Alex Baca works on sustainable land use, transportation, and housing policy in the D.C. region. She has written for Washington City Paper, Slate, The American Conservative, Cleveland Magazine, Strong Towns, and Greater Greater Washington. Views here are her own.
Closing the gender gap means getting women not merely around bikes, but on them—with regularity.
Last week, Genevieve Walker put forth a salvo for getting more women on bikes: Increase the number of bike shops catering to the ladies—an interview subject of Walker’s described such an environment as one in which there is "really good information," "good clothing options," and "a hot guy standing behind the counter"—and the gender gap in cycling just might magically disappear (presumably like one’s underwear in the presence of that hot guy behind the counter).
At best, this conclusion isn’t particularly helpful in addressing the very real gender disparity in the world of cycling, whether for transportation, recreation, or racing. At worst, it’s offensive to female cyclists, who are by and large smart enough to figure out what they want without being charmed by the good looks of a sales associate—if they’re even acquiring a bike from a bike shop, which is certainly not the only place to buy one.
Assuming that women, and only women, need to be coddled by bike retailers misses a larger truth about the weird world of bicycle retail: A bike shop that sells 10-speed carbon-fiber Campagnolos to amateur road racers is going to be intimidating to anyone, regardless of gender, who is looking for a solid commuter bike to carry their groceries. Big Bike is very slowly moving into the utility-biking business, but the industry still largely markets to those spandex-clad weekend warriors who want to inch down the seconds on their century or cyclocross time. Feeling run over, ignored, or misinterpreted by a bike-shop employee isn’t a problem for women, it’s a problem for anyone who doesn’t ride like they’re qualifying for the Tour de France.
Walker’s bike-shop thesis also skates over research that lays out some of the reasons why women stay off bikes. Women want things like more, better cycling infrastructure, supportive communities of cyclists that look like them, and for cycling for transportation overall to be a safer, more convenient experience. (Darren Buck at Bike Pedantic summarized a few of those reasons, too.)
A 2011 survey by the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals draws similar conclusions: 22 percent of the 1,300 women surveyed said they would cycle more if it were more convenient and 14 percent said they would cycle more if there was better bike infrastructure.
And 2006 study from Deakin University’s School of Health and Social Development concludes that men and women don’t even have radically different priorities when it comes to making cycling for transportation a better experience:
Females and males have similar overall patterns of motivations, supports and constraints on cycling. Significant differences were identified, but these did not result in a markedly different pattern of female and male determinants of cycling….It suggests that promoting cycling for women will be maximised by strategies directed at the whole population, as well as interventions specifically targeting women.”
The study then recommends "creating cycling-friendly environments and policies," "enforcement of road-safety measures," and "mass-media promotion, both of cycling and also of mutual respect between cyclists and motorists."
Both the APBP survey and the Deakin University study make mention of the need for friendlier, not-so-know-it-all bike shops. But the existence of such shops is superceded by the data-proven desire of women for more cycling infrastructure, for cycling to be easier and more convenient, and for a supportive, confidence-building culture.
There is no silver bullet to close the cycling gender gap—an excellent bike-shop experience that circumvents the circle-jerk nature of road racing is one aspect, while increasing infrastructure is another, and building confidence and community another still. But a bike shop carrying, as one of Walker’s subjects put it, "all the colors and the fabrics" can only go so far in getting someone to ride the bike she’s purchased. Closing the gender gap means getting women not merely around bikes, but on them—with regularity.