Women Cycling – Rambling on About Research

The National Women’s Bicycling Summit is coming up fast. And while I am not exactly in the target demographic, I am disappointed that I cannot afford to go. The question of why women disproportionately do not ride bicycles, and what interventions might be most effective in closing that gap, are critical research questions, and I am glad to see this topic examined nationally and visibly.

Personally, I owe my own ability to get around on a bicycle to my mom, who used to shove me out the door and off to school every day to primary school on my bike, and drag me out every weekend for a ride on the Ottawa Parkway. It saddens me that I can count on one hand the number of times she has ridden a bike since we moved to the States, and that so many other moms (who AFAIK, still predominate as the primary caregiver in both single and dual parent households) are missing out on the opportunity to similarly brainwash their malleable little spawn regardless of gender.

I sat in on WABA’s Women’s Cycling Forum and the National Women’s Cycling Forum at the Bike Summit (quietly, in the back, unlike one of the other guys at the latter, who leapt up to be the first to ask a rambling question – bad form, dude).  While both events and all speakers were fantastic, research was not prominently discussed on either occasion. A quick scan of the program for the National Women Bicycling Summit does not appear to dwell on the causal research questions and findings either. On the other hand, they ARE being discussed in researchy forums, like this one. But, you know, stovepipes…

So anyway, meekly offered here is a very quick summary of what I have seen, read, or poked around in, for no other reason than it’s the day before Labor Day weekend, and the office is empty.  This is not complete, by any means, and standard disclaimer applies here that everything discussed characterizes significant variables in the aggregate, and YMMV. But I hope that if you happen to be attending the Summit, that you will think about and raise the critical research questions — “What are the significant barriers that disproportionately keep women from bicycling, what can be most effectively done about it, and why is it critically important to fix this?”

Infrastructure — I led with this one, because frankly, it is where most of the research is pointing. And sorry, a lot of that research is behind paywalls. But in general, where there is bicycle infrastructure, and particularly bicycle infrastructure beyond a traditional bikelane, the proportion of women riders rises. Jennifer Dill at Portland State University is a great source on the subject, as is Susan Handy at UC Davis.

Encouragement Programs — I’ve not seen a whole lot of research here, other than the APBP Women’s Cycling Survey (pdf), which indicates high concerns among women about on-the-road safety concerns, rather than social or encouragement issues. Many of the speakers at these forums represent really creative and productive projects to encourage more women to try bicycling, in a variety of contexts, and they pay dividends in ways that likely don’t show up very well in research.

Bike shops — Let’s stipulate that most bike shops are “blokey.” A post for another day is “why,” it’s a deceptively complex answer. “What can we do” is the subject of a bunch of market research within the bicycle industry, like focus group research from the IDEO group that led to Shimano Coasting. It would be great (hint!) if researchers and advocates could get their mitts on that, and similar, industry research.

But does the vertically-integrated Lanciness of the bicycle industry significantly contribute to disproportional rates of ridership?  Is the purchase-process barrier high enough that, were there a better way to acquire access to a bicycle, the gender gap in bicycling would close? Well, the bikeshop problem has never really come up in surveys as a significantly reported barrier, but we now have a way to test that “what-if”….

Bikesharing — Public bikeshare systems take the bike shops and male-centric merchandise out of the equation, and give on-demand access to a bicycle. Is this closing the gender gap? Well, it’s looking like a mixed bag. Jessica Schoner at UMN sums it up extremely well here . In Minnesota (and DC), the proportion of women with bikeshare memberships is higher than the general proportion of female bicycle ridership.  But, at least in Minnesota, actual trips and approximate riding distance regresses to somewhere close to the overall proportion of female bicycle ridership.

We see hints of a similar phenomena in the Capital Bikeshare service area. 24-hour users are 52% female. But that finding comes with a huge asterisk – that survey collection did not note the gender of accompanying bicyclists, and most did not ride alone. Annual member respondents to the CaBi 2011 survey were 45% female. Both of these compare favorably to the CaBi service area’s 35% proportion of female ridership (based on same dataset of this big pdf, a forthcoming paper contains this analysis). But, female annual survey respondents self-report taking far fewer trips than male repondents. 51% of males report taking 6 or more CaBi trips in a month, vs. 35% of females reporting the same.

[Complaint box time - The municipal folks managing Capital Bikeshare exercised a pocket veto on my (many) requests for CaBi trip records tagged by the annual member's gender, the type of data used in Ms. Schoner's analysis of NiceRide. Hopefully, someone will get it out of them one day, it is not looking like it is going to be me, especially after I hit "Publish." Even better if someone got access to such data for a bikeshare system with GPS tracking, so actual distances traveled and other spatial variables can be measured.]

Sorry. Anyway. If this pattern of signalling an intention to bicycle but not doing so at higher rates persists, it lends some credence to the next area of inquiry.

Time and responsibilities — I have done very little reading about how much more responsibility women have in the caregiver role, and how that compresses time and practicality of bicycling. But I have little doubt that it plays a major role, and all manner of studies are out there documenting this outside the bicycle context. The APBP Women’s Cycling Survey (pdf) also shows how the proportion of women bicyclists rises significantly outside of traditional child-rearing age brackets.

Phew. In closing, I just want to put in a pitch for those interested to demand and embrace more research on the subject [even from men, many of whom have no need to take your picure]. Happy Labor Day Weekend!

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8 Responses to Women Cycling – Rambling on About Research

  1. Gail says:

    There are scholarships for this event, is that the cost you refer to that you can’t afford? Just curious.

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