Gender Gap?

There’s a fascinating discussion going on in bike-blog-land as a result of Elly Blue’s Bicycling’s Gender Gap post at Grist. She makes an interesting argument that the gender disparity in ridership figures could be a result of economic disparity and additional caregiving and household duties, in addition to the ‘fear and fashion’ theories – and points out that both cycling infrastructure and appropriate, affordable bikes for carrying kids and cargo are missing in most North American cities. The lively comment section is well worth a read, with additional points about racism, class-ism, street harassment, and public perceptions of cyclists being made. It’s also well worth going back and reading the rest of the series of articles, which includes some especially salient points about political pressure to keep the status quo and the actual costs of freeways. The author also followed up on her own blog. Meanwhile the discussion has spun off onto one of our favourite bicycle blogs, Velo Vogue. Go read the links and meet me back here, mmkay?

You’ve read it now? Good stuff, right? If a bit counter-intuitive based on the explosion in lady-bike availability and number of women writing fantastic bicycle blogs.

So, instead of debating which is the most important, let’s say that all those factors are at play in preventing women from riding at the same rate as men do in North America – which they probably are, to some extent. How can we fix that? How do we encourage more ladies to get on their bikes? Can bike blogs like ours, and the social rides and bikey events organized by blogs like ours, actually make a difference?

Angel (my Loop-Frame Love coblogger) and I probably aren’t typical cycling activists (if such a person exists). We’re moms with 2 young kids each and minivans and small budgets who live in the suburbs – and we’d love for this blog to (eventually) demonstrate that it’s possible to live car-light under those circumstances, if not completely car-free – like our blogging heroes at Carfree With Kids, Car Free DaysChicargobike, full hands, mamafiets, and Totcycle are already doing on their blogs for their circumstances. So let’s be honest about the barriers we face to doing that, and how they relate to the factors mentioned above.

(Our coblogger Jen’s situation differs from ours in that she’s living in a more central neighborhood in a different city, has one child, and is still commuting to full-time work instead of staying home or working part-time… so we hope she’ll chime in in the comment section.)

My favourite current setup for easy kid-hauling is the Bobike Junior seat on a Raleigh-built 3-speed (Ms. Trudy Phillips),
but my 8-year-old is a bit too big for the seat and the pretty wicker basket will only hold a small bag of groceries.

We’re pretty lucky in a lot of ways. We’re middle-class white Canadians, so our experiences are fairly sheltered. Our husbands are not themselves cyclists, but are happy to support our interest in cycling. We’re part of a bigger local community of cyclists, advocates, and bike bloggers who are demonstrating through their daily lives and organized rides just how much fun life on two wheels can be. We’re social creatures, so it’s probably important in helping us stay motivated that we have that support system.

We live in a city with progressive urban planners who are in the process of improving the infrastructure for public transit and active transport, and we live in neighborhoods that have multi-user paths and/or sharrowed bike lanes that we can safely ride to useful destinations. However, we also live in the closest big city to the Oilsands, in a politically conservative part of Canada, in a place where a large proportion of the automotive vehicles using the roads are pick-up trucks and sports utility vehicles. So, when we venture outside the MUPs and sharrows, we don’t always encounter drivers who are predisposed to be kind to bicycle users. We have been buzzed and yelled at. We totally understand when our friends who haven’t ridden since their teens ask hesitantly about traffic on the route for the next Critical Lass. That said, the infrastructure in our neighborhoods has made that a pretty minor concern for our day-to-day rides.

We’re also really lucky to be part of a community with an amazing not-for-profit (EBC) that makes it possible to buy a low-cost vintage bike and turn it into a safe, reliable ride we can wear our regular clothes on; but turning it into a grocery-getter and a good way to get young children from A to B can be a bit of a challenge. We still wish we could get our hands on a longtail or cargo bike without having to blow our budgets. Going car-free so we can increase our bicycle budgets is not in the cards for our families, and we’re both still figuring out how we can run bike errands with two kids in tow, since neither of our eldest children are strong solo cyclists yet, despite being too big to be passengers. We’ll be actively working on that during the summer holiday from school.

We can testify that how busy our day is and how pressed for time we feel does directly affect how much (or how little) we ride. A quick run to the grocery store without children for a few items is easily managed by bike, but multiple errands with the kids becomes an all-day adventure when you’re not properly set up to do it by bike. A longtail or cargo bike would make that much easier, but ferrying the kids to extracurricular activities in other parts of the city immediately after school still would require a car because of the distances involved. If we were commuting for work, public transit would probably be more time-efficient than cycling, because we both live walking distance from major suburban transit hubs (As it happens, my husband has found that taking the LRT downtown is usually quicker than driving, and more pleasant.). So, ability to use our bikes while caring for our children and living our busy lives has been our single biggest barrier to riding more.

Your turn, my friends. What’s your single biggest barrier to riding more? Which barriers do you feel apply to your friends (of either gender) who don’t use their bikes? How can bike bloggers and cycling advocates help remove those barriers?

Update: I’ve just been reading Velouria’s post on Lovely Bicycle about the different kinds of bicycle commuting, and I wonder how the study that’s being discussed accounted for office-job commuters versus freelancers and errand-runners, and how gender might skew which category you fall into?


Update 2: You need to also check out LGRAB’s new series of guest posts on commuting by novice cyclists, the first of which was just posted – they’ll be talking about their barriers and how they surmounted them, too! I love the ideas from the current post of learning to bike commute in steps, and seeking out social ties to the activity so you have friends and role models. 


3rd July, Update 3: We’ve been invited to crosspost this piece on the perfectly wonderful blog Lindsay’s List, which has necessitated a slight rewrite and the addition of a shout-out to a few of our car-free-and-car-light family blog heroes. I’ll also be adding a photo that wasn’t originally included, of my current setup, once it’s been taken.


10 July, Update 4: http://lindsayslist.org/2011/07/gender-gap/ It’s up!

16 comments for “Gender Gap?

  1. June 29, 2011 at 1:05 AM

    Excellent post! Super thought provoking. I’m now deep in thought about my own circumstances and why I don’t ride more than I do.
    I think a couple things come into play here – time and comfort level being the biggest. Having jumped into biking after a very long hiatus means I still have a lot of nerves and anxiety about biking by myself. Events like Critical Lass are great for alleviating this nervousness though. It’s so reassuring to be biking with a great group of women and that can do wonders for bike-related confidence. I think continuing to have events like these are key for novice bikers. As well, another big issue is that I’m unfamiliar with my area in terms of bike-a-bility. I realize that the City of Edmonton has a lot of great resources and info related to this but I think rides that are designed specifically to help people get to know the area around them could be really beneficial as well.
    I think Edmonton has a great cycling community and that definitely makes any challenges I have a lot easier. In my opinion, the best thing that bloggers/advocates can do is to continue to be open and patient with the less seasoned riders.

  2. June 29, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    Nicki: Yay! Helping novices (and us) get more comfortable with riding and making group rides seem more approachable is definitely one of the goals we had with Critical Lass.
    Angel & I will take you exploring the area around your place soon! We just need to find a time when we’re all free.

  3. June 29, 2011 at 5:06 PM

    On a related tangent: maybe there are ways to get our elder kids to be more bike comfortable so that we can haul the wee-er ones in the seats and actually cycle during the weekdays? I’m in a luckier position in that I have family who can occasionally take one of the kids, but Damien isn’t exactly sure of the bike seat and he’s now too heavy for me to haul in the trailer. (To be honest, both kids are too heavy for me to do so comfortably unless I’m on a bike path where I don’t need to have maximum steering/starting/stopping capacity).

    And I’d also like to reinforce how sad I am that the cargo-type bikes that’d allow me to haul both kids AND groceries are so far out of my budget that I’d probably need to save up for years (at which point it’d be less required because I’d like to think in that time the kids would be self sufficient on a bike).

    And yes, Nicki: biking. needs. to happen. The end :)

  4. June 30, 2011 at 6:39 AM

    Great post, Deb! I had seen the original Grist article, but hadn’t followed the subsequent discussion.

    Personally, there are a few factors that have made it relatively easy for me to make cycling a regular part of my commute:
    1. Reasonably safe infrastructure. My route passes through quiet residential streets, a bike lane on a reasonably wide street, and a separated bike path. It could be improved and isn’t great for kids, but is not particularly intimidating for adults.
    2. An employer that encourages bicycle commuting, by providing a safe room to lock up bikes in the parking garage and locker rooms with showers. Free of charge. A sizable percentage of my co-workers commute by bicycle, enough so that it is a “normal” option. Also, the dress code is quite casual, reducing the effort required to maintain a professional appearance.
    3. My husband takes our son to preschool. Since we moved last fall, the preschool is no longer within walking distance. I’m not thrilled by that. However, our son starts kindergarten this fall and the school is only about 5 blocks away. That should be easy to fit into any mode of commuting.
    Since I don’t have to do the preschool pick-up/drop-off and I usually don’t have to do a lot of errands, my commute fits a more stereotypical “male” pattern.

    My sister, who lives in a western Canadian city, is visiting at the moment. When I mentioned the gender disparity in cycling, her immediate reaction was “Of course. It’s because of the hair.” She won’t wear a toque in the winter for the same reason ☺. However, she also has to take their daughter to daycare, so that’s certainly a factor too.

    It’s a great topic – I’ll be thinking this over for a while.

  5. June 30, 2011 at 6:31 PM

    Jen – we need to find your sister a really fabulous toque. =D

  6. Anonymous
    June 30, 2011 at 8:35 PM

    My barriers:
    - Crazy drivers.
    - Pollution levels that discourage sports.
    - High temperatures in summer.
    - My bicycle is not comfortable.

    Cycling is part of a lifestyle that includes ecological mind and an attitude of constant insubordination.

    I do not like segregated bike lanes, I like friendly drivers, I like people who can ride a bicycle slowly, because their work and their family are not a source of stress.

  7. LBJ
    June 30, 2011 at 9:45 PM

    For me, a big one was distance – I live a long way from my work. What helped me was getting a folding bike. It’s nice for errands too – I can either take transit or drive to a central location and complete the errands by bike (it saves me so much time parking, it’s not even funny). I don’t know how much help it would be for getting children around, but it’s helped me to ride more for sure.

  8. June 30, 2011 at 10:47 PM

    Anon: Really? ‘An attitude of constant insubordination’? Wow, that hasn’t been my experience at all. Bicycling isn’t rebelling against the man for me, it’s fun. But then, I have only comfy old steel bikes that I ride in an upright stance. Fast isn’t really an option with an old 3-speed or single-speed. =)

    LBJ: I’m sure Miss Sarah and Marilyn would agree with you that folding bikes have made running their errands much easier! Hopefully when Angel and I get the Twin foldies fixed, we’ll be able to throw them in the back of our vehicles and use them the way you describe.

  9. July 1, 2011 at 4:31 AM

    Random thought (and as it’s late and I have no intentions of actually researching, more wanting to just put this out there.) On the topic of these “stats”….where do they get this info? Are they polling cyclists? Are they counting cyclists on major paths and/or roads? Perhaps there are “hidden women” are actually just taking lesser used paths because they work better for the cycling style/preferences? (ie they ride upright bikes, perhaps slower than others? they haul kids? ride shorter distances so zig-zag around major arteries? Who knows!)

    Things I think about instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour :D

  10. July 1, 2011 at 10:15 AM

    (anonymous)Maybe I exaggerated a little. I am Spanish and I live in Madrid. Here there is no culture of the bike, the bike is something that is used for weekend sport. So I say you have to be rebellious for cycling daily, and brave. It’s like trying to fit a puzzle piece in a puzzle wrong, badly designed. But change is directly proportional to the number of cyclists on the street.

  11. July 11, 2011 at 9:40 AM
  12. July 12, 2011 at 5:31 AM

    Congrats on the invitation to cross-post this! I’d also like to recommend Family Ride (http://familyride.wordpress.com/), a Seattle blogger who’s written some great posts about transporting her kids by bike. She’s far more hard-core than I am – I am truly impressed by the routes that she tackles routinely.

    I’ve been thinking about which weekend trips I make by bicycle and which by car, and how I decide between them. It’s a combination of time, distance, number of stops and how much stuff I need to carry. Any one of these factors can tip the balance towards the car, and that balance gets tipped sooner when my son is with me. I’ve been thinking of getting a rear rack for Ye Olde Mountaine Byckke, to make it easier to carry things. However, that won’t solve the problem of having to carry everything with me at each stop. I don’t know of anyway to safely store items on my bike while I’m on a different errand.

    Theoretically, I could split this up into shorter trips on successive days, but then I run into the time barrier. One result of working full time is that I don’t have much time for errands during the week, so I HAVE to squeeze them in on the weekend. It’s definitely one of the reasons why car-light is much more achievable than car-free.

  13. July 12, 2011 at 4:11 PM

    Hi Deborah,

    Thanks for calling my attention to this discussion. I am going to continue with follow up posts and include this link to this fascinating discussion that has transpired here. You have brought up a few key puzzle pieces (suburbia, kids and more kids!) that make this issue so much more complex. We need to keep the conversation going and get more media attention about this serious issue!

    Thanks!
    Kristin
    Vélo Vogue

  14. July 14, 2011 at 7:59 AM

    Kristin: Thank you so much for commenting – and for your ongoing series of posts on these issues! I really do think that figuring out how to bring bike networks to the burbs and make it easier to cycle there is going to be a key strategy for making our cities more sustainable and adapting as fuel becomes more scarce and expensive. Where we live, the bicycle infrastructure works really well for people who are commuting to daytime jobs downtown or at the major university, and some (but not all) outer-ring suburbs have MUPs that connect with enough grocery-store-anchored strip malls to make them useful (if not always direct) routes for errand running (which I understand is a fairly rare arrangement). Maybe talking about what we need, as sort-of-typical moms of young families, in order to incorporate transportation cycling into our daily outer-ring suburban lives, will help us all figure out what strategies and equipment work best, and what else we need to be advocating for. I hope that the people who live in core and inner-ring neighborhoods will talk about what they need too – I’m betting that the gradual loss of grocery stores and other amenities from those neighborhoods and the move toward giant big-box shops on the edges of cities really impacts their ability to run errands on their bikes, too.

    Jen: I’ve added that awesome blog to our blogroll. You know how to do that, right? =) Also, I’ve seen hacks where people added a hinged lid to a milk crate that they attach to their rear rack, so they could lock the lid shut to deter theft of things picked up during errand #1 while you’re inside running errand #2 – maybe something like that? I’m sure there are more elegant solutions, too, like lockable hard-plastic panniers. If not the people who make panniers should get on that, pronto.

  15. July 14, 2011 at 7:00 PM

    Late to this, but thanks for including us in your cross-post.

    We are carfree, so we have in some sense been forced (or rather forced ourselves) to figure out how to do the errands etc. w/ kids in tow, and we *still* struggle with what is the best way to handle kids & stuff, and as soon as you have one system figured out, the kids get bigger, and you have to solve a new problem.

    We know a TON about the cargo and kid options out there, and still, every time we have to tackle a new situation, we inevitably end up in a vast sea of compatibility issues. What seat works on which bike? Can we use a rear seat with a trailer bike for two kids? No. Damn. OK. Well what about a front seat, but those will only work for a little while so maybe we should do … instead? And just when you think you have it all figured out, you realize that XYZ component won’t fit on this or that bike for some reason that was impossible to anticipate. You get the idea. It’s endless. And I’m someone who enjoys thinking about it, and I still get frustrated.

    Another barrier for us, that I feel like we’re *just* getting out of is toddlerhood. We hit a new milestone this summer, with our youngest, just two, able to hold up for 5-10 mile rides and even enjoy them. There were many times we skipped trips, or figured out a way to take the bus, because the prospect of a bike meltdown was too daunting.

    Dorea from Carfree with Kids

  16. July 14, 2011 at 7:18 PM

    Dorea: Thanks so much for commenting!

    Oh, boy, do I hear you. None of the options that are available seem to install properly on a bike with 28 inch wheels, and if your bike has rod brakes your options become very limited. We had to remove the rear rack from one of my Raleigh-built 26″-wheel bikes to accommodate installing the Bobike Junior seat (in the photo above) and from another to allow the use of a trailer-bike – so now I’m figuring out capacious front basket versus porteur rack so I can carry a kid and more than a couple of items at the same time. The seat we ordered through Bicycle Hero needed a rack that could carry heavy loads, which it turns out we couldn’t install on a vintage Raleigh at all because they lack the correct braze-ons, so I handed that seat on to Angel – and now that she has it all installed on her faux-mamachari she’s finding that either her saddle is too large or her seatpost angle is wrong and she can’t comfortably ride.

    I’m sure if there were a value on all the time we have spent figuring it out it would more than balance the cost of a more-expensive more-flexible system… right? Is that the reasoning we’ll all use to justify buying bakfiets in the end? =D

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