A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Why is cycling a sausagefest?

Back in 2002, I spent a long senior-year semester as an editor for the Reed College Quest, which distinguished itself for printing anything because it couldn't afford to be picky. I suppose the experience gave me some insights about the nature of editing and publishing, but what I remember most was the deep animosity I developed for the dopey bro who submitted 1200-word, barely-intelligible essays about his favorite burritos every damned week.

However, as little as we deserved to be taken seriously, we still had a few writers interested in doing real reporting. One of them was Elly Blue, who nine years later, I'm proud to say, is making a name for herself as an authoritative blogger and essayist on bicycling culture, feminism, and economics with regular writings on grist.org and a self-published zine called Taking the Lane.

Elly's latest column on Grist examines the "bicycling gender gap." Why do more men ride bikes for transportation? Some have claimed that women are more timid on busy roads, or too vain to break a sweat on the way to work. Blue cites some more convincing and fundamental statistics:
Bicycling takes time. And this is something that, by the numbers, women have less of than men. In 2004, employed women reported an average of one more hour of housework per day than their employed male counterparts. These same employed women reported twice the time spent caring for young children. Employment status being equal, we have more household duties and are far more likely than men to be caregivers for aging relatives.

These kinds of responsibilities add up to more complicated transportation needs. Women make more trips than men, with diverse kinds of trips chained together. And twice as many trips as men's are at the service of passengers -- that is to say, the school drop-off, soccer practice, and the play date wedged in there between the grocery run and the commute to work (see pages 15 and 16 of this paper). No wonder the minivan is inextricably linked with motherhood in America.

We can hope that one day none of these duties will be tied to gender. Until then, statistically, if you're a woman, biking is going to be less accessible to you than for your statistical male counterpart.
"Bicycling is, in much of the car-centric U.S., either a privilege or a punishment," she concludes. "It isn't because we're fearful and vain; it's because we're busy and broke and our transportation system isn't set up for us to do anything but drive."

Elly's analysis doesn't just apply to women - it applies to any demographic group that's geographically isolated and stressed for time. It also helps explain why some cities and nations don't really have a cycling gender gap (they tend to be relatively prosperous places where women are well-integrated in the workforce, have tightly-knit neighborhoods where running errands doesn't necessarily require a minivan, and have robust social services for parents: places like Germany and the Netherlands).

If I look around downtown Portland, Maine, I see lots of women riding bikes. But most of them are in a pretty narrow demographic: in their 20s or early 30s, living without kids in on-peninsula neighborhoods. If I consider the cyclists I know who are also parents and/or live in the suburbs, the gender gap is more apparent: I can name a lot of men and precious few women.

Part of the challenge is to make our suburban neighborhoods more like downtown Portland: places where it's easy to run multiple daily errands without travelling for miles. For the time being, we don't have many neighborhoods like that, so the other part of the challenge is to make well-functioning places like downtown Portland more welcoming, affordable, and accessible to parents and low-income households. Doing both these things won't just get more women on bikes; it'll create a more just and healthy society for everyone.

1 comment:

henry said...

You know where you see this in even greater disparity is in the non-transportation bikers, the fitness guys. Aaaaaaaaall dudes, even moreso than the errands-runners. I don't think this is nearly as true for pedestrians (runners). Don't know what it means, but I run and this is a heavily, heavily male group.

I think it's an interesting distinction in general, transportation bikers vs. athletes.