Atlantic Cities

An Explanation for the Gender Gap in Biking

An Explanation for the Gender Gap in Biking
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It's no secret that American women are less likely than American men to ride bikes in cities. Some reports put one woman on a bike for every two men in the United States, and some have the ratio at a lady for every three guys. This isn't a universal condition by any stretch of the imagination; in European countries like Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, the split is right around fifty-fifty.

In other words, American cities are doing something wrong here. Just what that something is has been the subject of debate before at Cities. Genevieve Walker has argued that making bike stores friendlier to women would be a good step toward reducing the gender gap. Alex Baca, writing in response, concluded that the task requires stronger infrastructure, convenience, and community — in short, a stronger biking environment.

New research on the subject emphasizes the importance of safety, above all, on a woman's decision to ride. Writing in the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, a study group led by Gulsah Akar of Ohio State University conclude that "women are less likely to feel safe" on a bike than men — particularly in an area with lots of car traffic.

Akar and colleagues surveyed commute behavior on campus in a sample of about 2,000 people, from faculty to undergrads. While a convenient study location, the campus also had some natural advantages. First, college-aged women don't have the same household responsibilities that keep many older women from riding (just reporting here, folks); and second, Columbus, Ohio, is a car-friendly place that's only recently implemented bike-friendly measures, which makes it reflective of many American cities.

Most off-campus residents commuted to the school by car — 73 percent for the whole group — with women more likely to drive than men (78 to 65 percent). Not quite 8 percent of all study participants said the bike was their primary commute mode, but the gender split for that response favored men 13 to 6 percent. Distance from campus obviously had a lot to do with a person's decision to ride too, with people most likely to ride (17 percent mode share) when they lived 1 to 5 miles away.

The big question, of course, was what kept more women from biking. Men and women gave several of the same reasons for not riding, including distance from campus and to 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.

A related concern — lack of bike lanes — also showed a pretty big gender gap, with 37 percent of women citing the reason, to 30 percent of men. (Respondents could choose more than one reason.) When the researchers analyzed the figures in closer detail, they found that being within half a mile of a bike trail or path was significantly associated with riding for women, but not for men.

The researchers offer some clear recommendations based on their findings: campuses (and, more broadly, cities) can make riding more appealing to women by adding off-road bike paths or improving bike lanes on general roads. What's encouraging about this finding is that enhanced bike infrastructure — whether bike paths or dedicated bike lanes — is something cities must do to promote bike riding in general. Knowing these upgrades will have a double effect of encouraging women to ride should only make these policies more popular.

Top image: SVLuma /Shutterstock

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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