Is Philly a Safe Place for Women on Bikes?

We may be the No. 1 large U.S. city for biking, but to see whether we're truly a bike-able place, one study says we should look at the number of women who pedal

Philly may be a city of cyclists, with slices of several of our streets dedicated as bike lanes and miles of scenic trails. But all this, even coupled with biking’s undeniable leg-toning benefits, hasn’t quite been enough to convince me to trade in my ’98 Chevy gas-guzzler for a bike. I’ve thought hard about it, even checked out a few at local shops, but I’m just not ready to cut the cord.

You may think I’m overindulgent to have kept a car in the city through my college years despite living within walking distance (albeit rather long, for-nice-days-only) and having easy SEPTA access to campus. But to Rina Cutler, who’s the deputy mayor in charge of transportation, I’m a member of the city’s potential-biker target audience: “interested but concerned.”

The city’s four categories of bikers (or non-bikers) are: “strong and fearless,” like those crazy messengers always darting in and out of traffic; “enthusiastic and confident,” those who bike often and don’t toe the line of recklessness; “interested but concerned,” my category; and “no way, no how,” folks the city couldn’t pay to hop on a bike.

Studies on gender differences among cyclists say my aversion to pedaling may be indicative of something bigger: whether or not Philly is a bike-able enough urban area. For many female Philadelphians—whom Cutler says likely make up most of the “interested but concerned” group—it’s apparently not. Of Philly’s cycling population, between 30 and 40 percent are women, according to Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia Research Director John Boyle. Women tend to be more practical and risk-averse, so they’ll only start biking when it’s both safe and efficient.

“For me, the safety factor is more about the neighborhood I’m in than the streets,” explains Bicycle Coalition office manager Jill Minick, an avid cyclist for some 60 years. “There are some neighborhoods where a woman is just not safe alone at night.”

Her colleague, Coalition Campaign Director Sarah Clark Stuart, is more concerned with auto-traffic safety: “The more the city can connect the bike lanes, the more there’s going to come a safer feeling that this bike lane has a real purpose.”

Both women say more connected bike lanes and, in Minick’s case, better lighting or a stronger police presence in some areas, could encourage more Philly women to bike—and after hearing a friend’s account of being attacked on her bike a few years ago right outside Northern Liberties, I’m definitely one who still needs some convincing.

Despite my skepticism, our city stacks against other cities for cyclists impressively—the Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey showed that of the largest U.S. cities, Philadelphia is No. 1 in terms of bike-commuter numbers, and another recent infographic/article ranked it the No. 9 city overall in the U.S.

Cutler says the “interested but concerned” group is the city’s target for increasing its biking population.

She said plans for new bike-lane pilot streets will likely be announced in late April—focusing on North-South streets and Center City, from river to river. (Spruce and Pine both donned bike lanes a few years ago as part of this.) Cutler’s office is also considering a partnership with the Department of Health and Philadelphia Police Department to cut down on aggressive driving and reckless cycling, especially in areas with the highest instances of crashes.

Cutler and Bicycle Coalition staffers predict Philly’s cycling population will continue to grow over the next several years. Boyle, Stuart and Minick said they also predict that the number of female cyclists will eventually even out with the number of males who bike, as it has in many European cities.

They emphasize safety in numbers as a key factor in convincing people like myself to start biking—and it makes sense. “We really hope that more and more people become comfortable with it,” Boyle said. “The real success will be when bicycling is a diverse community of people.”

[poll id=”7″]