What's the connection between sex and biking? Well, you could think of a lot of different things I suppose, but for the purposes of this discussion we're going to focus on the gender gap among bike commuters. (Yeah, I know, you were hoping for something better, but stay with me on this.)
It turns out that there's a growing national debate about why more men ride bikes to work then women. In New York, male bike commuters outnumber women by three to one, and even in Portland, where bike consciousness has been a near religion for a long time, guys still outnumber women by two to one.So, what's the problem? Well, a recent article in the New York Times suggests it's two things: safety and fashion.
In places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, women cyclists outnumber men. It's just a part of everyday life. Almost everyone bikes in his or her work clothes -- men wear suits, and women wear work suits and dresses. There's no lycra to be found anywhere.
And there's no such thing as helmet hair. Nobody in Europe wears a helmet, and the claim is that they have no greater injury or death rate then the U.S. But I would argue that that's due to the overall cycling environment there. Bicycles rule the road in central Amsterdam. They outnumber cars and drivers exist in a culture of deference to bikes. After all, almost everyone behind the wheel of a car is also a bicyclist and so there's a strong empathy factor.
If we're ever going to get to the kind of commuter mode shares for biking that they have in Europe -- about 20% to 40% of all trips compared to 2% to 4% here -- we can't live with this gender imbalance.
So what's to be done? The main thing is to keep making biking safer.
The treatment of the Monroe/Regent and Southwest bike path intersection is a good example of the kind of things we need to do all over the city. I'm convinced that that intersection kept a lot of people off the otherwise absolutely safe Southwest path.
After my trip to the Netherlands last year, I asked city engineers to see what they could do to make that complicated and busy crossing less confusing for bikers and drivers alike. The solution they came up with, installed earlier this summer, was brilliant. And I've noticed an uptick in bike commuters on Southwest path.
Now, my hope is that the $50 million we had planned over the next five years for bike and ped improvements survives the city budget process this fall.
I did my own informal survey on my commutes yesterday on the Southwest path. It was interesting. On my ride in this morning, women actually outnumbered men two-to-one, but on the way home it was just the opposite. That could be because I came home late and there were more recreational riders on the trail, but even so, my unscientific survey suggests we might be close to perfect balance here in Madison.
It would be a good idea for someone to do a more scientific survey to find out where we really stand.