Women don’t seem to want to bike in New York City. According to the New York Times, male cyclists outnumber women three to one, statistics which seem to be fairly unique to New York. In European cities famous for biking like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, women are actually the majority of bikers. And even compared to other U.S. cities like Washington, DC or San Francisco, the numbers of female cyclists in New York are pitifully low.
Experts speculate that women are staying out of NYC’s bike lanes because the city is particularly unsafe for cyclists. ”Other cities in the United States and Canada have indeed made cycling much, much safer than it is in New York,” explained John Pucher, a professor at Rutgers. And if bikers in New York are, overall, more likely to feel unsafe, then women may be the ones who simply choose to stay off the road.
City officials say that they’re making steps to improve the city’s bike lanes, and to make the streets safer for cyclists. But they may not be doing enough. In Portland, Oregon, male cyclists outnumbered women in the early 1990s by a 4 to 1 ratio. By 2006, however, the ratio had shrunk by half. Coordinators say that this was in large part due to city efforts to make the lanes safer for all bikers.
There are other issues that may be unique to New York, however. Women could, according to the NYT’s Christine Haughney, be more unwilling to show up to corporate jobs sweaty or carrying a lot of cycling gear.
What Haughney doesn’t explore as thoroughly is the male-dominated cycling couple, which may be particularly intense in New York. Emily Sullivan, who happened to be both my college roommate and a dedicated cyclist and bike mechanic, wrote a blog post last year about her experiences at a New Jersey bike swap. ”Women were about as scarce as the Campagnolo 8-speed components I needed at the swap,” she wrote. She then recounted an altercation with another mechanic, who implied that – because she was a woman – she didn’t know anything about bikes.
When I was younger, I lived in Denmark, one of the cycling capitals of the world. There, it’s incredibly easy to get around on a bike. There are well-maintained lanes (some of them even with their own traffic lights!), weather that doesn’t make you sweat profusely (unlike New York City in July), and a culture that encourages everyone to use biking as their main form of transportation (and an obsession with fashion to rival NYC: I saw many, many women biking in high heels). And it was liberating. As a thirteen-year-old, I loved being able to jump on my bike and ride down to the local Blockbuster to get a movie, rather than waiting for my parents to give me a ride. Now, living in an East Coast city, I understand all of the cyclists’ concerns. But the solution is to figure out how to get women comfortable with bike culture, to dial down the obsession with fashion, and – perhaps more importantly – to make the roads safer for cyclists.
New York is, for many reasons, a more challenging place to be a cyclist than Copenhagen or Amsterdam. But the Big Apple can learn lessons from other cities when it comes to getting women into the bike lanes. Biking is sustainable, practical, and even fun. Could New York City become more of a cyclists’ town? Maybe it needs to take a few lessons from Portland.
Photo from Ed Yourdon’s Flickr photostream.