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Saturday, February 28, 2015  |   Madison, WI: 6.0° F  
CITIZEN DAVE: Thoughts and ideas about city building from Madison's former mayor
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Citizen Dave: As we Ride the Drive, let's get some gender equity in biking
I know that I bike more when I know there's a safe route.
Credit:City of Madison

In the United States, about one out of four bike riders is female. But in Germany, that figure is 49% and in the Netherlands it's 55%.

And the trend in the U.S. isn't good. According to a New York Times story, the number of American women over 18 who say they bike at least a half-dozen times in a year fell by 10% between 2000 and 2010, while the number of men who said the same thing increased by 16%.

So, the Huffy bike company has launched an online ad campaign in which a cute little kid named Grace goes around and prods mom-types back onto their bicycles. They rediscover the fun of biking -- and of life, I guess.

Theories abound as to why more American women don't ride bikes. I asked a young woman I know who actually bikes quite a bit, and she didn't hesitate to answer. "It's the stuff," she said. "The hair, the make-up, carrying your clothes, finding a place to put it all together when you get to work. It's just all the stuff that guys don't have."

Maybe. I'm not so sure how much I buy that though.

Go to Amsterdam and you’ll see stylish women and men all over the place riding their bikes in suits, high heels, fancy hairdos and all that -- and yes I intentionally mixed women and men in all that description. After all, it was Amsterdam. It is true that nobody wears a helmet there, and that makes some difference.

Another theory I've heard is that women still disproportionately draw the household chores -- grocery shopping, delivering kids to various places, and so on. Fair enough. All the more reason to design more places where all that stuff is relatively close by. Good city neighborhoods are a big answer to the problem, I think.

The final reason that gets mentioned is simple safety. Provide more safe biking infrastructure, this argument goes, and more women will bike. I agree with that, but it doesn't just apply to women. I know that I bike more when I know there's a safe route that I can take. And it seems to me that this will be especially important to America's 77 million Baby Boomers. The older you get, the less interested most of us are in taking unnecessary risks.

In an often-quoted survey from Portland, 7% of respondents reported they were intrepid, that they’d bike anywhere anytime. Good for them. Another 33% said they’d never get on a bike to save their lives. Well, alright, they're a loss. But the remainder, 60% of Portlanders, said that they would like to ride but were concerned for their safety. And there are other studies that indicate pretty strongly that if you build safe biking infrastructure, a lot more people will ride.

With the downtown edition of Ride the Drive coming up this Sunday, June 1, now is a good time to reflect on all that and to think about what we can do as a community to remove the barriers that keep people from riding their bikes more. It seems to me that a good indication of our success will be gender equity. When we see as many women as men riding on a daily basis, chances are we will have achieved a lot of other goals in the realm of not only biking, but of building a better community.

See you out there on Sunday.

Dave Cieslewicz is the executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

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