Spend some time watching rush-hour cyclists in central London and you’ll soon observe a trend: they’re mostly men. In fact, “it’s disproportionately rich, white men, to put it crudely”, says Judy Green, a professor of Sociology of Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has studied cycling from a sociological perspective.
So why do fewer women than men cycle in some cities? There is little evidence to suggest that women inherently dislike cycling. In countries with a higher proportion of cyclists, there is gender equality, or even a modest female bias. In Denmark, 55 percent of all bike trips are made by women, and the proportion is slightly higher in the Netherlands. In Finland, Germany, and Sweden, the proportion of bike trips by women hovers around 50 percent. But in countries where cycling is less popular, the proportion of women in the saddle drops: to about 30 percent in Canada, 27 percent in the U.K., and 25 percent in the U.S.
In retrofitting urban areas to make them safe and pleasant to cycle in, the growing proportion of women on bikes suggests we may slowly be getting on the right track.
Professor Jennifer Dill from Portland State University has studied why women are underrepresented among cyclists in cities with lower cycling rates. She has found that people fall into four broad categories of attitude to cycling: the non-cyclist, the interested but concerned, the enthused and confident, and the strong and fearless. She has rigorously explored these categories, first developed informally by her colleague Roger Geller. From her surveys, Dill found that women were overrepresented in the first two categories, while men were significantly more likely to be in the latter two.
Green has also explored how risk affects people’s motivations to cycle or not in London. “A few of the men that we interviewed were actually quite upfront about enjoying the risk,” she says. They enjoyed “racing with the cars and the lights” and the adrenaline rush. No women interviewed said that they enjoyed the risk. When it comes to cycling, women have three choices, suggests Green. They can disavow the risk, and decide it’s not really that dangerous once you know what you’re doing. They can decide "It’s too dangerous, I’m not going to do it." Or they can embrace the perceived risk as part of an assertive identity. But Green notes that these choices are not equally available across the population. “That assertive identity is more available to some women than others,” she says. Class and culture play a role in that inequality.
In Canada, Vancouver has adopted an ambitious goal of zero cycling fatalities as part of its Transportation 2040 plan, which is built around a philosophy of Triple A: the goal of encouraging cycling for "All Ages and Abilities." This, explains Jerry Dobrovolny, Vancouver’s director of transport, will be achieved through traffic-calming measures such as bike boulevards, and physically separated bike lanes on major streets. It’s early days, but the plan may already be working. Progress toward sexual equality in the demographics of cyclists is emerging. On the city’s Hornby Street bike lane in 2010, 28 percent of cyclists were women. After the painted bike lane was converted to a physically separated lane, that figure grew to 37 percent in 2012. In Portland too, counts indicate a shift from 21 percent women in 1992 to 30 percent in 2010—and during this interval the city’s overall cycling rates increased considerably, as did investment in routes that accommodate cyclists.
Having studied the potential links between the proportion of women cycling and general cycling statistics, experts are proposing that the number of women on bikes is an indicator of an environment’s cycle-friendliness and cycle-safety. Women, being more concerned about cycling safety (according to studies in the U.K., the U.S., and Australia), may be the canaries in the coal mine. In retrofitting urban areas to make them safe and pleasant to cycle in, the growing proportion of women on bikes suggests we may slowly be getting on the right track.