Why Aren't More US Women Riding Bikes?

An article recently came out in The Guardian titled, “The reason fewer US women cycle than the Dutch is not what you think it is.” This title grabbed my attention immediately, as it was meant to do, and I began to wonder if there was something I already thought about this matter as the title of the article suggested.The subtitle was even more enticing, “American women aren’t being put off by a lack of bike lanes but by lives that are disproportionately filled with domestic chores.”Honestly, I hadn’t given much thought to specifically comparing female bicyclists in the U.S. and the Netherlands. But if I had to guess, I would think that Dutch women cycle more than U.S. women largely because there is a much more robust bike commuting culture, and the infrastructure to support it, in the Netherlands. But the article was going to tell me otherwise, and I was hooked.The article referenced a recent study from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) that explored gender differences in household travel. The title of the study was equally attention grabbing – “Honey, Can You Pick-Up Groceries on Your Way Home? Analyzing activities and travel among students and in non-traditional households.”The study was specifically focused on gender differences in household travel for non-traditional households (i.e. those other than a two-sex, married couple household), but there was also an emphasis on gender differences specifically in household travel.mommy-clipart-imperfect-mommy-clip-art-854x1024There are numerous interesting findings in the study, which I won’t go into detail here, but the major one cited in The Guardian article is the following:

Even in households where women earn more, are better educated, and work more hours than their partners, these women still make 1.5 times as many child-serving trips and 1.4 times as many grocery trips as their male partners.

For most American women, I doubt this comes as any surprise. And as the authors also argue, the reasons for this are likely more cultural than economic. As an American woman, I would agree that this tends to be the case. No, I’m not citing any particular study to back this opinion up. That’s simply my observation.Consider, for example, these unusual bike commuting needs. Though clearly, despite family duties, some women are still managing to bike commute.Alright, so the study is well done and worth a read. But as I spent a little time looking at it, I began to wonder what on earth it had to do with bicycles or Dutch women. Out of curiosity, I did a quick little text search, and the word “bicycle” appears only 3 times in the entire report. “Biking” also appears 3 times. “Dutch” appears 0 times.But the emphasis of The Guardian article, which mind you was co-written by one of the study’s authors, was on the differences between U.S. and Dutch women’s cycling habits. But the study does not explicitly look at bicycle use, nor does it explicitly compare U.S. or Dutch women’s habits.Ok, so who cares, right?Dork alert, but I guess I care. As a PhD student, I study the translation of science and communication of science for decision-making, so I suppose if anyone is going to be bothered by this, it’s going to be me. I’m all for attention grabbing headlines about cool new research, but only if the headline is related to the actual research.The article in The Guardian goes on to argue that the reason Dutch women bike commute more frequently is that they have more time due to family-friendly policies, shorter work weeks, and more mobile children and elderly people (so they spend less time chauffeuring their families around). I would imagine all of these points are quite valid, though I haven’t seen research to support it (doesn’t mean it’s not out there though).There’s also the issue of bike infrastructure, which is often cited as one of the biggest factors in closing the gender gap in U.S. women’s cycling. It’s no secret that the Netherlands have great bike infrastructure, and shorter distances to travel in many cases, than do many places in the U.S. The article refers to the issue of bike infrastructure, but it’s presented as being secondary to this issue of women’s domestic duties.Ok, so what’s the point of me nitpicking about all of this? Well, I’m honestly still curious why fewer U.S. women cycle than Dutch women. Unfortunately, the referenced article and study can’t give us those answers, because that is NOT WHAT THE STUDY WAS ABOUT. Sorry for shouting… The article presents some interesting hypotheses and results, but those weren’t tested in the referenced study, so it’s all just opinions for the time being.And the opinion that U.S. women are weighed down by all their domestic duties and therefore don’t bike commute just doesn’t hold water with me. Is that a factor? Absolutely. Is that the most significant factor? Eh…I don’t think so, but there’s no research to say one way or the other.carousel-be-active-bike-errandSo that leaves me to share some of my own opinions. Thank goodness, what else is blogging for anyhow? I think it’s hard to compare U.S. and Dutch women in the first place. It’s a little bit of an apples and oranges kind of thing. The Netherlands as a whole are so different from the U.S. – socially, culturally, politically, geographically – that making such a comparison would definitely require a more rigorous categorization and method.It might be more useful to compare rates of women cycling within the U.S. We could make some interesting comparisons between different women based on age, employment, marital status, # of children, etc. The aforementioned study does it’s due diligence comparing different types of households (just not between women in the U.S. and the Netherlands), so something similar within the U.S. focusing on bicycle use would be really interesting. How do different factors among American women affect their willingness or ability to bike commute? The problem with that is that the data on bicycle use in theU.S. is a little weak, and it’s hard to do rigorous comparisons of bike commuters without a good dataset.That being said, Women Bike has done some really interesting preliminary research into these factors. As mentioned earlier, bike infrastructure is a biggie, but there are a lot of other factors that affect whether or not women ride. Check out the report “Women on a Roll” to learn more.womenonaroll And then, of course, there are the amazing anomalies who blow all of this out of the water. Take for example, Emily Finch, a Portland mother of 6 who bike commutes with ALL of her children on the SAME bike. Wow.Anyways, all this is to say, I’m still not sure w
hy fewer U.S. women cycle than Dutch women. But seriously, ugh, I need to go ride my bike.

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15 thoughts on “Why Aren't More US Women Riding Bikes?”

  1. The Dutch comparison was problematic indeed. In the Netherlands, women of child-rearing age make more bike trips than men precisely because they do more of the child-serving and household errand trips. Their neighborhoods and their bikes are both set up to make those trips easy and convenient.

    In contrast, American streets are not set up for kid-friendly bicycling, our bikes aren’t designed for carrying kids or groceries and the distances between home, work, shops, schools and after-school programs are often much greater. Data and discussion is here: http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2011/02/who-cycles-in-netherlands.html

    Oh, and in the US we only count work commutes, not trips like in the Netherlands. So all those errand and kid trips are completely uncounted. Says a lot about our values is you ask me. “Women’s work” obviously isn’t as valuable as employed labor.

    1. Janet, I agree that city design and the distance one needs to travel are huge factors in bike commuting differences between the US and the Netherlands. Many cities here are simply more spread out, bike infrastructure or not, making it hard to bike commute in lots of cases.

  2. Brent Logan says:

    Being male, I might not have the best insights into why more women don’t bike in the U.S., but I have a theory: helmets. The U.S. has a culture that mandates helmets regardless of the law. This doesn’t have a huge impact on me. When I arrive at work with wavy helmet hair, it’s a 30 second fix at the faucet in the restroom, no combs or brush needed. If my hair were longer, I doubt I could eliminate helmet hair so easily.

    The picture you chose shows a women riding a comfortable bike with produce and *no* helmet. If that were more acceptable, maybe more women would ride.

    I did a quick Google image search “dutch women on bikes.” I saw a lot of women on bikes in normal clothing and no helmets.

    This might just be an infrastructure argument: with safe bicycling routes, there’s really no need for an adult to wear a bike helmet.

    What do you think? Is there any truth in my theory, or am I unintentionally being sexist (I hope not!)?

    1. That’s interesting, Brent, I didn’t think about the fact that I decided on an image with no helmet. It does bring up an interesting point about the whole helmet debate. I always wear my helmet when bike commuting, but when I lived in Tucson and would inevitably get sweaty, I did indeed pick a hair style that was easy to fix up post-helmet wearing. Anyhow, I can’t speak for all women, but it’s probably one factor of many. The most significant factor? I don’t think so. Maybe if more workplaces had showers for post-commuting, that would help both men and women!

  3. Sean Yeager says:

    I think Brent’s point warrants some exploration. If cycling truly was a convenience it could be an option for more people. Helmet, lights, lock, planning a route, finding a place to lock a bike… those make SAFE cycling inconvenient in the US. Maybe the helmet and hair issue does become a factor, but more for time-savings. Getting in a car requires keys, and no change of clothes.

    If we had proper infrastructure and urban-esque density, and helmets and lights weren’t necessity, getting an entire family out the door wouldn’t be a hassle. As it stands, it’s a hassle for one person to make a short trip.

  4. I’ve also had it up to here with work commutes being the lens people use for the broader bicycling as transportation. For most people who primarily drive, commuting to work is no more than half their annual vehicle mileage.

    All those short trips to the store, school, friends homes, entertainment add up to equal work commutes. And if you count it in terms of trips the work commutes clock in even lower. We need to get beyond the “bike to work” mentality and promote “bike to everywhere.”

  5. Adam says:

    I think this is one of those times when looking at this as a women’s issue obscures the whole topic and produces a lot of red herrings.

    Well intentioned bike advocates need to stop searching in the dark for some secret sauce for getting women on bikes and start pushing for the kind of facilities that get EVERYONE on bikes.

    As the author and other commenters have pointed out, even a cursory glance at any bicycle hotspot will show you that once a critical mass of bike friendly infrastructure exists, women are just as likely as men to get on there bikes (if not more so).

  6. listenermark says:

    Riding a bike isn’t cool. A century of car-centric cultural conditioning has hammered that idea into our collective consciousness.

    In my home town (Fort Worth Tx) the common perception is that the only adults who ride bikes are those who are not able to drive (think DWI offenders who have lost their licenses)and the very poor. Who would want to identify with those groups?

    Americans who choose bikes over cars are outliers. It’s up to us to change perceptions and convince our neighbors what we already know: Riding a bike is cool.

  7. matt says:

    Anyone going to send this blog to the study’s and articles authors? There are some good point they should know.

  8. Thank you for the analysis, Melanie. You might consider looking at Susan Handy’s research at UC Davis, http://www.des.ucdavis.edu/faculty/handy/, particularly her 2013 report “How to Increase Bicycling for Daily Travel,” http://activelivingresearch.org/sites/default/files/ALR_Brief_DailyBikeTravel_May2013.pdf. I ran across Dr. Handy’s name from a Scientific American (Oct2009, Vol. 301 Issue 4, p28-29) piece that states and is kind of the gist of the article, “Women are considered an ‘indicator species’ for bike-friendly cities.” Other studies besides Handy’s were mentioned in the SA piece that might be worth reading, too.

    While I think bicycling commuting is an important topic of conversation, especially among local policy makers, I agree with Janet Lafleur that the conversation needs to be broader and that “bike to work” talk is limiting. “Bike to everywhere” and a cycling lifestyle is a greater topic of conversation that needs to be discussed more often even among local policy makers.

    1. Thanks for these helpful links, Doug! I’m excited to check out the Handy study on daily travel.

      And I think you and Janet are onto something with the bicycle lifestyle argument. That helps to incorporate family cycling and utility cycling in general, which make a big difference in a place’s bicycle friendliness.

  9. matthew says:

    I think that you all are on to something with the “bike to everywhere”. I have ridden my bike more as transportation instead of just biking to work this year than ever before. I have looked at some trips and said I can ride that or it makes sense and I can ride that. however, I ride over 10miles one way to work so I tend to ride in cycling clothes. It makes it more comfortable but it also limits where I ride too because I do not want to show up in lycra.

    I do have to say that infrustructure really makes a difference. I have tried to convince my wife to take our son to preschool by bike .7 miles away. She won’t do it because the road is too busy. I would agree with her that it could be scary to a non- seasoned cyclist. I think that too much of the US is spread out for bicycles and set up for cars to be effectively utilized for transportation. It will work better for those in cities.

    just some of my thoughts.

  10. Dan says:

    This was a silly study done by SOMEONE WITHOUT CHILDREN. The one time my wife tried to take my daughter to her soccer practice in a Burley, she was met with cars parked in bike lanes and heavy traffic, car traffic. I am certain she would love to make exercise more built into her day as she walks with my son to the grocery store. Safety is the number one concern, not “household chores.”

    I ride my bike to work, only because I am by myself. If I had my kids with me, I’d probably drive as I don’t trust car driver’s not to hit a Burley.

  11. Bryan says:

    A lot of good points in this blog – more so than the article? I have been an avid bike commuter for years in Colorado, and had the chance to tour the Netherlands this year on two wheels. WOW. Until you see Amsterdam in full velo-commute mode you have no idea what folks are talking about. It’s all about the Culture baby.

    ALL cars are watching for bikes, ALL pedestrians are watching for bikes, ALL bikes are watching for bikes. It really is a chaotic madhouse where infrastructure and a few basic rules help reduce death and dismemberment. A couple of things I would say are prime promoters of this:
    1. Virtually all bikes are basically the same heavy, racked, sit upright models.
    2. Most don’t lock their bike too anything, just engage rear wheel deadbolt and walk off. This includes leaving your bike outside the train station for days. Critical mass of wheels and steel is astounding.
    3. Nobody wears helmets except the racer groups heading for training. I think this is more important to grab-and-go bicycling culture than we think for women AND men.
    4. Its darn flat. Serious sweating is not usually part of city/town/country commuting with no hills. How many US geographies can compare? (not mine)
    5. They must not have been raise with the Culture of Bodily Fear. Non-helmeted children perched on wheels, handlebars, fenders, and miny seats clamped everywhere. Maybe less speed has something to do with their unconcern about head injuries. Has the US been steeped in CBF for too many generations?

    Virtually no place in the world can compare with the Netherlands on biking culture. Like others say, we would be better off exploring promotion within our own context.

  12. Anneke says:

    I remember reading about a study (or more likely a list of numbers) about distances traveled (not just for work). It turned out most trips, even those in spread out American cities as in Dutch ones, are under 5km. That is an easily bikable distance that should only take about 20 mins. It is hardly ever really about actual distance. More likely the infrastructure is less friendly towards cyclists. I’m pretty sure David Hembrow has some statistics on his blog: http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/

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