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Easy opportunities exist to boost bike commuting by women

Posted December 14, 2017 in Articles

Author: Erin Potter

Arlington, Va., and Washington D.C. are among the few cities where the number of people biking to work continues to grow, bucking national trends of slight decline.

Though Arlington has tripled its bike commute modeshare since 2009, the percentages of men and women biking remains almost identical in 2017, with women making up about 26 percent of those who bike to work.

Despite overall growth in the number of people biking to work, there are still some challenges that need to be addressed by cities, organizations, and employers for more women to bike more often.

The Challenges

In the Arlington County 2017 Bike Element Survey, 45 percent of all survey respondents were satisfied with the number of bike lanes. However, only 10 percent of female respondents reported being satisfied with the number of bike lanes.

During a recent focus group conducted by BikeArlington and Mobility Lab, participants cited a disregard for traffic laws by everyone (no matter whether driving, biking, or walking) and a lack of access to safe, comfortable routes as common barriers preventing them from biking. Additional analysis of the research found that female participants expressed several other exclusive concerns, including:

  • Fear of threats to personal safety, including concerns about lighting and how populated places are at night
  • Childcare responsibilities, including the need to make multiple stops for child-related or household work such as grocery shopping, and
  • Gendered expectations of personal appearance, including hair maintenance.

These results mirror findings from other cities, where researchers stress that “given the consistent pattern of fear, anxiety, and stress that women and minorities reported encountering when navigating public spaces, additional support must be given to cultivate and maintain a diverse biking population.”

The Opportunities

While the problems of systemic sexism and violence against women don’t have easy solutions and require cultural shifts, there are a few things that can happen to create a more conducive environment for women to bike.

The lack of satisfaction in bike-lane infrastructure provides a huge window of opportunity for growth. Creating separate, on-street facilities that offer similar protection to that of off-street trails will help address their fears of personal safety and lead to more frequent bicycling. Cities investing in such infrastructure are seeing a steady rise in women riding. In other cities, like Vienna, Austria, and Stockholm, Sweden, planning staff are purposefully engaging with women during the planning process to ensure their needs are met.

Planning efforts that make “trip-chaining” easier also needs to be considered. Biking will be an option for more women if it is easier to access everyday stops, like grocery stores, childcare facilities, and schools, via safe and protected infrastructure.

In the 2017 Arlington Walking and Biking Barriers Study (PDF), women were also more likely than men to identify a need for education programs for drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians. Creating women-specific education and social ride programs that address concerns of how to carry things on a bike, bike with children, and manage multiple trips by bike are opportunities to empower women to go by bike more often.

Employers play a role in encouraging their employees to bike to work by relaxing dress codes, offering access to shower and locker facilities, and promoting financial incentives such as the employer-administered federal Bike Commuter Benefit.

Women are also more likely to consider riding when other women they know ride. Peer modeling and encouragement programs, like WABA’s Women & Bicycles events and classes and Phoenix Bikes’s All the Cycle Ladies and Black Women Bike DC are the types of programs cities need to encourage women to bike. Family-focused and volunteer-run groups like Kidical Mass and DC Family Biking are also crucial to encourage parents to bike with their children.

Ultimately, undertaking policy, programs, and infrastructure changes that specifically address the barriers women face is the greatest potential to improve the walkability and bikeability of Arlington (and really all places) for all people, including people in cars.

Cornell University professor Mildred Warner sums up this approach well:

“Asking, ‘Would a woman feel comfortable walking here at dusk?’ and getting an affirmative response likely means that most people will feel comfortable using the space. Women can be used as a bellwether for safety, as well as other planning priorities. Regarding transportation planning, women are choice riders: if more women ride transit, more people will ride.”

The same can be said for bicycling. If we can make biking an easy, safe, and convenient choice for women, more people of all kinds will ride.

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