycling across the board.”

To keep this momentum rolling — and encourage more women to ride bikes — organizations such as Bikes Belong and the League of American Bicyclists are taking a proactive approach, backing programs such as the Green Lane Project, which helps build protected bike lanes in U.S. communities.

“These types of facilities are proven to attract more women to bicycling,” explains Powlison, herself a passionate cyclist and racer. “The Green Lane Project launched in Austin, Chicago, Memphis, San Francisco, Portland, and Washington, D.C. We were inspired by bike-friendly countries like the Netherlands, and are bringing their lessons and designs over to the U.S.”

These Green Lanes, some which are actually painted green, are areas protected from motor vehicles by curbs, planters, posts, or parked cars. The lanes are carefully engineered with particular attention to safety, efficiency, and ease of travel for all street users.

“Bike facilities such as green lanes and bike boulevards make bicycling feel safer and less stressful, and that is a big way to get more women — and more people in general — riding bikes,” says Powlison. “In bike-friendly countries like the Netherlands and Denmark where bicycling is very safe and pleasant, you see an equal number of men and women riding, as well as the world’s highest cycling levels overall.”

Meanwhile, the League of American Bicyclists continues to refine its Women Bike Program, which has the overarching goal of getting “more women on bikes, riding on the streets of their communities and rising to leadership positions in the movement.”

“One of the things I am really pushing is elevating stories about women in this movement and the efforts that are going on to get more women riding around the country,” says Szczepanski. “We want to really accelerate the process that is going on already.”

The ongoing CycloFemme campaign asks people to promise to inspire more woman to ride.

One such story Szczepanski points out is CycloFemme, an on-line resource that organizes an annual Global Women’s Cycling Day that “unites riders, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or bicycle preference to share in the joy of cycling.” In its first year, there were 163 organized rides in 14 countries; in year No. 2 that number jumped to 221 rides in 31 countries.

CycloFemme also has an ongoing pledge campaign that asks people to sign a document stating that they promise to inspire one more woman to ride a bike.

“It’s a great reminder that creating more cyclists is sometimes just as easy as getting your sister, mother, or neighbor to come along for a ride,” explains CycloFemme founder Sarai Snyder. “Small steps can go a long way.”

About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Tour de France, the Olympic Games, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner, who joined the RoadBikeReview.com / Mtbr.com staff in 2013, has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying time with his wife Lisa and daughter Cora.

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  • Easy Al says:

    Maybe this is politically incorrect, but many women are not all that interested in outdoor athletic activities. I think there is a serious gap in interest between men and women. Plus a lot of guys like wrenching on bikes, and/or they find the mechanical stuff interesting, I believe this mechanical interest is much less common among women than among men.

    Last, and this is a serious hurdle, if you are under 5’3″ in height, fitting a grown-up bike is really hard. This applies to a significant part of the female population.

  • jeri says:

    Women don’t ride as much because generally bikes are too big for them and most of all seats are not designed for them. I designed the pink Carbon Comfort just for women and I have less than a 3% return rate. The difference is a women designer. See http://www.RideOutTech.com

  • DrSmile says:

    This article seems incomplete without referencing the historical role of the bicycle in women’s suffrage,


    “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
    Susan B. Anthony 1896

  • bikermark says:

    @ Easy Al: as de facto office mechanic I know plenty of guys who ride but are uninterested in learning to wrench. If anything, it is the women who want to learn how to empower themselves.

  • Matt H says:

    We surveyed 300+ cycle commuters in our business around the world (UK, Australia, NZ mainly) and it showed that those cities which had cycle routes separate from roads had a much larger number of women cycling.

  • nmartens says:

    Women DO ride, the media just doesn’t notice us.
    I have been riding (racing road and mtb) plus commuting since the late 80s.

    Now that I am post-stroke, my question is “why don’t more (car) dis-abled people ride?”

    Cars suck for us. How can we keep them off the public roadways and make public thoroughfares safer for bicycles, walkers and wheelchairs???

  • Paula Joy says:

    I believe that for commuting back and forth to work to attract more women riders, women’s locker rooms and showers have to be available within the job site’s building. The pressure on women to look ‘put together’ at the office is high, and we are taught from a young age that we must look attractive at all times.

    Also, if the men that wait on women in bike shops were less condescending and more patient about answering questions and explaining biking logistics and equipment, women would be less intimidated to go into the bike shops and make purchases.

    Regarding safety, of course women are more concerned about their safety along routes since they are more likely than men to be assaulted anywhere they go, whether on a bike or not, unfortunately, if an unfortunate situation is to occur.

    That said, I took up biking when I turned 50 and eventually discovered the wonderful travel options that bike touring offers. For my 60th birthday, I greatly enjoyed a short, solo (fully loaded) tour along a very mellow trail across one end of Vancouver Island, from Victoria BC to Sooke and back. The Galloping Goose trail felt safe and was very scenic. I was well prepared with what I carried on my bike and felt safe camping alone in the Provincial Parks in Canada, since families were camping nearby and I did not feel isolated. http://www.pedalinjoy.blogspot.com is where my biking adventures are chronicle.

    I love bicycling and I ride daily on Sacramento bike trails and on downtown streets where good infrastructure or quiet streets exist. I have never felt in danger, using common sense to avoid anything that does not feel safe to me. I look forward to more bike tours.

  • Diane Dee says:

    I ride year round around suburban locations, for recreation and for errands such as grocery shopping, except during blizzards or when its icy. I rarely see other women on the road, except in downtown Boston, taking advantage of our Hubway shared bikes and miles of bike lanes. If I see women riding close to home, its usually a quick jaunt out for a couple of miles. My friends tell me they want to ride with me, but set limits: Not when its hot, not when its cold, no hills, not on the road, not too far,blah blah, blah. Needless to say, I ride by myself or occasionally with a neighbor who has the ability to ride a 20 mile round trip to the beach.

    I have been riding since I was about 4 years old, got a Raleigh 3 speed for my 12th birthday, a Diamondback hybrid for my 35th, and a brand spanking new Marin Kentfield CS1 last week, a couple of weeks ahead of of my 62nd. I don’t ride for speed but work on endurance, so that I can ride a consistant 20 miler, which will give me the confidence I need to go off on a bike tour vacation.

    There’s a wonderful website that tells of women solo bike travelers (Google: Women on Wheels or website skalatitudes.com). It occurs to me, I don’t know the history of women cyclists, I don’t know anything about current women cyclists-racers, mountain bikers, etc. Are there sgnificant purses for women’s races? I don’t think so…Its till hard to find women’s equipment and I’m sure that if there were a famous women bicyclist, there would be equipment and endorsements, and etc.

    What is the solution? Maybe bike touring clubs, or local bike shops offering rides specifically for women and girls. Or maybe just for us women cyclists to reach out to each other….and write articles about the joy of cycling.

    Women do ride, it takes a lttle more digging to find women specific equipment, there are not that many

  • Jen says:

    Community and Confidence will go a long way in promoting women’s cycling. The running world has done a great job creating a community of women and mom runners. We need to find that passion within the cycling community and leverage it. It’s about more than commuting and professional cycling.

  • Rhodabike says:

    Last spring I volunteered for a women’s cycling workshop put on by a local advocacy group, in the form of three nights of practicing whatever skills the participants wanted to work on.
    It was an eye-opener. Things that I’ve always done and taken for granted, like shoulder-checking, straddle starts, riding out of the saddle, and signalling turns with either hand, were difficult for some of the women on the course. One was even learning to ride for the first time in her life – she’d grown up in a large city and her parents were too fearful of traffic to let her learn. (She picked it up in a week!) We practiced in an empty parking lot for two evenings and ended with a group ride to a coffee shop several miles away.
    So, overprotective parents and lack of practice at the normal learning age could be a factor. Boys tend to be given more freedom to fall down and learn through mistakes in our culture.
    FInally, although small sizes are a concern for some women, I think it should be pointed out that not all women are under 5′-3″. Us taller gals (5′-8″ and up) find it a bit frustrating that almost all women’s cycling clothing seems to be made for the little 100 pound 5′-0″ sprites who race. Yes, we can buy men’s clothing, but it rarely fits properly.

  • Ron says:

    Very simple – if you ride a bicycle around in the U.S. it isn’t going to be very long at all before you a) are nearly hit by a dangerous, aggressive, distracted driver and/or b) confronted by an angry driver who thinks you should be on the sidewalk. Men tend to be more okay with confrontation, aggressiveness, etc. Generally bigger and stronger, which give confidence in such situations.

    I’d love it if my wife would ride more, but I ride daily and knowing all I have to put up with from drivers, I’m actually kind of happy she drives most places. Sad, but true.

    Just this weekend I was nearly hit, then nearly purposefully run into, then screamed and yelled and gestured at. Why? I had the nerve to be on that guy’s stretch of barren country road.

  • TBlock2 says:

    maybe more women don’t ride bikes because they were not introduced to it as children, when learning a new skill is inherently easier. so maybe this question should be put to parents of small children. “why aren’t more of you sharing with your daughters the joy of riding a bicycle?” i would like to hear your feedback mom and dad.

  • karenashg says:

    Another factor is that the cycling world itself sends the message that cycling is for men. Those cycling clothing websites that even carry both men’s and women’s clothing often will present a “jersey” (or shorts or whatever)–by which they actually mean a “men’s jersey”–and then a “women’s jersey.” Default assumption is cyclist=man. Add in bike shops that can be uninterested or outright patronizing to women shopping for bikes, and a woman trying to get into the sport has to push through a lot of messaging that she’s not welcome.

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