Where Are the Women Bike Commuters?

If women are an indicator species, some Northwest cities have a ways to go.
cafemama, flickr

cafemama, flickr

Why don’t women bike to work more often? You hear many theories: we’re less willing to ride in traffic, we can’t arrive at a showerless office all sweaty, we never bothered to learn how to fix a flat, our schedules are over-extended, we work longer hours to make the same money as men, those of us with kids spend twice as much time on average caring for them, and many of us squeeze in shopping and errands on the way to and from work.

There’s no single satisfying answer, although convenience is a recurring theme. Sometimes,though, the reason can be as stupid as a garage door. When I evaluated all the things in my life that keep me from hopping on my bike more often, that’s what it boiled down to. I used to keep my bike in the back yard, but after I bought a trailer to haul around our 3-year-old, it was too cumbersome to hoist all of that up the steep stairs to our house and then squeeze through bushes and trees to get to our covered back deck. The other option was our garage, which has an old wooden door that’s falling apart. After some reflection, I realized that I hate to open it because every time I do I’m afraid that I’m going to do irreparable damage and then I’ll have to pay a lot of money to replace it. So there my bike sits, held hostage by a lack of handiness and disposable income.

According to new 5-year estimates from the commute section of the American Community Survey (2006-2010), I’m not alone. Even among Northwest cities with significant numbers of female bike commuters, the percentage of women who primarily biked to work in the week before they were surveyed ranged from a low estimate of 1.8 percent for Seattle to 7 percent in Corvallis, Oregon.

Women bike commuters chart in NW

For a larger version of this chart, click here.

Keep in mind, these estimates don’t offer an accurate picture of overall bicycle use because they don’t capture trips to the grocery store or to a friend’s house or any other non-work-related trips. They’re based on the nationwide ACS survey that asks people to report how they traveled to work most often in the previous week. Because of the sample sizes, the estimates also have sizeable margins of error (represented by the gray bars in the chart above) that made the results meaningless for any city that didn’t have a fairly substantial number of women bike commuters. Even estimates from Spokane, Olympia or Salem weren’t accurate enough to be included. In general, the larger the city, the more reliable the estimates are.

Still, the results are pretty interesting.

First, look at the huge disparity among the different cities. What prompts 1 out of every 14 women commuters in Corvallis to hop on a bike vs. 1 out of every 55 in Seattle? Obviously, the city’s size makes a huge difference, both in terms of the distance one has to travel to work and the amount of traffic you have to contend with. And when women were asked in a 2011 survey what would prompt them to start or increase their cycling, the number #2 answer (behind convenience, which won by a landslide) was better bike infrastructure. That included better engineered bike routes, winter weather plowing and maintenance, dedicated bike lanes, places to shower afterwards, and accessible and secure parking near their workplaces and schools. They also cited the need for bike shops and mechanics that cater to women, or at the very least that don’t give people like me the I-can’t-believe-I-actually-have-to-wait-on-you attitude that one not-infrequently encounters in Seattle bike shops. Another survey focusing specifically on low-income women in San Francisco raised access to a free or low-cost bicycle, the distance they have to travel to work, and the ease of using cars as significant barriers.

When you look at what percentage of a city’s total bike commuters are women, Seattle also brings up the rear. According to these estimates, only 30.7 percent of the city’s bike commuters were women, meaning that men outnumber them on the road more than 2 to 1. Portland, Corvallis and Eugene had roughly 35 percent women, while Boise and Bellingham came out on top with 40 percent (bearing in mind that the estimates for the smaller cities have a fair amount of wiggle room).

For a larger version of this chart, click here.

If women are an “indicator species” that demonstrate how bike-friendly a city truly is, then clearly some Northwest cities have more work to do. But all the bike infrastructure in the world won’t change the persistent inequities between men and women–in terms of income, division of labor within a family and the responsibilities for childcare–that can make regular bicycling more challenging for women. While you can often find time you never knew you had for things that you decide to prioritize, I’d happily pay to get my garage door fixed if someone could just make an extra hour magically appear every day.

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  1. Amy E. says:

    Two things not mentioned: Terrain and weather. I’m not sure of these things in the other cities but in Seattle the east-west commute is very hilly. Personally I take the flattest way- and yes- cold and rain can combine with terrain to literally dampen my spirits.
    My Husband bikes every work day- rain, shine, snow…and hills are not a problem- he seems build for it.

    • jacki says:

      Amy, you can build yourself for it, too! Taking hills is mostly psychological.

      As for biking as a woman in general, it’s a point of pride for me. I am willing to compromise my hair style or footwear whatever, and get hollered at by strangers, because biking means so much to me.

      Though the weather is better here in NC, and the cities a bit smaller, I would say bike infrastructure is pretty bad. Riding on the road, sharrow-style, is the norm. Also… I don’t have a car! So my life involves a whole lot of planning ahead. My cycling is also heavily supported by public transportation and favors from friends. Where I chose to live and work is entirely a product of my cycling.

    • Bonbon says:

      USed to commute by bike in Corvallis. It’s flat, less traffic and good bike lanes. In Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia the hills are what gets me. They just don’t feel as safe or easy to ride, especially in winter. Less visability.

  2. REIN says:

    One of those very very few women bike commuters you refer to lives is my wife. Hurrah to her!!!

  3. Elly A says:

    For me it’s the shower issue. Can’t afford a gym and need to be professional at work (10 mile ride makes it hard). Going to start riding on Fridays though and maybe on perfect weather days as well. Good article.

    • Matt the Engineer says:

      I was going to recommend biking slow – I commute in work clothes and make sure I slow myself down when my breathing starts speeding up. But 10 miles is probably too far for that.

      Maybe our cities need good, clean, safe public showers downtown? Combine it with a bike parking lot and keyed lockers, and charge a few dollars a day. I could almost imagine it as a profitable business.

      • J.K. says:

        Love this idea. If it’s profitable enough, paying an attendant could help with safety and security.

  4. Rachel S. says:

    I’ve arrived a number of times to a meeting, a bit red-faced from a bike ride, and sans heels or other ‘female attire’… body language of those in the meeting usually tells me its the women in the group who are somehow bothered with my form of transportation, but that’s just what I’ve sensed.

    • Not Fan says:

      Rachel, they were jealous because you weren’t 25 pounds overweight. Not that the gals in the office are catty. Oh no.

      • KJ says:

        Hm, I am more than 25 lbs overweight and I commute every day all year in Portland, 12 miles round trip. That’s not including all the other social/errand trips I do in a week because i am car-free, or the touring trips I do. Do we really need to be catty like this here too?

  5. Winthrop says:

    Ms. Langston
    Some years ago…as a planning student I ran a regression analysis of variables in bike commuting. I rated several US cities in terms of terrain, cold weather, as expressed by plant “hardiness zones,” and a couple of other factors, that I do not remember. I do recall that terrain was a dominant factor. Interrestingly, cool, temperate, as opposed to hot and humid places, supported more bikes. Madison, WI is perhaps the most biked city in the US. They won’t touch a bike in Beaumont, TX.
    I live in a flat place, Buffalo,NY, but am often distressed by high winds, so I always wear eye protection. Some of our busses have bike racks, but you never know if the next bus will have one. It’s as if they built half a bridge.
    I consider 5 miles, one way, to be the limit of a comfortable trip. The theraputic benifits of a drunken ride from the bar in cold air can not be overstated. Regarding flats; the Kevlar belted tires now render flats a rare occurance.
    What I am peddaling at, is the suggestion that the variables in bike usage, sex or whatever, are worthy study for planning students and anyone else who is exploring the delights of regression analysis.

    • Rebecca | Seven2Seven8 says:

      Interesting. I just started bike commuting (aiming for 1x/week right now, but heavily depend on cooperative weather and work schedules, which is a challenge for this time of year and my profession). My ride is about 6.5 miles, and I do think 5 would be about perfect. Heat and humidity are factors, as are hills – I am hardly fast (avg. 6-7mph) but can’t seem to manage a relaxed enough ride without huffing and puffing due to the moderately-hilly terrain… and it’s so much harder to cool off when the humidity is high because the sweat doesn’t go anywhere.

  6. jtroop says:

    live in wallingford, work in eastlake. at the end of the day there’s just no way i’m going to make it up that hill. going to work? i drive by those people every day, coming off the bridge is terrifying for me as a driver. no way i’m doing it as a bicyclist. they have to merge directly into traffic that’s often just raring to scream by them. just, no. nothing to do with hair, shoes, my face, whatever. i’d rather have a 6 minute car commute (no cold, no wet, can listen to the radio) or a 35 minute bus commute (no parking, no navigating traffic). biking combines the worst of those two – often cold, wet, have to find a safe place for the bike and worst of all, navigate traffic. i wish it were different, but since you asked…

  7. Judi says:

    I have done a lot of bike commuting in my career. Was full-time when a student, not afraid of traffic or hills and I even can fix flats. Great article and comments, all true! Terrain and infrastructure go hand-in-hand, in other words, if it’s hilly and you get sweaty, you need that shower at the end. If it’s flat and you can ride slowly in moderately dressy clothes (eg, Corvallis), other obstacles can be overcome (lack of showers, misty rain, etc.). My current issue is the latter points on Jennifer’s list relating to family, child care, and shopping: what is a 15-minute car drive heading east over the north-south trending drumlins of our glacial terrain in Seattle and the Eastside becomes a 1-hour grind door-to-desk on a bike, including shower at the office end. Carrying a laptop, clothes (even casual clothes), and lunch add to the load, and the second shower when you get home again is even more time consuming. Bike-to-work month happening concurrent with Little League baseball season makes it difficult to commit to a team; I haven’t ridden once this month. And since I work hourly part-time, every minute working is a minute paid. Sadly, it all adds up to less biking than I want.

    One last add-on to infrastructure and riding-in-traffic issues: there are NUMEROUS points in the Seattle area on bike routes that I call drop zones: you ride along a nice trail or bike lane or even just a quiet road and you get to a point where it all just ends and you are dropped in a hellish spot, either a busy intersection with no bike lanes or crosswalks, or a circuitous route to connect with the next bike-friendly route choice. The Eastside has these drop zones in spades and I would add to the list any of the routes in Seattle that include a draw-bridge with metal deck grating where the bridge opens up. These things are death traps when wet if there is not an ample sidewalk to use. An inventory of these drop zones would be useful and presenting them to either local or regional authorities to “fix them” would greatly advance the cause of all bike commuters.

    • Not Fan says:

      If bicyclists want those “drop zones” fixed, they’d agitate for an adult bicycle license fee of $50 a year. You need to be seen paying your way. Until you are, any requests for new facilities are going to run into a brick wall of opposition.

      Don’t lecture me about how you pay sales taxes on your bike, or about how you already pay for car tabs. It doesn’t matter. You see, every car owner pays for tabs, and sales taxes. Two cars, two separate tabs, and two separate sales tax bills. A motorcycle? Tabs, and sales tax.

      But bicyclists? No dedicated vehicle fee. You ride for free. In America, a certain amount of free-riding is allowed, but you don’t get treated very well. As a society, we tend to reserve our rewards and consideration for those who pay their way.

      So, bicyclists, if you want more facilities, try paying your way. You’d get much more sympathy, and more consideration.

      • Judi says:

        Sorry, Not a Fan, I still disagree. We pay sales taxes on our bikes and all the gear we buy, helmets, fenders, components that need regular replacement. And bike facilities cost a tiny fraction of what vehicle facilities cost. Plus, getting people on bikes and off the roads benefits all of us, including those who can’t or won’t get out of their cars and those who already are, like pedestrians and children.

        We all pay in many ways and just because there isn’t a specific fee dedicated to specific facilities (and studies have shown that just collecting those fees will cost the state more money than they will bring in) doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. Sometimes cyclists pay the ultimate price for inadequate bike facilities because when a bike and a car get entangled, we all know who always wins and who always loses.

      • Not Fan says:

        studies have shown that just collecting those fees will cost the state more money than they will bring in

        I don’t believe you, but a link would help. I want to see the “studies.”

      • I bike, I drive, I walk, I take the bus says:

        Not Fan, sorry, your comments are very ignorant of the funding for a Department of Transportation. For the Seattle DOT, their funding for programs and capital assets comes from a variety of sources including bonds, federal, state and local grants, state and regional partnership agreements, Bridging-the-Gap property tax levy, commercial parking tax, and the employee hours tax (this tax was repealed at the end of 2009 but some unprogrammed funds remain), fees for service, real estate excise taxes, street vacations, gas tax, and an annual allocation from the city’s General
        Here is your link

      • Not Fan says:

        I asked for a link to the “studies” that supposedly prove that licensing bicycles would cost more than it would generate, and you gave me a link to a city budget document.

        So, I repeat, I don’t believe it. And I’m starting to become skeptical that such “studies” even exist. But I remain open to the possibility that they do. Do you have any links to the “studies” that Judi mentioned? And Judi, how about you? Any links?

        Or am I just supposed to believe you because you call yourself eco or “progressive?” Is a request to come up with the evidence to support your assertions something that’s just not done in your clique?

      • Kevin says:

        Hello, Not Fan,

        Here’s a link you may be interested in:


        Seems like the bicyclists (and all other non-drivers) may in reality be subsidizing motorists. No, we DON’T ride for free. And I can’t recall when voters reduced the excise tax to $30. It used to be several hundred for newer cars.

      • Not Fan says:

        Reading comprehension must be a serious “progressive” issue. I made a simple and clear request: for links to “studies” that support Judi’s claim that licensing of bicycles costs more than it generates.

        Instead, I’ve now been provided with two irrelevant links. My original request still stands. Could it be that no one has provided evidence of the “studies” because they don’t actually exist?

      • Kevin says:

        Oops. Made a mistake. I’m trying to find the study Litman did for Puget Sound and Washington. I’ll get back to you.

      • Kevin says:

        The study is called The costs of transportation : expenditures on surface transportation in the central Puget Sound region for 1995 by The Puget Sound Regional Council. I can’t find an electronic copy, but there is a reference copy in the Seattle Public Library.
        Findings are similar to the aforementioned Canadian study except as I mentioned earlier, voters significantly decreased the excise tax paid by motorists so everyone (including non-drivers) is subsidizing roads more than in past years.

      • Not Fan says:

        Kevin, considering your track record of trying to lead me down blind alleys, I don’t think I’ll be trundling off to the library anytime soon, only to be sandbagged by a “progressive.”

        But I am perfectly willing to read a report that I can access online. I only hope you’ll eventually find one that’s relevant. If there are all these “studies,” it shouldn’t be hard to actually find some of them.

      • Not Fan says:

        Findings are similar to the aforementioned Canadian study

        There is no “aforementioned Canadian study” that’s relevant, or at least not one that you’ve linked to. This is becoming pretty comical. You “progressive” “eco” types really have a hard time with a simple, direct request, don’t you?

        I wonder why that is. Too much time in academia?

  8. RaiseMoreHell says:

    With the slowdown in housing starts, many Habitat for Humanity groups have taken up helping homeowners with needed repairs. I’d check your local group and see if they can help you get that garage door fixed. You’ll eventually pay for the materials, but you’ll do it at a pace that works and you’ll meet some good folks.

  9. April Streeter says:

    I love your concise summation of all the little, niggling factors that can keep us from our bikes, Judi.

    I do think things are getting better for women bike commuters, and I passionately believe we will make our cities and our lives better if we are able to overcome some of the hurdles.

    My secret ‘weapon’ – pedal-assist e-bikes! As a carless commuter these last six years, having access to an e-bike has so improved my life and helped with many of the little hurdles mentioned. Easier hauling, less sweat, picks up the speed a bit, and still gives significant health benefits (confirmed by an Australian study). Plus it is a major factor in the child-shuttling aspect. With a combination of access to a Zip car, regular bikes, and two e-bikes in our family, we are able to do most things and save significant cash in the process.

    Where the no-car dream falls short is not the inner city commutes and events, but for trips outside the city. The real shame of our Northwest cities is that they have not developed reliable train services.


  10. Not Fan says:

    Oh for God’s sake. Are you people really that inhibited? I guess so. Here’s why more women won’t ride their bike to work: The uncomfortable silence after the question, “Honey, does spandex make me look fat?”

  11. CS says:

    I found an “inexpensive” eBike on Craig’s list and that got me started on my 13 mile one way N Seattle to Downtown waterfront commute. I’ve found that the worst thing that discurages me from commuting that way daily is fear. I’m pretty careful, but there is an incident on nearly every trip, like someone making a left turn across the trail in front of me, or pedestrians 2 or 3 across stepping into my path. I arrive with an adreneline rush and red faced to each destination. So we need to continue to educate everyone in the city about sharing with bikes. Cascade Bike club and Commute Seattle have done a tremendous amount of that in the last few years.
    A specific problem: Construction and SLU train tracks in the SLU neighborhood are a major obsticle.

  12. RJS says:

    I bike commute to work every day. I work downtown and live on top of Capitol Hill and after a couple months of pushing myself/walking my bike – I am now Hill Destroyer Extraordinaire.

    What has consistently been the greatest discouragement is the number of times I’ve been verbally harassed by motorists and have been intentionally cut off by motorists.

    Fortunately, I have a fantastic group of friends that also cycle and their encouragement is much appreciated. Also – all about the “bike shops and mechanics that cater to women.” Numerous times I’ve been at a bike shop alone and completely ignored OR have been there with my boyfriend who gets prompt attention.

  13. I bike, I drive, I walk, I take the bus says:

    Not Fan says: “You need to be seen paying your way. Until you are, any requests for new facilities are going to run into a brick wall of opposition. … But bicyclists? No dedicated vehicle fee. You ride for free.”
    The argument that cyclists don’t pay for transportation is pure ignorance. Ignorance is bliss.

    • Not Fan says:

      It’s not “ignorance” at all. Motorists pay dedicated vehicle taxes. Bicyclists don’t. If Seattle’s bicyclists were smart, they’d be lobbying for an annual tag fee, to give themselves political legitimacy.

      Look at McGinn? He is roundly condemned in Seattle, and right at the top of the list of complaints is that he has tilted too far towards bicyclists. You “progressive” “eco” types are always urging other people to “think outside the box” and to “accept change, even if it’s painful,” but isn’t it interesting how you so relentless excuse yourselves from your kind advice?

      Fine. Really. Keep it up. I’m not real thrilled with you, and the more obstinate you are, the more you’ll lose those battles. Maybe you like the martyrdom? But if you actually want to achieve something, you’d be seen chipping in, rather than always demanding and taking from everyone else.

  14. Conrad Kornmann says:

    My subjective experience commuting in Seattle is that there are lots of ladies, roughly equal to men. If there is disparity, my guess is it is because of hills, darkness/wetness, hostile roads, and lack of bike parking and changing/shower areas as you all are saying.
    As far as licensing bicycles goes: in addition to what everyone else has already said- I think the fair way to do it would be on vehicle weight. Vehicle weight determines wear and tear on roads, the severity of injuries when collisions occur, space for roads and parking, environmental impact, and the list goes on. Some sample math: my car weighs 4000 pounds and costs 200 dollars a year to license. My bike weighs 40 pounds. If people really want bicycles to be licensed I guess I’ll pony up 1 dollar. If the cost of licensing a bicycle has to go beyond that, we better rethink the cost of licensing a motor vehicle.

    • Not Fan says:

      Some sample math: my car weighs 4000 pounds and costs 200 dollars a year to license. My bike weighs 40 pounds. If people really want bicycles to be licensed I guess I’ll pony up 1 dollar.

      Car tabs are only minimally weight based, so your comparison is either ignorant or dishonest. Yeah, I know. You are “progressive” and an “environmentalist” and therefore you are better and so much more intelligent than anyone else. But you’re wrong, and I’ll show you exactly how.

      Of course, I don’t expect it to have any impact, because being “progressive” and “environmentalist” also means being impervious to any facts. In this regard, your group is the mirror image of the global warming denialists: “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

      But what the heck.

      My car tab renewal is broken down into sections. I will rearrange them for clarity’s sake, but I am including all the data except for the voluntary $5 state parks donation.

      License fee: $30
      Weight based fee: $10
      Filing fee: $3
      License service fee: $0.75

      Subtotal: $43.75

      Vehicle weight is 23% of the base fee, or 33% of just the state license fee.

      RTA tax: $9
      Transportation Benefit District fee: $20
      Congestion reduction fee: $20

      Subtotal: $49
      Total: $92.75

      Mass Transit fees are 114% of the base fee, or 163% of the state license fee, or 126% of the state license fee plus the weight surcharge.

      If bicycles paid a license fee on the same basis as motorcycles:

      License fee: $30
      Weight based fee: $10
      Filing fee: $3
      License service fee: $0.75

      RTA tax: (0.3% of value) $1
      Transportation Benefit District: $20
      Congestion reduction fee: $20

      Total: $84.75

      You see, the weight-based fee is actually a stealth addition to the $30 license fee, added to evade Eyman’s initiative. Every vehicle over 0 pounds pays it. A bicycle would have to do the same thing.

      But perhaps the bicyclists could whine their way out of that, and get it cut to $0, in which case a bicycle treated the same way as a motorcycle or motor scooter would pay $74.75 a year.

      This is what you’d pay if you weren’t free-riding children, catered to by the politicians. Until you pay, I’m going to oppose any bike infrastructure, and I won’t be alone.

      • Eric Hess says:

        Not Fan: We welcome open discussion, and disagreement. But enough with the name calling and insults. Bring evidence and be part of the conversation, but leave the labels at home–or we’ll start deleting comments.

        (This is also a reminder to all commenters to keep it civil—which the vast majority of you are doing. Thank you.)

    • JLTS says:

      “hills, darkness/wetness, hostile roads, and lack of bike parking and changing/shower areas”

      Why would these things detract women more than men, though?

  15. orillia3 says:

    People are misinformed about who pays for the roads. Most municipal roads in North America are paid for through property taxes. The automobile and gas fees/taxes go to provincial/state highways which are rarely used by bicycles. In fact cyclists pay as much property taxes as any motorist either directly as property taxes, or indirectly through rent as any motorist, yet roads are almost exclusively built to accommodate cars. By the time costs are figured out who uses what, on municipal roads, motorists are subsidized by cyclists, not the other way around. Cyclists should demand that more of the taxes they pay go to cycling infrastucture, as well as sidewalks and roads. If more politicians road bicycles, the cycling infrastructure would change.

    As far as arriving to work tired and sweaty, and not wanting a long tiring ride after a hard day’s work, consider an ebike. Once you get over the snobbery that it is somehow cheating , you will learn to love them.

  16. Sparke says:

    “Maybe you like the martyrdom?”

    Or maybe you’re just looking for a reason to fight.

  17. Not Fan says:

    By the way, I just got my renewal notice for one of my cars. The base fee is $43.75. Another $49 goes to mass transit. Bicyclists pay no base road use fee, nor any dedicated mass transit taxes tied to their vehicles.

    And you wonder why the mayor you love is going to get tossed out next year, partly because of his reputation as “Michael McSchwinn?” Your free ride is coming to a close. Good luck getting voter approval for more bike infrastructure.

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