This past week, The Atlantic published “An Explanation for the Gender Gap in Biking.” I, a bike novice, did not realize that anyone was even studying girl-to-boy biker ratios, but this post cited a recent research project at Ohio State University, in which 2,000 students and faculty on the Columbus campus were surveyed about their “commute behavior.”
Thirteen percent of the men in the study, researchers found, used a bike to get to and fro, while just six percent of women did. To probe this shocking discrepancy, researchers asked non-bikers why they weren’t biking.
Men and women gave several of the same reasons for not riding, including distance from campus and need to carry things, but the biggest disparity was a safety concern regarding nearby car traffic. While 43 percent of women cited that concern as a reason they didn’t ride, only 28 percent of men said the same.
The study concluded that “women are less likely to feel safe on a bike.” Indeed, ever the cautious species, women are scared of bikes. Science is so enlightening sometimes.
Let’s put aside, for a moment, the supreme idiocy of using a selection of 2,000 college kids and academics on a sprawling heartland campus, where only eight percent of commuters use a bike at all, as insight into the way the mysterious ladybrain approaches its commute. My issue with this pool (too small, too rural, too self-selecting), is different, though, than the one blogger Eric Jaffe has with it. He writes, “college-aged women don’t have the same household responsibilities that keep many older women from riding (just reporting here, folks).” Point taken. Women in a larger study would have more nests to tend, and thus be even less inclined to throw themselves into traffic.
Let’s also ignore the fact that this study offers no real unpacking as to what larger social conditions might keep women from biking as much as men, other than just being silly gooses. Or that there doesn’t seem to be any recognition that something other than simple accessibility might be at play when it comes to the discrepancy.
Instead, let’s look at the measures these Ohio State researchers have proposed for campus and city policy-makers—purportedly the point of the whole study—to lure nervous Nellies to the pavement: adding more bike paths and improving bike lanes.
So, you know, the exact same measure you’d take to encourage any city resident with a skull they care about to bike.
I finished the piece still not clear on what function this study served other than providing some stodgy academics with a platform to say we needn’t worry, because with enough kid glove-handling, womenfolk could be talked into anything.
A little more Internet digging, though, revealed that the “gender gap in biking” has been fertile ground for social theorists for some time, now. There are, apparently, a lot of studies and soliloquies on what exactly the problem is with women and their stubborn insistence on cars and public transit, and how we can work around those delicate sensibilities. Another Atlantic essay proposed more “female-specific stores and gear” to bring women into the fold. There’s an idea. Maybe a lack of bike lanes isn’t the problem so much as a lack of pink helmets and skorts.
I’m no militant she-biker by any stretch. I haven’t hopped on my bike in a couple weeks for no better reason than I’ve been wearing a lot of tights, and because I haven’t gotten around to duct-taping my rickety kickstand to the frame. But it seems to me that for an urban movement as community-oriented and forward-thinking as bike advocacy, this need to delineate the psyches of male and female bikers is pretty backwards.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with making sure everyone in a city can be involved in a valuable initiative. But putting too heavy an emphasis on making sure “the girls can play, too” suggests that when it comes to planning and improving our city’s infrastructure, the game is somehow different for men and women. Sometimes, energy put into figuring out what makes us different might be better spent figuring out what works for everyone.