DAY 17: Women are an ‘indicator species’ for bike-friendly cities

Just to be clear, I mean “indicator species” in the nicest way.

Stephanie and our daughter Robin return tomorrow from Washington, D.C. One of my first questions will be about how many women they saw riding bicycles. Our nation’s capital is ranked one of the 10 best U.S. cities for biking.

I love to see women riding bicycles, especially for transportation. It gives me hope. First, some women could benefit from bike commuting. When it comes to their daily commute, women are more stressed than men. Second, it’s that indicator species thing that scientists talk about. You can tell a bike-friendly city when lots of women are riding bikes. And when women ride bikes, so do men and children.

Houston ain’t Copenhagen

The League of American Bicyclists published a report in 2014 called “Engaging More Women in Bicycling.” It won me over with this statement:

“There is a dominant narrative among bike advocates and progressive city planners that if we simply ‘Copenhagenize’ American cities, the bicycling gender gap will disappear. Often, women’s aversion to risk and the lack of widespread dedicated bike facilities explains away the disparity in ridership numbers.”

As any Texas bubba will gladly tell you, “Houston ain’t Copenhagen, darlin’.”

It’s complicated, like women’s lives

The authors cited four barriers to more women cycling:

  1. Perception of safety: Fear, inexperience, confidence in one’s body, poor or lack of infrastructure
  2. Logistics: Office facilities, preparedness, gear, time commitment, bike storage
  3. Social norms and expectations: More responsibilities as a mother/woman, bike shop intimidation, street harassment, professionalism, misconceptions about femininity and athleticism, double standards for men and women, hardcore-ism, social status
  4. Social support: Less access to supportive and encouraging friends and family that already bike and want to share biking
Produced by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Free download.

The complexity and connectedness of these barriers are why government, business, nonprofits and individuals all need to help. The good news: a lot of good things are happening here in Houston. That will be the subject of future posts.

In the meantime, I highly recommend “Women & Bicycles: The Ins and Outs of Urban Bicycling.” It’s a great source of practical ideas. For a little motivation, read about Molly and Libby, two Houston moms who ride to work.