Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Of all American cities, DC has one of the highest percentages of its bike commuters who are women, an important sign of bike-friendliness for all genders in any city.

Bike infrastructure can make a difference in enticing commuters to cycle, as can driver behavior and the availability of showers. Some stories suggest drivers may also treat women on bikes better if they’re wearing street clothes, feminine helmets, and skirts.

University of Oregon masters student Kory Northrup created this terrific infographic showing statistics about bicycling in various states and major cities:

Image by Kory Northrop via League of American Bicyclists and Streetsblog.

The graphic breaks down the cycling rate between men and women. Tanya Snyder wrote,

The male-female ratio is no trivial factoid. Women are considered an “indicator species” for cycling. When the conditions are right, female cyclists multiply. When urban biking feels like a game of Pole Position, the ladies tend to find other modes.

DC comes out well on gender equality. It has the 8th highest rate of bike commuting overall, but is 3rd best in the percentage of bike commuters who are women, with 38%, just barely edging out Boston. Minneapolis is the most equal, with 45.4% of its bike commuters women, and Portland, the #1 city for biking overall, is second with 39.1%.

What else affects women’s comfort level riding? Chicago cyclist Dottie wrote about her experience with the “Mary Poppins Effect.” Basically, drivers seem to be more deferential to people riding bikes if they’re women, riding upright, and wearing street clothes.

Dottie also observed that an important element for getting this deference is either not wearing a helmet or wearing a brightly colored feminine-looking helmet with hearts or flowers. Most fascinatingly, her experience is that one of the biggest factors is whether the rider is wearing a skirt:

Typically I wear a dress or skirt, but today I wore a navy pinstripe pantsuit with a ankle strap on my left leg. Everything else was the same: I rode an upright Danish bike, wore a helmet covered with red hearts and rode with my typical calm assertiveness, but luxury SUV after luxury SUV after car passed me too closely. The effect was decidedly non-Mary Poppins.

This would be a great topic for a more scientific study. Meanwhile, it would be best if drivers treated all cyclists with respect and care, both men and women, regardless of how much leg is visible.

If you’re a woman who bikes, have you noticed more deference from drivers at some times versus others? What are the biggest obstacles to more women (and men) feeling comfortable biking?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.