Last night I attended WABA's very first Women's Cycling Forum, which was organized by Jesse Cohn, WABA's Women's Outreach and Advocacy Intern. The purpose of this forum was to begin the conversation on the gender gap in bicycling, address the issues attached to it and start brainstorming ways we can get more women riding bikes.
The forum was a great success – the room was packed with women of all ages (including some men), and the panel of women spanned a broad range of bicycle expertise and experience, lending to a dynamic and quite spunky dialogue.
One conversation that really resonated with me was that women in leadership roles in the biking industry can really increase the number of women riders. Fionnuala Quinn, of Alta Planning + Design, referenced a survey on Women Cycling for Transportation that asked women why they use their bicycle for trips. She said that she was actually shocked by the number of women who saw themselves as role models, and rode their bikes "to motivate other women to cycle". This is an important takeaway because it means a lot of women know that their decision to bike CAN influence another woman's decision to do the same. This is particularly true for young and teenage girls who are easily influenced – Tracy Hadden-Loh of Rails to Trails expressed her concern with this and said despite the fact that her life has been pretty much scheduled in 15 minute increments for the next 2 years, she WILL make time to work with young girls on biking.
The topics of women's fearfulness in traffic and sensitivity to their appearance were addressed, mostly because these are common themes of why more women don't ride. I have experienced this in my own personal dialogue with other women about riding bikes, but both of these are perceptions that can be changed. Getting over the fear of riding in the street with traffic may only need one test ride to change that perception. I can openly admit that my first time riding a bike in the streets of London 3 years ago was terrifying…but only for about 10 minutes, the remaining 25 minutes of my ride was all I needed to convert me into a full time bike commuter. Same thing goes for appearance – European female cyclists were brought up on several occasions by the panelists, as the majority of them bike in whatever clothes they have decided to wear that day. This brought up the idea of marketing "portraits of real cyclists" through images of different women riding bikes in their everyday clothes as a way to reach those women who think one must be clad in lycra in order to ride a bike around the city (similar to the StreetsBlog "Why I Ride" series).
It's obvious that the women in the room were passionate about this issue and had a lot of great ideas, there were many more than the above. The most important takeaways for me were really just to re-institute the image of biking as both casual and utilitarian as it is in Europe, and to focus on educating young children about biking. This brings me to my closing point which is essentially that the common "women specific" issues that crop up often really are not women specific and should be used to get more people riding bikes in general. The only woman specific issue was hardly addressed – when do Mom's find the time to bike in their busy lives? (Maybe we should just leave it up to the Dad's?)
I urge you to think about these issues, as they relate to you or not, and write to us about your experience (or fill out WABA's online form). We want to know why more women don't ride. The forum may have ended last night, but the conversation has just gotten started…
Zanna is the Events and Outreach Coordinator for BikeArlington. She is a full time bike commuter and doesn't mind riding her bike in high heels. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook or visit the Washington Area Bike Forum.