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Bike-share is key.

Do a lot of women ride bicycles in your city? If so, you’ve probably got a healthy bicycling culture where people in general feel safe getting on the bike to ride for transportation and recreation.

The importance of women as an "indicator species" for biking has been known for years. But the United States doesn’t look so great when it comes to this particular statistic. Only 24 percent of bike trip were made by women in the U.S. in 2009, compared with 55 percent in the Netherlands and 49 percent in Germany.

Women Bike, a new initiative from the League of American Bicyclists aims to close the biking gender gap in the U.S. It launched this month with the publication of a report, “Women on a Roll,” [PDF] that puts together the numbers on women biking in a way that hasn’t been done before.

"There’s been a lack of collective knowledge on key data points," says Carolyn Szczepanski, director of communications for Women Bike. "We’re really trying to position ourselves as a hub of information."

The data in the report shows a lot of pent-up desire for biking among women. Among the statistics:

  • 82 percent of women have a positive view of bicyclists.
  • From 2003 to 2012, the number of women participating in bicycling rose 20 percent.
  • 60 percent of bicycle owners between the ages of 17 and 28 are women.

So why aren’t more women out there riding? The report focuses on what it calls the "five Cs": comfort, convenience, confidence, consumer products, and community. The numbers show that the lack of sufficient safe bike infrastructure plays a major role in keeping women off the streets. And in places where bike lanes go in, women use them. Local surveys show dramatic increases in female ridership on streets with dedicated cycling facilities:

  • In New Orleans, female ridership went up 115 percent on South Carrollton Street after a bike lane was installed.
  • In Philadelphia, the presence of a bike lane increased female use by 276 percent.
  • In New York in 2011, 15 percent of riders on a street without bike lanes were women, compared with 32 percent on a street with bike lanes.
  • 53 percent of women say they would ride more if there were more bike lanes and paths.

The report also looks at the way that women’s travel patterns tend to differ from men, with women making more trips and more multi-stop trips; the importance of better bike parking and confidence-building resources such as bike repair classes; the need for better consumer service for women at bike shops; and the role that a cycling community can play in getting women out on the bike.

There’s one place where the gender disparity between men and women in cycling is leveling off, and that, tellingly, is bike share.

A 2012 study showed that 43 percent of bike-share members in North America were women. In Washington, D.C., fully 54 percent of Capital Bikeshare members were women in 2012. In Boston, 47 percent of Hubway members are women.

Szczepanski says that makes sense because bike-share programs remove many of the barriers that women commonly cite. The systems make biking easy to access and convenient to multiple destinations. You can ride the bikes in regular clothes. They’re simple to adjust and comfortable to ride. And you feel like you’re part of a community when you’re on a bike-share bike. You also don’t have to deal with the frequently off-putting snobbery and machismo still found at too many bike shops.

Bike-share systems, it turns out, allow Americans a little glimpse of some of the conditions that exist in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, where the cycling gender gap doesn’t exist. "All of those things are represented in a microcosmic way," says Szczepanski.

More and more cities in the U.S. are getting bike-share. Chicago rolled out its 4,000-bike system this summer and the San Francisco Bay Area will be the next to launch, at the end of August (albeit with a mere 700 bikes). As bike share becomes an integrated mode of transportation around the country – and as bike retailers realize that women represent a huge and underserved market -- the gender balance just might start to shift here in a real and lasting way.

Top image: connel/Shutterstock.com

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