May the Goddess Protect Us….

It’s often been said that women are an “indicator species” for cycling–that is, that if women are riding bikes around the city in pretty good numbers, then it’s a good city for cycling.

By that standard, maybe Los Angeles isn’t doing so well. Here, as in most US cities, twice as many men ride bikes on the street as do women.

A young woman commuting to work on her bicycleBy contrast, in Germany (where 12% of all transport journeys are by bike) 49% of riders are women, and in Holland, it’s 55%–women outnumber men! (And bikes are used for 27% of all trips.) (From an article in Scientific American.)

Of course, barely 2% of US trips are made on bikes (for now). There are some exceptions, such as Portland’s nearly 7%, which San Francisco and Minneapolis have matched lately. But overall, cycling is still seen as something “special,” for “enthusiasts.” Whereas in Northern Europe (and most of Asia), cycling is just something you do to get around, on bikes that are no more special than, say, a Toyota Corolla is among cars.

In other words, the US bike market is the equivalent of a country where car dealers sold nothing but Porsches and Jeeps, and only reluctantly would show you a sedan or station wagon.

And of course there’s the whole fear thing.

Riding in traffic is not really all that unsafe. But it feels unsafe, and no one wants to feel uncomfortable as they ride.

It’s similar to the SUV phenomenon. SUVs are, among cars, more dangerous to their occupants (and others) than are sedans. But they feel safe, so people drive them confidently. (Not to mention arrogantly!)

Likewise, bike lanes–especially separated bike lanes–feel safe, though they have safety issues that street riding doesn’t, even in Europe. These are caused mostly by the increased number of intersections with road traffic they create.

But what bike lanes do is get more people riding, and, over and over again, it has been found that large numbers of riders on the roads (or even next to the roads) condition drivers to look for cyclists, and so make all riders safer. This is the famous “safety in numbers” effect.

Also, separated bike lanes, bicycle boulevards, and the like bring out more women riders.

And of course Dr. Ian Walker’s study showed that [British] drivers gave more room when passing to the same rider when he was dressed in drag as when he was identifiably male–and even more if he was not wearing a helmet.

So it seems that safety follows from infrastructure not so much because of the paint or berms themselves, but because the perception of safety that they create in potential cyclists gets more people out on bikes, and especially more women–and that that is what creates safer streets.

More on women and cycling at Bicycle Fixation in Gina’s report on an APBP survey of women riders.

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