Depending on whom you ask, women don’t bike in New York City because of their hair, or their heels, or their kids, or their work; or because it’s dangerous, or men in cars or men on bikes or men behind repair stands are condescending or close-minded or cloddish.
Whether or not any of those stereotypes is even remotely right, that premise is totally wrong. Women do bike in New York. More and more take to the streets each day. In fact, from daily commuters to spandex-clad racers to unrelenting advocates, the cyclists who are shaping tomorrow are more likely women than men.
But even that heartening fact misses the point: gender parity has never been a goal. It’s merely an indicator that lets us know we’ve won. When New York City’s cycling population matches its general population, we’ll have a city where biking has assumed its spot next to walking and transit in the pantheon of totally predictable ways to get around.
You Do the Math
Let’s face it: 65 percent of the people reading this magazine are men. Of the cyclists who rode the NYC Century Bike Tour last month, 68 percent were male. Well over half of T.A. Members? Dudes. Despite the extraordinary rise in the number of cyclists on city streets, men continue to dominate cycling counts in New York. But if we’re ever going to live in a city where cycling is a routine mode of transport, then those numbers need to change.
In the Netherlands, where bicycle trips account for roughly 27 percent of all journeys, 55 percent of cyclists are women. In Denmark (16 percent bike mode share) women account for 45 percent, and in Germany (10 percent bike mode share) it’s 49 percent. By contrast, in the U.S., Canada and Australia, where bicycling makes up about one percent of all daily trips, women make up 25 percent, 30 percent and 21 percent of all cyclists, respectively.
Though these numbers might first suggest something far from a reason to cheer, when considered in terms of potential for growth, women far surpass men. In other words, as more cities in the US, Canada and Australia start to take cycling seriously, women have more potential than men to ride regularly.
Exactly this has started to happen right here in New York. According to City Department of Transportation data, surveys of New York cyclists more closely approach gender parity as the quality of bicycling infrastructure improves. Though the percentage of women riding in the five boroughs has increased across the board between 2000 and 2007, surveys in protected bike lanes and along greenways found that 42 percent of all passing cyclists were women, while in a regular on-street bike lane that figure was closer to 15 percent.
In the past three and a half years, Transportation Alternatives has won the addition of more than 200 miles of on-street bike lanes, the installation of thousands of bike racks and the passage of numerous laws that benefit bicyclists. Every one of these victories brings more cyclists onto New York City’s streets, and increasingly, as the City continues to take biking more seriously, those cyclists are women.
“Women are the key indicator species for safe cycling conditions,” NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan told Reclaim.
That’s What She Said
At Reclaim, we decided to broach the topic of women and the future of cycling to start a conversation. While our staff is predominately female and has a lot to say about this subject, we thought it best to pass the proverbial mic to a few of the other amazing women already leading New York City’s cycling surge.
Pasqualina Azzarello, the Executive Director of Recycle-A-Bicycle, which teaches kids to fix bikes and promotes everyday cycling, is one of our favorite local leaders. When we asked her about women and the future of cycling, she said: “More than anything, I see it as a matter of integration: if bicycles are the platform for a sustainable transportation model, then citizens of all genders, ages and socio-economic backgrounds must necessarily be involved and supported in order for the overall system to work, grow and sustain.” ey support, which results in a prioritized list based on popular demand.
A similar sentiment was voiced by Naomi Watts, who, along with Samelys Lopez and Karyn Wiliams, founded Velo City, an organization committed to introducing youth from underserved communities to urban planning through cycling. Naomi believes, “Women, and youth also, hold great sway for the future of our cities. When they feel safe enough to commute by bicycle to work, to school, to the market or to visit their friends, they will reach, and likely surpass, the percentage of men making bicycle trips, and provide a boost to the overall number of cyclists. That will be our tipping point.”
Lucy Danzinger, the editor-in-chief of Self Magazine, which is all about women’s fitness and health, considers herself a cyclist’s Jill-of-all-trades, as comfortable among the spandex set, climbing hills along 9W, as commuting by bike to her office in the Condé Nast building. “Once you get hooked on biking it’s like being a little kid again,” she said. “I love it and know other women will, too, once they try it. The future of cycling revolves around this type of enthusiasm. We ignite the spark in each other just by having fun ourselves.”
T.A.’s own Caroline Samponaro, who directs all our bicycle advocacy efforts and blogs about biking for homemaking queen Martha Stewart, said this about getting women on the road: “We will have reached our goals for bicycle transportation in New York City when the gender, race, age and socio-economic breakdown of folks riding bikes is representative of the enormous diversity of New Yorkers. When invested in adequately by the city, bicycles can be the toasters of urban transportation − practical, cheap household fixtures that are completely non-discriminating in their utility. So absolutely, more women biking means we have a better city for biking and we have done the work it takes to bring the bicycle back into the realm of public transportation where it belongs.”
What It Feels Like for a Girl
Despite the amazing women leading New York’s cycling revolution, the gender inequities of the real world make an easy leap into the bike community, but no more is it about a lack of bike sizes, only pink and purple color schemes or cycling jerseys styled more for Ken than Barbie. Slowly but surely, everyone from industry giants like Trek and Specialized to small urban upstarts like PUBLIC are capitalizing on the fact that women want to ride on equipment built for them. The real problem has much more to do with social inequities than products.
This August’s Atlanta 100K road race is an easy example: the women’s prize money was $10,000 with $2,000 going to the winner. The men competed for $100,000 and a $10,000 top prize. Though female racers like T.A. pal Evelyn Stevens, who has sped from a Central Park racing clinic to the cover of this month’s Bicycling Magazine in a few short years, are fast becoming big draws, their prize money is still paltry compared to male pros. Perhaps, with more podium finishes and premier press, that will change, too?
There is also the simple issue of solidarity. Though the bicycle has been liberating women since long before Susan B. Anthony said, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” it can still be lonely out there for a woman on the road. With fewer women then men involved in every aspect of daily cycling, there are fewer female bicycle mechanics, fewer familiar faces waiting for the light to change, fewer figures that new riders can look to for guidance and fewer of those happy interactions that remind a woman why she rides. But here, too, there’s hope for change. As the virtuous cycle of infrastructure improvement spins, New York will likely see parity emerge in every part of the cycling community.
The real future of cycling in New York City is a reflection of the NYC Census. A city in which cycling has moved from the fringe to the mainstream is a city in which the population of the cycling community directly reflects the population as a whole. Cycling is routine when people of every age, gender, race, class and sexual orientation use bikes to get around with the ease and obviousness that they would use any other form of transit.
At Reclaim, we’re working to making cycling regular; we want biking to be another normal way to get around town. One stop on that route is building a cycling community that really reflects our city. We’ll be thinking about the ways we can make cycling safe, accessible and fun for everyone. While we do that, we’d like to ask something of you: Take a look at your cycling community, whether that’s your family, your neighborhood or your cycling club. How does it reflect the community at large? Does it look like your city? When yours does, and ours does, and everyone’s does, we’re on the road to a better city to bike. We all need to play our role.