Welcome to a new format we are trying out, where a number of contributors sit down for an online chat about an important topic. Today, Alex Baca, Aimee Custis, Kristen Jeffers, and Susan Balding shared their experiences as women who ride bicycles with me. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
Joanne (Joanne Pierce, editorial board member): Hi, everyone! In this GGWash chat, we are going to discuss the disparity between male and female cyclists in the United States. Other countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, have about a 1:1 ratio but in the US, that's more about 4:1. Why is this, and what can be done about it?
Joanne: So to kick us off, I'd like to go into a topic that we write about frequently at GGWash, which is safety. My question is, how do you perceive your environment, as cyclists? What helped you develop confidence to ride in a city?
Susan (Susan Balding, contributor): I think the questions of safety and infrastructure are inseparable/the same.
Aimee (Aimee Custis, editorial board member): They're inseparable, but there's also some nuance, I think, that there's also safety as in security.
Susan: How do you mean?
Kristen (Kristen Jeffers, contributor): Agreed. Infrastructure also covers markings IMO. Or lanes or lack thereof.
Alex (Alex Baca, contributor): I think starting with the typology of cyclists developed by Portland State University is useful. For anyone who doesn't know, they divided potential cyclists into “strong and fearless,” “enthused and confident,” “interested but concerned,” and “no way no how.”
From that study summary: “Survey after survey and poll after poll has found again and again that the number one reason people do not ride bicycles is because they are afraid to be in the roadway on a bicycle.” And it's not just the interested-but-concerneds who feel that way. That goes for a ton of people, even the strong and fearless.
Susan: I regularly feel afraid to be in the roadway on a bicycle.
Aimee: THAT! But also, when I'm biking, I'm not only thinking about what routes to take because of the infrastructure, but what times to bicycle, neighborhoods, etc. Just like I would be thoughtful about where I'm running at night, I'm also thoughtful about where I'm cycling
Joanne: What I'm reading is that better infrastructure is good, but this may also be psychological.
Alex: So safety —> infrastructure —> social factors (when, where) is just a logical chain.
Aimee: AKA, it's also about personal safety/security
Kristen: For me, I'm on that line between strong and confident and interested but concerned, mainly because I have trouble getting my personal bike out of my basement apartment without hurting myself and also I've had issues with CaBi bikes not being available or able to dock.
Alex: Infrastructure can also influence personal safety and security. Kristen, if it were easier to get your bike out, or if CaBi was better rebalanced (all infrastructure points!), biking would be more attractive.
Kristen: Yes, I kept asking CaBi to come out and rebalance. With my bike, I feel like i don't know how to lock it and certain places are targets for theft. And I feel helpless if I've lost my bike, especially as a woman in need of help. Oh and I missed 75% of a concert on Friday because every dock on U Street was full or broken.
Susan: +1 to your point, Alex. And to elaborate on my point, I would say that it's very hard to feel safe even if you're in a suit of armor when it's clear from a lack of infrastructure that no one wants you there in the first place; I think that's a feeling that is very feminist. Navigating the roadway every day on my bike for me feels like navigating the world as a woman
Alex: Yeah, exactly. I made this point in a Twitter rant: Cyclists are basically the subaltern (sorry, I have a cultural studies degree). They're a marginalized group, and marginalization gives certain constraints.
Susan: Yesss subalterns (I have a religious studies degree, so I'm right there with you).
Aimee: I don't know if anyone else feels this way too, but there are times in DC where I feel like a cyclist who happens to be a woman, and there are others where I feel like a woman who happens to be cycling.
Susan: Ooh, interesting nuance.
Aimee: And that impacts my perceptions a lot.
Joanne: Interesting. Does that go beyond infrastructure, like how you perceive you are treated (or welcomed/not welcomed) in a community?
Alex: I am 100 percent a strong and fearless rider. Lack of infrastructure hasn't kept me from riding anywhere. I don't think about what is safe based on time or place. I actually never belonged to CaBi when I lived in DC (haha!) because I always had my own bike. But I would be a goddamn idiot not to realize that other people don't interface with biking for transportation like that. And I definitely change the way that I ride when I'm with other people who are more cautious. Unfortunately, traffic engineers don't really have that kind of reflexivity, I've noticed.
Aimee: More on the cultural side, I'm a strong rider, but getting to that helplessness feeling Kristen's talking about, the last time I took my (then-partner's) bike into a bike shop for routine maintenance, as the resident bike expert in my relationship, the guy at the bike shop treated me like I knew nothing, which was very frustrating. Dude, I'm here because my boyfriend is afraid to even come into the bike shop. Simmer down with the better-than-thou attitude.
Susan: ^^^. I know SO many women who have received CRAPPY treatment from bike mechanics in DC.
Kristen: I’ve taken Traffic Skills 101 that the League offers (in a women-only setting!), but I still feel very protective and inadequate with my bike. Partly because of that whole “You have to be perfect with your bike and how we are treated in stores and shops.”
Aimee: YES! What's with the 'have to be perfect' thing? How do we overcome it?
Susan: I think the #lycra culture starts to permeate into this feeling
Alex: That, and the long-held idea that cyclists need to behave perfectly on the road in order to prove that they deserve safe infrastructure.
Susan: Like the problem is that the culture of biking in the United States is athletic and people are fiercely protective of that because it's a core part of their identity.
Joanne: I think what you said about biking culture is really applicable.
Alex: Lots of old-man-bicyclists have told me that until all cyclists obey the rules of the road, perfectly, all the time, we don't deserve infrastructure. Those people are setting the culture!
Susan: ^yes. These are the same people who don't think we should give people unemployment benefits because ONE person might cheat the system
Alex: I think they are starting to have less of a voice now that bike advocacy is morphing into safe-streets advocacy, slooooowly. Which is great, imo.
Kristen: It's that behavior thing. We expect perfection in everything and so it comes to bikes especially because we are under strict scrutiny. It's almost a respectability politic of bike usage.
Aimee: Do we think this has, other than car culture, also something to do with the fact that in some circles cycling's a 'sport' and other places its transportation?
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. Drive-your-bike-to-ride-it, and all that.
Susan: But it's not like biking isn't a sport in Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, etc.
Kristen: Yes, I agree Aimee, and also the whole thing with the clothing and looking the part. And to Susan's point, America just hasn't really cultivated commuter cycling like other countries. We've started, but we have a long way to go.
Aimee: True. IDK if you saw the recent Vox piece on women, suffrage, and cycling. It's not like it's always been this way.
Alex: NASCAR is a sport in the U.S. and plenty of people manage to be everyday drivers. We could do the same thing with cycling, but it's not a priority.
The framework I sorta had on my Twitter rant was: Cyclists in the US are either seen as effete (its, like, European, or something, to bike for transportation) or inept (you are a child, you got a DUI and therefore cannot drive) because driving is tied to masculinity and independence.
Susan: (or you are poor).
Kristen: that too.
Susan: (and don't deserve infrastructure).
Alex: So there's your broad push to culturally marginalize cyclists. Then, the subgroup of cycling itself can get really nasty in articulating who should or shouldn't participate. It's fighting for scraps.
Aimee: “We're oppressed, so sh*t rolls downhill to make us feel better.” (Also, after my post last week, I also just want mention that I think oppression is a loaded term but I don't have a better one.)
Kristen: So how do we get out of the barrel then, and stop pushing each other down?
Susan: stop squeezing us on to 10 foot wide two way bike tracks?
Aimee: +100000 Susan.
Alex: Meanwhile, almost no national or state-level policy encourages cycling. It's extremely hard to organize your marginalized group, then push for policy changes that can overcome the cultural perception. But you gotta do it. I think that is literally the only way. Starting locally seems to have proven the most effective. (Organizing > agonizing, except organizing makes me do plenty of agonizing.)
Aimee: Alex, agree.
Kristen: And it's working in a lot of places.
Aimee: Including here in DC!
Susan: yeah but no US city is doing what they should be doing still.
Alex: I mentioned this above but I prefer broadening bike advocacy to safe-streets advocacy, including pedestrian advocacy and transit.
Susan: insert intersectionality jokes.
Kristen: We are all multi-modal and I'm a far sharper pedestrian.
Alex: Even cyclists are pedestrians after they lock up their bikes ;)
Susan: That would probably be a good public service campaign…
Alex: So Bike Portland just changed to the Street Trust. WABA, I think, will remain a bike-focused org, but much of their advocacy has leaned toward safe-streets in the past few years (which was a cool thing to see grow while I was working there). TransAlt in New York has actually been doing this since its inception! And I have so much respect for them and their work because of it.
Aimee: I LOVE WABA, but I love even more the partnerships WABA, Coalition for Smarter Growth, and All Walks DC have been building. We're so much stronger for it.
Susan: Yeah, on the city side of things I find it odd that the Bike Advisory Committee and the Pedestrian Advisory Committees aren't either the same or work closely together 90% of the time. Councils, committees, I can't keep them straight.
Kristen: I lived in Kansas City and we were BikeWALKKC (emphasis mine on the walk). Still, I think there may be a funding gap and an attention gap internally in the bike/ped space.
Aimee: heh. There's a funding gap everywhere.
Alex: Kristen, there is, but I think it's nothing that other advocacy spheres aren't wrangling with. We can do it, too. It is still a totally heavy lift, though.
Susan: So this is interesting because it brings up a nice parallelism for gender justice: I.e., maybe the way to make cycling safer and more accommodating for women is to reach out to associated groups with related interests and leverage power from there.
Joanne: How do you think pedestrians and cyclists can form a better coalition to emphasize non-car options? What is WABA doing with the Coalition for Smarter Growth that perhaps DC government or other groups can learn from?
Kristen: And that the advocacy groups aren't the same. Or at least more formally aligned. I wasn't aware of the DC ped group until now. I've seen nothing they've done and I like to think I've gotten myself in the loop pretty well.
Alex: Back to Joanne’s original question: WABA's Women & Bicycles initiative was developed because so few women cyclists were on the road compared to men. Which gets to Susan’s point. Without substantial investments in infrastructure (though we made that point plenty of times at WABA), much of what Women & Bicycles does is cultural.
Which is kind of fascinating. I think you could achieve similar results by just…building infrastructure. But because that wasn't going to happen, W&B is effectively a support group.
Susan: …which is deeply ironic. Or something.
Alex: I wrote about this almost five years ago, omg. “Closing the gender gap means getting women not merely around bikes, but on them—with regularity.”
Kristen: And to answer the new question, it comes down to ensuring the committees and the mission statements on the advocacy side have a commitment to multi-modality, along with multiculturalism.
Aimee: At Coalition for Smarter Growth, we're trying to do some more cultural stuff too. Honestly, I think we DO need both cultural and infrastructural.
Joanne: Alex, I liked that article! You made really good points about the need for a better community.
Susan: Yeah but the women stuff is too often only cultural.
Aimee: That's one of the killers, is that Alex has been talking this stuff for YEARS. We're making progress, but it's the slow boring of hard boards.
Kristen: Yes, we all have. And we still get responses in the comments like we did on your article Aimee, and I still have trouble using bikeshare and locking my bike.
Alex: Thanks! It just kind of sucks that in the absence of building infrastructure, which is not hard to do if it's prioritized (lol it's not), we gotta go hard on the cultural piece. We know the answers: It's literally build more protected bike facilities.
…or, you know, more protected-anything facilities. TAKE SPACE AWAY FROM CARS TO MAKE PEOPLE SAFER!
Aimee: Or, you know, funding Metro.
Aimee: Space, whether physical or political.
Alex: Ugh, Aimee. That’s it.
Susan: Yup. The problem of being a woman on a bike is that you're taking up space. But that's also the liberating part of being a woman on a bike?
Aimee: Here, I fixed it for you, Susan. The problem of being a woman is that you're taking up space.
Susan: hahahah exactly.
Joanne: Aimee, I laughed but that also made me sad inside.
Kristen: Me too.
Aimee: Can we talk about that for a hot second?
Aimee: One of the cultural things is that women have to gird themselves (not unlike bicyclists as a whole) to jump into the fray. As soon as I started writing my response to the WABA piece last week, I had to calculate whether I had the intellectual energy to deal with what I knew the comment section would say/do. Because it had already done that on the WABA Facebook page. I think it's a good metaphor for biking as a woman more generally.
Kristen: I honestly do that every time I write anything, especially on my own site. Because I have the potential to get hit twice.
Alex: I will be exiting this shortly to go lead— lol!— a tour on bikeshare. But quick thoughts re: space: Women, like cyclists, are marginalized. See above in what that can do. It also puts a level of emotional stress on participants, as Aimee and Kristen have identified.
Aimee: And it's SO frustrating, because if we don't talk about it, we can't move the needle.
Alex: Personally, I get a little exhausted being the token woman-on-a-bike. But I also know it's really important.
Joanne: Women are marginalized in many (all?) aspects of their lives. We're unwelcome in a lot of places.
Kristen: Exactly and i know it's important too. I've also started to ignore some of the wrongheaded arguments that happen over and over again.
Joanne: Or at least that's the perception and the feeling. It may or may not be warranted, but if you encounter it enough times you begin to treat it as evidence.
Kristen: But when I have to interact in a physical space, it's impossible to run away. Online, I can push it aside.
Aimee: Well Kristen, you can, but then you'll get slammed for running a red light.
Alex: I feel like I'm in a really awesome position to push for better infrastructure in Cleveland. I have almost a year's worth of bikeshare data backing me up when I talk to the city. And I'm pretty sure my gender works against me, especially because our traffic engineers are extremely hung up on using AASHTO/MUTCD. Tell them to use the NACTO guide, and they tell you it's not safe. The irony is thick.
Aimee: Alex, HUGE hats off for the work you're doing, which is amazing and inspiring and I hope more and more people take note of.
Alex: THANK U <3
I ride aggressively, run red lights, don't wear a helmet, and take the lane. I am comfortable with this stuff. I get a lot of flack for it and people tell me that it actively works against what I'm supposed to be furthering. But so far I have the emotional bandwidth to be that visible, and I want to use it.
Aimee: Depends on what you're furthering!
Joanne: Okay, let's wrap up. What would be good to do now to help get more women into biking?
Susan: I would say Alex's strategy of being visible as a non-lycra human is a good start on a personal level. But we're already there I guess!
Kristen: Continuing to do and support the women's clubs, both the racing clubs and the casual “let's bike down to the mall or a easy trail” kinds of things.
Joanne: Hahaha, non-lycra human.
Aimee: Being friendly and chatty when on a bicycle.
Susan: I'm not gonna lie I haven't really gotten that interested in the women's clubs?
Kristen: I like that too, I consider myself a non-lycra. Although the stores are getting better with making lycra that looks nice and fun and normal to wear, but still wicks off the sweat.
Aimee: On clothing, I'm OBSESSED with Betabrand out of San Francisco, which is cute work clothes with performance elements.
Joanne: I'm not a cyclist but I like some lycra for running and hiking.
Aimee: (and they didn't even pay me to say that!)
Joanne: But they should totally send some free stuff.
Kristen: I'm sure they didn't and free stuff is awesome!
Aimee: totally. Hear that, Betabrand? send us stuff!
Joanne: We could start a “GGWash Reviews” column.
Susan: My reviews would be like: “Cole Haan heels. Can you wear them on a bike and still go fast? Yes!”
Kristen: And mine would be something like yes, the dress will still cover you while riding.
Susan: I think it would be great if more ladies in DC posted their like #cyclechic commutes or something. I think that goes a long way toward normalizing a type of casual cycling that isn't usually a big deal because it's not a big deal
Aimee: Yes! That gets us back to other things we can do: keep talking about it. I knew I'd get some hate with my piece last week, and I think some of the critiques that showed up were, honestly, valid. But we can't get better at talking about this stuff and moving the needle if we don't talk about it. Which brings us back to our early-on convo about feeling the need to be perfect before jumping in.
And if you need a reason to get a friend on a bicycle this week, try #becauseparis
And build/improve walk infrastructure, too. https://t.co/mWGpNp6SxX— (((Jaime Fearer))) (@bogrosemary) June 2, 2017
Kristen: And with that, I have to step out. This has been awesome! Just creating this space to chat is a huge help in moving the needle for women and cycling.
Aimee: Thanks, Kristen! Keep being inspiring!
Joanne: aaaaaaand I think that's a wrap. You were all great! Thanks for taking the time to chat.