fredag 31 maj 2013

Why do girls stop cycling?

Updated June 2nd about cyclists being seen as different.

It's said that in English-speaking countries, girls stop cycling in their early teens. In Sweden there's a similar situation with helmet use falling by two thirds when kids (both boys and girls) turn 13-15 years old. In Portland, women wear helmets more than men do, while men cycle more than women. The Portland Bureau of Transportation has some nice graphs on this.

Source Portland Bicycle Count Report 2012. Click to embiggen.

It's also said that women cycle less because they need to take kids places. Maybe that also explains why they wear helmets more too, to be a model for the kids. It's said that more bikeways will allow women to cycle more, like in The Netherlands. But while both bikeway miles and helmet use are going up in Portland, the cycling gender split is parked with twice as many men as women.

Cyclists seen as being different
The identity issue of being labelled a cyclist is also worth exploring. Commenting on the Emma Way incident, Carlton Reid writes:

The tweets collected by @cyclehatred have shown that a surprising number of anti-cyclist comments are not coming from traditional ‘white van man’ but from young women, many of them clearly new to driving. What is it that’s making some of these young women say such hateful things about cyclists? Perhaps it’s that some young female motorists feel safe in their cars and often rely on them to get everywhere? For such women, perhaps the thought of being a cyclist – unprotected from ‘stranger danger’ and open to the elements – makes them shudder, and the way to reject and despoil this “other” is to vilify and mock it? “I knocked a cyclist off his bike. I have right of way, he doesn’t even pay road tax”

I haven't counted them, but young women also form a fair share of commenters at the Swedish equivalent, @cyklisthat. Mr Reid is not the only one to theorize on fear of being a cyclist. Sociologist David Horton writes in an essay that cyclists are considered different, and that many people do not want to be seen as different:

The push to bring cycling in from the margins suggests that car-centred lives will not continue forever. ... Fear of the cyclist is related to people's anxieties that they, too, might end up taking to cycling, and becoming a 'cyclist'. Fear of Cycling 05 - Making Cycling Strange

I think most people are more or less put off cycling if they see it as unsafe, dorky or just different. But maybe the effect is clearest among teenage girls. This could be because teenage girls are naturally more sensitive to cultural constructions, ie who's weird and who isn't. It could also be that teenage girls are expected to conform while boys are given leeway to be nerdy or different.

I would love to hear your comments.

For girls on bikes, new research shows a turning point: age 14. BikePortland

Beauty and the Bike
Girls in cycling friendly countries continue to cycle into adulthood, whilst in many other countries they tend to give up during the teenage years.

Bicycling's gender gap: It's the economy, stupid. Grist
But whether you’re male or female, when you add a kid or two and a stop for groceries and the need to arrive at the other end smelling okay, you’d better believe you’re going to take a mellower route if there is one, and the car if there isn’t.

Hälften av barnen kör utan hjälm. Dagens Nyheter
Bland dem mellan 8 och 12 år hade 76 procent hjälm, medan bara 24 procent av dem som var mellan 13 och 15 år använde cykelhjälm.

11 kommentarer:

6-3-2 sa...

What I've heard a lot of times from women I've talked to is that cycling seems dangerous in comparison to driving, because the car is seen as protection against potential threats. These same women also don't feel comfortable walking around alone at night.

So some effort has to be made to make women feel safer.

Part of wonders if MAMIL culture, i.e. marketing cycling as a male recreation, makes women feel excluded as well.

Erik Sandblom sa...

Thanks for your comment. Walking is a very good comparison. Statistically, it's as safe to walk a mile as it is to cycle a mile. But if women and girls feel safe walking in daylight, why don't they feel safe cycling in daylight?

Everyone seems to agree that the perception of danger is a factor. My personal theory is that if you make it safer while at the same time encouraging helmets, it's a zero sum game. You still have the perception of danger and people won't cycle (even though cyclists live longer).

Sam sa...


Sam sa...

I clearly remember the year my friends stopped playing with me and the boys on the street. I was 13 and my friends were all around the same age. We all became "ladies" or rather, it was the year the mentrual cycle made its appearance and with that all our parents realized that these girls were now women with a capacity to reproduce and thus male contact had to be restricted. Pretty soon I was one of the only girls who continued playing with the boys and was the soon only one who continued riding a bicycle around the city for exploratory reasons (many girls did ride bicycles but in groups and usually to school and back home). I lived a 5 minute walk away from school.

I don't recall anyone ever riding a bicycle with a helmet.

After moving to the U.S. I continued riding a bicycle because it was a very convenient way to get around and I hate relying on others or some complicated piece of machinery to get me to where I need to go.

I never thought about the importance of the built environment and how it affects people's behavior and their psyche until fairly recently.

On my first tour which was across the U.S., I originally bought touring maps thinking that the maps would unlock the secret to dedicated bicycle freeways across the country. On my first test ride, I was horrified that I had to ride across freeways on/off ramps and alongside high speed traffic. While I rode in the city on a daily basis I didn't really think about advocacy or any of those issues. But I was pissed off that I had spent good money to buy maps that sent me on noisy, car-filled routes that were purportedly mapped for my benefit. To say I was pissed off after that first test ride would be an understatement. I then decided I would map out a route across the country that would be better than the maps I had and tie together all the dedicated bike paths together along with some quiet routes (I had just discovered ADTs and the secret of routing based on low ADTs). I managed to figure out a route from Philadelphia to Texas tying in a bunch of dedicated routes. But then in Texas when the bike paths ended I found myself riding on roads or state highways with noisy vehicles and my spirit just broke. I wanted to give up. I wanted to buy a truck (I'd never owned a vehicle before. I still don't). I just hated riding on roads with traffic. So I talked with my husband and we stopped the tour.

I do studiously avoid riding through too car-dominated areas as much as possible. I don't visit friends who live in car-centric neighborhoods. And realistically, I don't see myself living in the car-centric city that I currently do in its current state 10-15 years from now unless it changes drastically. So I'm spending some time on making sure that the change happens so I can continue living here.

As for being the "other". I feel like my entire life has been about being the "other". I've often been the only woman (sometimes the only non-white person too) in multiple male dominated industries to a point where I'm often (pleasantly) surprised when there is another woman in the general vicinity. For example, I quit the computer industry because I didn't want to be fighting (yet another) a feminist battle. I just wanted to write code and be respected for my programming skills. While I have a lot of problems with people who just subscribe to a dominant paradigm because of peer pressure of media narratives on what is expected or appropriate, I don't really judge negatively because I too have quit things because I didn't want to be some little champion fighting a fight all by myself. We are social creatures and being the local weirdo is not something that is something that is exactly celebrated in our society. I'm just too stubborn to quit everything and I'm generally pretty content flying my little freak flag all by myself.

Erik Sandblom sa...

Thanks for your story Sam. It sounds like you had a better time exploring the city than the girls riding in groups to and from school.

Do you think parents of girls would feel better if they had the chance to get to know the boys?

Liz Patek sa...

Erik, you bring up an interesting point regarding peer pressure among teenagers - particularly girls. I will agree, that peer pressure is harder (or maybe not harder, but different ) for teen girls than boys. Answering from my own experience- yes, I briefly went through a period of wanting to "fit in" when I started high school. Thankfully, it didn't last very long. I think a part of that was due to the fact that I started dancing professionally in my teens, so I knew a whole other world that most of my peers didn't & I knew how little the social ecosystems of high schools mattered. In regards to bicycles as transportation, I always enjoyed the freedom it gave me. Yes, I got my driver's lisence at 16 & used a car to get many places (when available to me). So did my friends. I also grew up in the suburb of Detroit that was home to the Fords & the Dodges- so car culture was definitely alive & well. I knew kids who got cars as 16th birthday presents. My family couldn't nor would they get me a car. It's possible that this factored in to my never "giving up" the bike (or not). I didn't really think about it.

Anyway, fast forward a few decades to my life in NYC. When my previous bike was stolen from a locked bike room in my building- I was livid, devasted & pissed. Most everyone who knows me knew it was my primary form of transport & empathized. Others thought I was crazy to be so upset. One person in particular said to me "Maybe it's a sign to grow up & give up the bike". I responded "Thanks Mom" (even though she wasn't my mother) "But it's how I get around & it's not going to change."

The person who made the comment meant well even though her comments were absurd. It was just her perspective, but it still reflects a perspective we need to beat back.

As for helmets - definitely need to continue to push back the helmet safety myths. Helmet promotion deters not just women from bicycles but men as well. I like to look at them as "training wheels" for people until they feel confident about using a bicycle for transport.

Which of course brings me to infrastructure- build it well & they will come. Couple it with role models to show how easy it is & just generally enourage people to give it a try. People are afraid of what they don't know - witness the NIMBY reactions in NYC with the launch of Citibike. In good time, we'll get where we need to go but we can't rest easy getting there & we can't afford to give up.

My long two cents. :)

kyouell sa...

I've been thinking it over and I guess my experience was different than the norm (so I'm not sure it will shed any light or suggest any solutions). I stopped riding when I got a car; when I grew to hate cars for many reasons I switched to walking and public transit. It was seeing bakfietsen and realizing that there was a safe way to transport my son and daughter on a bike that brought me back to riding. I don't think I gave a second thought to switching from bike/bus to car as my high school was far away and it saved me a long bus ride or asking friends for rides. Giving up the car was a decision unto itself, not tied to biking in any way.

I will say that as I've learned more about what helmets are actually designed to do (prevent skull fractures from high-speed impacts) and what they don't do (prevent concussions even at slow speeds) I LOVE the idea of helmet as "training wheels."

Erik Sandblom sa...

Liz, I think a lot of utility cyclists share your story (at least outside The Netherlands/Denmark). Cycling is easy, if you can just ignore the silly comments you get. Sam's comment also illustrates this (if Sam can cycle from Philadelphia to Texas, cycling to work must be a piece of cake). I don't mean to downplay the lack of infrastructure or maps, I just mean that going against the grain can be the hardest part.

To me it's obvious that helmets put people off cycling, but the girls issue might help clarify the point.

Erik Sandblom sa...

Kath, it's nice to hear about parents cycling. We had a short twitter discussion about how children probably won't cycle much if their parents don't. It sends a signal that cycling is for kids and not for grown-ups.

What if your high school was within easy cycle distance. Would you have kept cycling?

Erik Sandblom sa...

Angie Schmidt writes on Streetsblog that the share of female cyclists in Portland rose from 21 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2012, and that this co-incided with the expansion of bikeways.

The National Push to Close the Cycling Gender Gap. Streetsblog

But share of females has not increased since 2003 even though more bikeways have been built. I think bikeways are important but that dangerising is important too. It's possible the rising helmet wearing rate in Portland has cemented bicycling's reputation as dangerous. That's sad, because cyclists live longer.

Erik Sandblom sa...

Free bicycles for 9th-grade girls reduces the gender gap at schools in Bihar, India:

Giving Kids Bikes Can Reduce Drop-Out Rates