A woman at work told me recently she hadn’t been on a bike since she was four years old. She has no memory whatsoever of biking as a child. Another woman said she could never ride like I do because she just isn’t “good at it.” I couldn’t understand what that meant – not being good at riding a bike. To me, it’s as natural as walking – I suppose I just assumed it was the same for everyone. When I asked, she said she meant that she just didn’t feel very comfortable guiding a bike around corners, being steady and balanced on it – bike handling, basically. These women’s responses surprised me – it never occurred to me that biking was a skill, per se, that you could be either good or bad at it. I thought it was something you simply learned to do and then did with the same level of skill as everyone else – again, like walking. (Can you imagine someone saying they are bad at walking?)
There has actually been research into why women don’t bike. Articles about why male riders outnumber females are all over the web. Most of the articles I’ve seen say that men make about 75% of all bike trips whether for recreation or transportation. That’s a sad figure, to me. And surprising, too – women and wheels have a long, proud history together. Did you know that the invention of the bicycle played a role in women’s suffrage? Once bikes came on the scene, women had more independence than ever before.
When women started biking back in the day, men became concerned. They worried about such important things as whether women’s ankles would show, and if so, what form of restrictive, uncomfortable garment should be required to cover them. Men also worried that women would suffer permanent facial disfigurement from wind blowing into their face while riding – a disorder they called Bicycle Face. (I wonder if perhaps that facial expression they weren’t familiar with was, in fact, called Smiling.)
Biking provided our foremothers with independence, excitement, and most importantly freedom. To learn more, check out this awesome article from The Atlantic entitled, “How the Bicycle Paved the Way for Women’s Rights.” Or simply hit Google and look it up – the web is full of references to the lovely history of women on wheels.
Anyway, this wasn’t intended to be a history lesson, so back to the topic – why women don’t bike. Most of the research shows that it boils down to two main causes: fashion and fear. And I can relate to both of them. I would love to start commuting to work via bike. It’s only 6 miles away, which would take about half an hour to ride. I wouldn’t go so far as to invest in rain and snow gear and bike-commute in bad weather, but even if I replaced half of my car trips with bike rides, I’d save money on gas and get an extra 20-30 miles a week in on my bike. I haven’t started commuting yet because of the beauty/clothing ramifications (especially Helmet Hair) and, more importantly, because there is a 2-mile stretch of road on which I just wouldn’t feel totally safe. I’ve investigated about half a dozen potential routes to work, and no matter which way I would go, there is some stretch of road with no shoulder and weaving curves, and I just don’t feel I should be riding there.
The other reason often cited that prevents women from biking is about affordability. A brand new bike is an investment, and as we know, women’s incomes are typically lower than men. (Grrrr!) Meanwhile, I can’t tell you how often I see bikes sitting in or near dumpsters during my evening rides. Last year I pulled a perfectly good bike from behind a dumpster – it needed one new tire. My friend Stacy was thrilled to have it for her daughter. And, the number of bikes at garage sales and on freebie sites is startling. I think there should be a nonprofit organization that gathers and fixes up unwanted bicycles and provides them at low- or no-charge to those who need or want them, to help them get a cheap start in cycling. I wish someone would start that – I’d support it.
Mike and I were talking recently about what biking meant to us as kids – it meant transportation, fun, and freedom. It meant that we could get around town to see our friends, go get an ice cream cone, get to the park to play, all without the help of our parents. Biking gave us independence. It gives me this same feeling now. When I meet my friend Peg at our meet-up spot on Thursday nights, we catch up on the week’s events and then figure out which part of town we want to explore that night. It’s like play for grown-ups. It makes for good conversations, and wind in your face, and new adventures. I think that’s why those stats about women and biking interest me – I wish all women could find the same sense of fun and freedom on the seat of a bicycle that I do.