When panelists at the first National Women Cycling Forum in Washington DC this week were asked about their most inspiring moments, Marla Streb, the retired pro cycling champion, remarked: “My most inspiring moment is this forum.” She then turned her cell phone camera toward the audience to capture the more than 200 participants who had gathered for this event on the eve of the opening of the National Bike Summit.
The free forum, sponsored by the Alliance for Cycling and Walking and the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, brought together representatives from advocacy, industry, government, cycling clubs and organizations and media to inspire a national conversation about women and cycling. Specifically: How to 1) attract more women to riding bicycles for transportation and recreation, 2) involve more women in advocacy and 3) broaden the female base.
And not a moment too soon. The latest benchmarking report from the Alliance, published this year, found that women accounted for only 24 percent of bike trips in 2009. (According to the same report, NYC tracks closely with the national figure.) But there’s reason for optimism.
“The trend is changing,” says Carolyn Szcezpanski, communications coordinator for the Alliance. “And momentum is growing.” The two-hour meeting was led by a panel of women who represent a cross-section of the cycling community: Veronica Davis, co-founder of Black Women Bike; Andrea Garland, an engineer with Alta Planning and Design; Cornelia Neal of the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, Royal Netherlands Embassy; Nelle Pierson, events coordinator for the Washington Area Bicycle Association; Streb; and Elysa Walk, general manager of Giant Bicycle. Led by moderator Elizabeth Kiker, executive vice president of the League of American Bicycles, panelists shared their personal experiences and perspectives and invited input from an energized audience from around the country.
Bicycle as Vehicle for Empowerment
In contemporary discussion, what’s sometimes forgotten is the spirit of liberation and independence that women discovered in cycling when this machine came on the scene in the U.S. in the late 19th century.
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“Bicycles changed the way women related to their bodies, to men and to the world at large,” noted keynote speaker Sue Macy, author of Wheels of Change: How Women Road the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way).
As Macy’s book reveals, cycling as a means of independent transport helped women to escape the confines of their homes, to liberate them from restrictive garments and to provide the first large-scale engagement with an activity that promoted physical fitness. Macy’s lively presentation, which included vintage photos and illustrations from her book, included savory tidbits such as a 19th century quote, from a man, calling bicycles for women “the devil’s agent.” Today’s women face barriers in connection with cycling as well, but of a different kind.
Infrastructure to Help People Feel Safe
Among the most discussed, inside the forum and as part of the national conversation about people who are curious about the growing boom in cycling, but concerned about safety, is infrastructure — winning safe routes for commuting, neighborhood riding and recreation.
“We’re not going to see more women participating until there are more bike parkways that are separated from traffic,” said Walk of Giant Bicycles. “Bicycling has to be friendly and safe to make it a normal part of life.”
It was a thought echoed by Davis: “Safe infrastructure is an issue. In some neighborhoods there aren’t even places to park a bike. We need to help women feel comfortable with biking as a transportation option.” (Black Women Bike began as a twitter discussion and grew to more than 400 members in one year.)
What you can do locally to help inspire more women to choose cycling:
- Make cycling social. Invite your family, friends and colleagues to ride with you.
- Support local advocacy efforts and help elect pro-cycling and -walking officials.
- Expand the conversation. Work with school districts, public health officials, community leaders and government officials to encourage efforts to promote cycling locally.
- Lead by example. In other words, ride your bicycle as often as possible.
- Encourage and support partnership with local business, such as bicycle-friendly business districts.
- Speak on behalf of your own needs. Make your voice heard to the cycling industry and to your local retail shop.
Encouraging more women to ride bicycles for whatever reasons they choose — for health and fitness, to create more livable communities, to save money — also represents an opportunity for the cycling industry. Notes Walk: “The market is huge, and the more we can invite women into this realm, the more women will participate.”
Shift Marketing Away from MAMILS
In that vein, an audience member noted that women themselves need to play a more assertive role in defining and advocating for their own needs. Development of better products and services for women is not all in the hands of marketers, she said: “It’s up to women themselves to ask for, to demand, what they need and want.”
Pierson of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association focused on how cycling is presented through marketing and urged departure from the industry’s longstanding focus on MAMILS, or Middle Aged Men in Lycra Suits. “We need to work on marketing, to show diversity, that women’s cycling comes in all shapes and sizes,” Pierson said.
The panelists’ personal stories, including Streb’s, were strong reminders of the power that women posses to encourage and support one another. Pierson, for example, shared the story of how she helped persuade her own mother to take up cycling. Key to continuing the conversation, panelists agreed, is carrying the message home to local communities on a personal level (see tips above).
For additional information and resources, visit womencyclingproject.org.
Top photo courtesy of Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland