What are the keys to getting more women on bicycles in New York City? How has the city changed to make cycling safer and easier? What impact will bike sharing have on encouraging women to ride?
These were among the topics that a panel of five women who ride bicycles every day in New York City addressed at a lively panel discussion on women and cycling that I moderated last weekend at Bike Expo New York, the annual bicycle show presented by Bike New York in conjunction with the TD Five Boro Bike Tour.
As interest in cycling continues to grow here and in major cities nationwide, focused conversation about attracting women to cycling – for fitness, efficiency, freedom and fun — is timely. And, although census figures show that commuter bicycle trips by men outnumber those by women three to one in New York City, and nationally, change is in the air. Eighty-two percent of American women have a positive view of bicyclists. Nationally, the percentage of women commuting grew by 50 percent from 2007 to 2011. And in an indicator of what’s to come: 60 percent of bicycle owners of ages 17 to 28 years old are women.
Among the trends driving the movement: greater focus on transportation cycling, improving infrastructure – cycle paths and bike lanes — that make streets safer for all users, increasing availability of bicycles and gear suited to everyday riding and a groundswell of advocacy for women’s cycling by women.
As the panelists indicated, reasons to ride as an adult vary as much as individual backgrounds and personalities, proving that one size doesn’t fit all and that there’s no shortage of excellent reasons – and inspiration for – women to travel on two wheels.
Why They Ride
Diane Jones Randall, director of custom publishing at NBC Universal’s iVillage, who is relatively new to city cycling, was inspired by a passion for the city’s history and architecture and a desire to explore these from a different point of view. But efficiency was also a draw: “I realized that the 30 minutes it took me to get across 14th Street on a bus could be done in 15 minutes by bike.”
Similarly, Stephanie Kaplan, communications director at African Services Committee, a non-profit based in Harlem, who returned to biking as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, likes the time savings afforded by bike commuting. “It took me a long time to get out on the streets,” says Kaplan, who is a 2013 Women’s Cycling Ambassador for Specialized Bicycles and races for Asphalt Green Cycling Team in NYC. “I rode in the park. But I had friends who rode their bikes to work. So, slowly, I started commuting.
“It’s a 45 minute commute to work and it’s 20 minutes on a bike. If that gives me more time to sit in my apartment and watch TV or sleep longer, I’ll take it.”
For panelists Caroline Samponaro and Dani Simons, the roads to lives committed to advocacy began with re-discovery of bicycling as adults. Simons, who is director of marketing for NYC Bike Share, began riding a bicycle in college for recreation and stress relief. But her first job after school was a project to build a greenway in Providence, R.I.
“It was about economic development, community revitalization and public health,” Simons says. “I loved that you could approach bicycling from all these different standpoints.”
Similarly, Samponaro, senior director of campaigns and organizing at Transportation Alternatives, came back to bicycling in college more than a decade ago. “Riding a bicycle connected me to the city in a way that I hadn’t experienced it before,” she says.
But it was panelist Julie Hirschfeld, owner of Adeline Adeline bicycle shop in Tribeca, who had perhaps the most unusual journey.
In Search of a Friendly Bike Shop
“I hadn’t ridden since I was a teen,” says Hirschfeld. “I thought it was something that crazy people did.”
When Hirschfeld’s sister began to use a bike for transportation, her own interest was renewed. But when she began to shop for a bicycle herself, the experience proved unsatisfying.
“I found it was very much geared toward men, and it wasn’t necessarily a friendly place to walk into if you were a woman who didn’t know much about biking,” Hirschfeld recalls.
“The next thing I knew I was at Interbike, the industry trade show, and I realized this was something that I really needed to do,” she says. “I realized that I had an opportunity to approach a different kind of rider and to get more people on bikes and that really excited me.”
That was 2009. Today, Adeline Adeline is filled with upright European-style bicycles designed for urban riding, with emphasis on providing customers – men and women — with a friendly shopping environment.
If demystifying the shopping experience is one factor in the larger equation of attracting more women to cycling, then access to infrastructure figures perhaps most heavily. A recent national survey by Princeton Survey Research Associates, for example, indicated that 53 percent of American women say more bike lanes and bike paths would increase their riding.
More Women Equals Greater Safety
New York City has made substantial strides, adding more than 300 bike lane miles since 2007 and doubling commuting between 2007 and 2011.
“As commuting has doubled, the rate of crashes has gone down,” notes Samponaro, adding that four factors contribute to improving cycling safety: infrastructure, greater numbers of cyclists, enforcement of the rules of the road by the police and education of the next generation.
“Bike lanes aren’t the only solution,” she observes. “But when we think about encouraging all types of people to ride, we can do a lot when we build great infrastructure.”
But with more cyclists, the imperative for courtesy – to all users of the streets – becomes greater than ever. One questioner from the audience noted the aggressive behavior that some fellow riders exhibit in the streets and asked what can be done.
“There’s something to be said for street safety having an impact on behavior,” Samponaro says. “When you feel like you have s spot on the street that’s safe and defined as something you can use, it does impact the way people ride their bikes.” Samponaro notes, for example, that there’s less sidewalk riding on streets with bike lanes.
“In terms of etiquette and being polite, it’s on all of us to set a tone,” she says. “Cyclists should not replicate dangerous driver behavior and the me-first attitude that takes place on the streets most of the time.”
Will Bike Share Move the Dial?
Courtesy and modeling of prudent behavior on the streets will be vital as a crop of new riders enters the bike lanes using the Citi Bike share system, due to launch on May 27.
Which leads to the question: Do the characteristics of bike sharing serve to attract more women to cycling? In other markets, women are leading the way: For example, in 2011, 49 percent of Capital Bikeshare members in Washington were women.
Simons of NYC Bike Share predicts that the convenience and efficiency of bike share will resonate with women.
“Women are a diverse group,” she says. “We all have different reasons why we embrace anything.
“I think for bike share, it’s the convenience,” Simons says. “It’s an on-demand system. It’s partly about freedom, but you also don’t have to worry about any type of bike maintenance. You don’t have to lug a bike up a few flights of stairs or find a place to store it. It’s transportation where you need it, when you need it, on your terms.”
Inspiring One Another
Perhaps the greatest potential for attracting more women to the individual and civic benefits of riding a bicycle – for whatever reasons feel right personally – lies in simply riding a bicycle.
And while the overall objective is to get as many people – men, women, children of all backgrounds — on bikes as possible, there’s something to be said for celebrating the singular qualities of women’s cycling.
Global celebrations, such as CycloFemme and the Rapha Women’s 100, that have sprung up recently, provide one indicator of the momentum behind the movement.
For Kaplan, membership in the Asphalt Green Women’s Cycling Team in New York City has provided unique camaraderie. Joking that she sees her teammates as much as her husband, Kaplan described an environment in which women cheer each other on in a way that’s not seen in men’s racing.
“Maybe it’s that there aren’t that many of us doing it and that we feel we’re cultivating something, that we’re in the process of building the sport and participation in it, that makes it a very supportive community,” she says.
When Biking Becomes “Normal”
Kaplan believes in the power of role models: “Every single person here: If you ride a bike, you’re a role model representing the cycling community of women. Just seeing you on your bike promotes others to want to do the same.”
From Simons’ perspective, attracting more women will help accelerate the trend toward accepting cycling as a normal, mainstream activity, “not this strange thing that requires all kinds of preparation and special skills and training.”
It’s a thought echoed by Hirschfeld: “The more women we see on bikes, the more comfortable we’ll all feel. I’m really optimistic about Citi Bike. I think it will make [riding a bicycle] seem like something you can do – like a sanctioned activity – at least that’s my hope. Just seeing lots of people doing it will bring more people on.”
Top photo: Dmitry Gudkov