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The Missing Link: Women’s Leadership in Bicycling

By Liz Cornish on March 10th, 2015

In many American cities, bicycling is making a comeback. People are dusting off their old bikes and fixing them up for their daily commute. They’re purchasing cargo bikes and special trailers to shuttle their children around town. Cities are responding with road improvements and dedicated bike facilities. It’s a renaissance of people committed to active living, environmental sustainability and economic security. And bicycling isn’t just healthy, inexpensive and efficient—it’s fun, too.

Still, despite all the momentum of the modern bike movement, women made up just 24% of all bicycle trips in the United States in the most recent National Household Travel Survey in 2009. So it’s not surprising that one question I’m often asked in my role as Women Bike Manager at the League of American Bicyclists is “What’s the number one thing that can increase ridership among women?”

My response: “Which woman?

Gender is just one aspect of our identity. Outreach and encouragement initiatives seeking to get more women on bikes must be designed to meet women at the intersections of their identity.  Is this woman also a parent? Does she work outside the home? If so, how far does she travel to get there? Is she an immigrant without experience operating a vehicle on American roads?

The second question I am often asked is, “Why?”

Why is there a separate program focused on women at the League? Why is there a whole day of the National Bike Summit dedicated to issues of women and bicycling?

When more women are placed in decision making roles, that’s when the landscape will begin to shift to include more female bicyclists, of all backgrounds, on the roads.

For too long, planners and bike advocates have ignored the intersectional lives women lead, and the landscape for bicycling has been predominantly constructed from a male point of view. Women Bike believes that diverse perspectives can lead to ingenuity and solutions that stick. Events like the National Forum on Women and Bicycling are designed to convene important conversations that lead to robust—and complex—answers that get more women in leadership roles in the bike movement.

Here’s the thing: Men and women travel differently. Women often link trips—stopping at, say, the pharmacy on the way home from work—at a higher rate than men. Women are also more likely to travel with passengers, often small children. These things can make choosing to bike feel inefficient, impractical and in some cases unsafe. But as more women take to the streets on two wheels, biking is becoming more normalized. Women may make up a smaller percentage of bicyclists on the road, but when they do ride women are more likely to bike to work or run errands than men (Krizek, Johnson, and Tilahun, 2005).

This has huge implications as we work toward design solutions and effective encouragement that leads to more active communities and a culture of health.

If we can create communities where bicycling is efficient, practical and safe for women, we also create a community where more men and children would ride bikes. This means more physical activity built into our daily lives, which leads to lower rates of heart disease and obesity, and improves our mental health and general well being.

One of the most exciting things I’ve seen within the Women Bike movement is an incredible ripple effect when women learn about their power to create change in their communities through advocating for better bicycling. When they tap into that power, they’re more engaged in how all decisions are made where they live. Advocating for bicycling gives women a platform at city council meetings to share their experiences and shape the future of their community. For many it is the start of a life of civic engagement.

Bikes empower women to lead—and that’s a critical ingredient in creating an inclusive, sustainable culture of health.

Liz Cornish

Guest Author

A social justice promoter, bike commuter, and now Executive Director at Bikemore.