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How Bike-Share Programs Can Help Close the Biking Gender Gap

As a female and a long-time bicycle lover, I was surprised to learn there's a pretty sizable biking gender gap in the U.S.

As a female and a long-time bicycle lover, I was surprised to learn there's a pretty sizable biking gender gap in the U.S. In 2009, only 24 percent of all bike trips were made by women, according to the League of American Bicyclists.

With that in mind, the League launched a new program last month called Women Bike, which is dedicated to getting more females cycling. The group released a study last month called "Women on a Roll" that found, among other interesting insights, that bike-share programs help close the gap.

How exactly? Well, it boils down to do with what the report calls the "five Cs" that are key to getting more women on wheels: comfort, convenience, confidence, consumer products, and community.

Bike-share bikes are made for cruising short distances, not speed or long trips. Yes, they're clunky, heavy and slow, but that makes them far more comfortable and easy to ride than a thin, aerodynamic road bike. You don't need any special gear, and can wear casual clothing.

Like the bikes themselves, bike-share culture is also more laid-back for non-hardcore bikers, the study found. Whereas bike shops or cycling clubs can be male-dominated and give off an off-putting "machismo" vibe, bike-share programs bring on a welcoming sense of community.

And finally, where bike sharing goes, bike-friendly infrastructure usually follows. That means more bike racks—which make it more convenient to make frequent stops, say for running errands—plus designated bike lanes and cars that are more used to sharing the road, both of which make biking around town safer.

Two-thirds of women in the U.S. agreed. “My community would be a better place to live if biking were safer and more comfortable," said a participant in the study.

You may be thinking, all this wreaks of gender stereotypes. But the truth is, past studies have come to similar conclusions. In fact, women are often considered an "indicator species" for bike-friendly cities. In other words, by looking at the percentage of female cyclists in a city, you can predict how well-equipped the area is to support a biking culture. The numbers also back up the theory that bike-sharing boost the number of female riders: In 2012, 43 percent of bike-share users were women, according to the report.

The great news is that bike-share programs are a rising trend in cities around the country. Chicago kicked off its program this summer, and San Francisco is on track to launch this month. "The number of cities planning to add bicycles as public transportation on the continent is expected to jump by 50 percent this year," WNYC recently reported. (There's a map, too). "Existing bike-share programs in America are also hitting milestone after milestone this season. Washington, D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare broke ridership records last weekend with more than 11,000 trips in one day for the first time."

And in New York, where I live, the CitiBike program has been hugely popular so far. You can sense the transportation culture starting to shift—even if just slightly—away from the car-dominated society we've had for decades, as people get more used to sharing the road. Residents are also opting to commute by bike instead of the subway, which is also great for personal health.

This bodes well for a future of female riders. From the report:

Already, more than 250 cities large and small have been designated Bicycle Friendly Communities by the League—and many of these cities have among the highest rates of women cycling according to local counts and surveys, including Boston (Silver BFC—32 percent women’s ridership), San Francisco (Gold BFC—33 percent women’s ridership), and Philadelphia (Silver BFC—32 percent women’s ridership).

Another positive sign of the changing times? The younger generation of girls are way more psyched on cycling. According to the study, 60 percent of bike owners between 17 and 28 years old are women. It goes to show, the momentum is there—and cities can help keep it moving forward.

Image via (cc) flickr user eco_bicycle_albania

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