The Cycling Gender Gap and How to Bridge It

By: Anna Walters, Bikes Make Life Better

Back in the day—waaaay back, as in the 1890s—the bicycle was an instrument of liberation for women. Easy access to these self-powered contraptions meant that women were freed from insular domestic realms and able to go places. Personal freedom gave lift to the suffrage movement, almost literally, since women could now physically travel to rallies or demonstrations. Two influential activists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, are both quoted in newspapers of the time as saying: “Woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.”

Women cyclists dry themselves off after getting wet during the 1936 N.C.U cyclists rally at Alexandra Palace in London. Credit: Corbis Historical / Getty

Another hot take: The Columbian, a Pennsylvania newspaper, reported in 1895 that women were “riding to greater freedom, to a nearer equality with man, to the habit of taking care of herself, and to new views on the subject of clothes philosophy.”

That’s right, actual garments. Women quickly realized that floor length skirts and pedals don’t mix and began donning the trousers of the menfolk. A moral panic ensued, but women won, and cycling pants ultimately “helped to legitimize women’s presence in traditionally male spheres.”

Dang. Where did all that momentum go? Well first the Ford Motor Company and then the Interstate Highway Act instituted car culture across the land. And all people, but especially women, stopped riding as much.  

Most recent studies show women make just 25 percent of all bicycling trips. Plus on average women in the U.S. are less likely than men to ride, and among those who do, women ride less often and more exclusively for recreation (not transportation).

But any doom and gloom assessment is also an opportunity, or in this case, a bunch of opportunities. Below we’ve paired some depressing data points on the gender gap with hopeful approaches to bridging it.

  • Gap: Only 6 percent of American women versus 13 percent of men say that they are confident riding on all roads with traffic.
  • Opportunities: Offer women urban riding skills classes, group rides, and personalized route recommendations to help instill confidence, especially when riding on busy streets. It’s often a good idea to start with casual rides on low-traffic routes or social rides that end at comfy coffee shops where participants can ask questions in a social environment.
  • Gap: 26 percent of American women say that learning more about bicycling skills would encourage them to ride more.
  • Opportunities: Create a women-only bike skills curriculum, with modules to target different abilities. Start with a Learn to Ride class and end with an on-bike Urban Road Skills class. Have cohorts move through modules together to foster unity and create a safe space. Check out a great example of this by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont.
  • Gap: In a survey of six cities, 29 percent of women versus 83 percent of men said they could fix a flat tire, and only 3 percent of women versus 34 percent of men said that they could fix any bike problem.
  • Opportunity: Offer fix-a-flat and other bike mechanical skills classes led by women, for women. Consider adding these to a general women-only bike riding and mechanical skills curriculum.
  • Statistic: 42 percent of women say that “people to bike with” would encourage them to ride more 
  • Opportunity: Pair them with a female-identified bike buddies who will ride their routes with them until they’re among the strong and fearless. Enlist bicycle champions at your organization or in your community who would be willing to help newbies boost their bike confidence.
  • Gap: On average, women take an additional 110 trips per year than men, and more than 40 percent of the women in two-adult households with small children add non-work trips into their commutes. Plus, Seattle women who do not ride on a daily basis cited higher levels of fashion and equipment concerns, like difficulty bringing clothes with them, feeling like they’re not presentable after riding, and disliking helmet hair.
  • Opportunities: Give women access to cargo bikes or hold a cargo bike demo day, host a bike gear show-and-tell, and consider hosting family and kids social group rides. A couple of supplies, like a hair drying and brush, kept at work can help with helmet hair.

There are numerous findings that link safer routes, installation of bike paths, protected lanes, other infrastructure, and reduced speed limits on roads to significant increases in women riding. The programmatic suggestions above need to happen in tandem with sweeping bike infrastructure improvements … and, while we’re at it, dismantling the patriarchy in general.

Special Considerations

When creating a program or designing a class that is women-only or targets women, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Create a safe space: Making all participants feel safe, seen, and respected is crucial in any class or group setting, but there are special considerations when running bike-related courses or activities for women. Recently we ran an all women Learn to Ride class where participants reported feeling more comfortable learning skills because they felt a sense of unity. We suggest gathering specific concerns of participants and then working to address them even in subtle ways.
  • Offerings should be by women, for women, but that includes folx who are trans, transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, gender creative or anyone whose gender identity is fluid, transgressive, and/or transitioning.
  • Use inclusive language. We mean this when marketing events, by including all folx listed above and during events by asking for and using correct pronouns.

The Indicator Species

At a recent conference, Dr. Susan Handy, Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy and the Director of the Sustainable Transportation Center at the University of California Davis,  referred to women as “the indicator species,” meaning that if women are riding bikes, than a large portion of the majority is riding bikes. Targeting women; designing bike programs, products and incentives with them in mind; and aiming to be as inclusive as possible helps everyone in the long run.

Further Reading

  • The League of American Bicyclists put out a superb guide on the cycling gender gap with benchmarking and mythbusting and ways to get women to ride more!
  • People for Bikes researches biking and revealed findings about riding habits of women.
  • Any research by Dr. Handy, but for starters check a chapter she co-authored for City Cycling.
  • And for a little less data and a little more heart, see Ayesha McGown’s quest to become the first ever female African American pro cyclist (yes, first ever!).

Bikes Make Life Better is dedicated to helping employees at large organizations use bikes for healthy sustainable transportation. They’ve helped design bike programs, facilities, and fleets for Airbnb, Facebook, Kaiser Permanente, LinkedIn, Netflix, Salesforce, Stanford, and many others.