Why do you care so much about transportation — and biking in particular?
We are a group of women who, like most, live complicated, logistically challenging lives. We care and worry deeply about many issues. But no matter what’s on our mind, we’re faced with the daily challenge to get around our city and region. Transportation is an inescapable, everyday problem for almost every person living in this city. And because we have so many demands on our time, we are especially sensitive to the need to get around the city quickly and safely.
We’ve experienced what it means to have to drive everywhere and truly don’t wish that experience upon anyone. It’s slow, infuriating and terrible for us and everyone, particularly our kids. We’ve also glimpsed the ease of getting around by bike when streets are designed for women on bikes. It’s amazingly fast, great for us and everyone and makes us smile. So now that we know that biking can make our lives so much easier, and allow us to focus on the many other people and things we care about, we don’t want to go back to being stuck in a car. MUNI, BART, etc work for some trips, but are far slower and harder to navigate, particularly for those of us transporting our kids and/or lots of stuff. When it works well, biking is usually the perfect solution.
Unfortunately, according to the SFMTA, almost the entire bike network is “uncomfortable” for everyone save the boldest, most confident adult riders.
So we’re not willing to sit back and hope for the city government to change — someday. Because we’ve seen what a San Francisco of less stressed out residents can look and feel like, and it’s a future we must have if we truly care about our city, our families and ourselves.
How are the experiences and demands of women different from men when it comes to everyday transportation?
For many of us, quite different in three key ways:
- Commuting disproportionately limits and stresses out women compared to men.
- While our commutes tend to be shorter than the men in our lives, we tend to do more trip-chaining (e.g., stopping on the way to work to drop off kids).
- We are more likely to be harassed and/or sexually assaulted, no matter our transportation method.
What do women say we want that is different from men?
While there are, of course, a variety of differences (as well as many commonalities!), the biggest difference is that women are more sensitive to the safety of the experience and, as a result, more sensitive to the quality of the bike infrastructure offered. We are more likely …
- To worry about the safety of the biking experience, and our worries deter us from riding.
- To require a protected bike lane before we are willing to bike on a particular street.
- To bike more when there are protected bike lanes.
There is a healthy and growing body of research on the topic. We highly recommend reading Professor Jennifer Dill’s research, “Can Protected Bike Lanes Help Close the Gender Gap in Cycling? Lessons from Five Cities.”
What countries are doing a good job of creating equal access to biking for women and men?
Unsurprisingly, Holland and Denmark stand out from the pack. In those countries, more women than men ride bikes. Why? Great infrastructure. Check out details here, including the inspiring, short video of Dutch women on the go.
How are women of color particularly impacted?
People of color bike more than anyone else in the U.S., but are usually roundly ignored by transportation planners. This is, of course, not ok. A national survey found that people of color are more concerned about being personally targeted — by an ordinary criminal or a police officer — while biking. In general, as with many other parts of life, there is simply more at stake for women (and men) of color using any form of transportation, including bikes.
Is your definition of “woman” fully inclusive?
Yes! When we talk about “women,” we mean anyone who identifies as a woman. San Francisco’s diversity of gender identity is one of the many things we love about our city. We welcome and embrace everyone.
What are the best ways to make bicycling safe for everyone, but especially women?
Why is there such a disparity in biking rates in San Francisco?
Simply put, our bike infrastructure is largely designed for and by bolder adult riders, who tend to be disproportionately male. While there have been a few notable exceptions, the people developing and, most importantly, making decisions about street design in San Francisco, are largely men. We are deeply thankful for the wisdom of Cheryl Brinkman, who has strongly advocated for the perspective and needs of women on bikes as a member of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board. Beyond Director Brinkman, there have been brief periods in which strong female leadership in the agency has helped embrace woman-friendly designs. But this has not been the norm.
Does this make a difference? Yes. In ways big and small. This article from Governing magazine touches on some of the impacts:
The lack of women engineers designing transportation systems can lead to real world problems, said Harvard University public health researcher Anne Lusk. Early air bags in cars injured or killed women and children because they were designed to protect men. In fact, the federal agency that evaluates crash safety for vehicles first started using smaller, “female” dummies in its compliance tests in 2003. Even some bus shelters discourage women from using them by not offering multiple exits, she said.
Lusk, whose work focuses on cycling, said male dominance in transportation engineering has led to more dangerous traveling experiences for women. For instance, she said, her research found that bike lanes physically separated from traffic are safer than painted bike lanes on the side of the road. Women, in particular, favor bike lanes cordoned off from vehicle traffic, research has shown. But for years, U.S. transportation planners shunned cycle tracks.
One of the big reasons for that, Lusk said, is that the teams that developed the industry’s bike infrastructure standards were dominated by men. When the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) produced those standards in 1991 and 1999, its teams were 91 and 97 percent male, respectively. The cycling guidelines were updated again in 2012, but they again did not include protocols for protected bike lanes. (AASHTO officials did not respond to requests for comment by press time.)
There are other ways a male-centered approach discourages women from biking, Lusk said. Environmentally friendly building standards often call for places to store bikes. But, in many cases, those storage spaces are “bike cages,” which discourage women cyclists. They often have only one exit, raising safety concerns. And many require cyclists to lift their bikes, which discourages women who tend to have heavier bikes and less upper body strength, Lusk said.
Even the time cyclists have to cross intersections on a green signal can reflect the biases of men engineers, she said. Research shows women take longer to get through an intersection than men. They generally don’t have as much leg strength as men. But women’s attire and the weight of their bikes also make them slower than men.
What role has bicycling played in the national and international womens’ rights movement?
Bicycling has a proud history in the U.S. suffrage movement. The bike was the emblem of women’s rights at the time. And now that tradition carries on in women’s fights for basic rights around the world, including Iran. We have the deepest respect for these brave women!
How can San Francisco fix the problem?
We’ve laid out key solutions to opening up our bike network to women here. The good news is that these are all relatively easy fixes, particularly compared to some of the other, enormous challenges the city faces.