There are a lot of problems in this world whose solutions, if they exist at all, are incredibly difficult. This, thankfully, is not one of them. The solutions to the gender gap on our streets are known and relatively easy to implement. It just takes political will: our Mayor, Board of Supervisors and the many bureaucrats who serve them taking our lives seriously and taking action.
1. A Citywide Network of Protected Bikeways
The City has implemented small pieces of bikeways that work for women, like the Panhandle path or the protected bikeway on one small section of Polk Street. But most of the City’s official Bike Network is designed for people with a high risk tolerance (typically, men). Research shows that women will bike more if the City builds high-quality bikeways. Here are the proven solutions, used in cities and towns across the country and world. These solutions are the most important steps the City can and should take to open its bike network to women. Low quality bike infrastructure limits women’s access to a public facility, which violates both the San Francisco Administrative Code and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Source: NACTO Urban Bikeways Guide
Protected intersection in Chicago, IL (Source: John Greenfield)
The Lower Haight Wiggle Reimagined. (Source: San Francisco Bicycle Coalition)
San Francisco’s transportation agency, the SFMTA, has previously pledged in its 2013-2018 Bicycle Strategy to build 10 miles of these facilities a year, and has even identified the streets to receive improvements. To date, the agency has built only a tiny fraction of promised projects, usually of very low quality. There are too many sections of the city that are effectively “no go” zones for most women on bikes.
Designing for Women’s Bikes
As the SFMTA hopefully pays more attention to the quality of its bikeway design, we ask that it also pay attention to the small details that impact the more utilitarian bikes that the women who want to bike are more likely to ride, including bikes with baskets and panniers and cargo bikes. And we also ask the agency to think about how we ride. For example:
- We are not necessarily alone. Does the bike lane work when you also have your physically-capable-but-still-learning-about-advanced-street-rules seven-year-old riding their bike with you? In other countries with strong bike cultures, you’ll see mothers riding side by side with their young children who are transitioning into street riders; they keep them in arm’s length as they guide them with their voice and touch. We do not have that option in San Francisco at this point, which makes it much more daunting to teach your children how to be skilled street riders. Same goes for friends, parents, etc, who are learning to be street riders with our help.
- Stop bar placement. Getting started on even a very small incline is daunting on a cargo or otherwise heavily loaded bike, even bikes with electric assist. In fact, it is when we are most likely to tip over. Placing the stop bar so that we have a flat place to start (and so that we don’t have to encroach upon pedestrian space) is enormously helpful. Daylighting and repurposing intersections so that there is always a space that we can access so that we don’t get stuck behind cars and bikes just below the crest of a hill, unable to get started again, is enormously useful.
- Mixing zones are terrible for many reasons. While we’ve described the safety issues in the protected intersection section, also note that having to get a fully loaded kid or cargo-carrying bike started when you are surrounded on all sides by cars or tightly packed bicycles is deeply stressful and often physically difficult. We need room to kick off, get enough speed and get our balance.
- Street grade matters. Steep or even moderate street grades makes it difficult to balance heavily loaded bikes. But if there is no protected, flat space to go to, we are stuck in the middle/crown of the street, feeling even more exposed to car traffic. And drivers are, understandably, wondering why we are hogging the middle of the street. This problem is even more pronounced at intersections. There are certain intersections in the city with such severe crowns that it’s literally impossible to turn without falling over if you are on a substantial bike.
- Bike Box size. Our bikes don’t always fit well into the City’s typical bike box design, especially when there are a bunch of us.
- Push buttons are very very difficult. Navigating a fully loaded bike to a push button that we need to press in order to be allowed to cross the street is extremely difficult. The buttons are usually placed where you can’t just push, wait and go (because they’re over a curb and not curb cuts). Instead, you have to also back up your heavy bike over an angled incline, which is not easy. Dismounting doesn’t necessarily help, either.
Easing the Transition for Everyone
Finally, we are well aware that change is hard — for pretty much everyone. Converting our designated biking streets into a high quality biking network that appeals to women will involve change for many people. In consideration of what we’re asking, we recommend that the City loudly and sincerely invites all residents and businesses to benefit from this transition.
- Bike Subsidy Program (described below) implemented for all residents living on or within one mile of an impacted street.
- Small Business Street Improvement Transition Program implemented for all small businesses doing business from a location on a bike network street that the City upgrades. The program would reflect the City’s confidence in the proven connection between biking improvements and business revenue by providing temporary tax relief and priority assistance in bike subsidies for affected businesses for a reasonable period during and after construction of the improvements.
2. Welcoming Everyone to Biking
Though the rate of women biking in San Francisco is mostly determined by the quality of our city’s bike network, we also recognize that women face a unique challenge in simply getting and maintaining a bike. Too many bike shops in the city (and across the country) are owned and staffed almost exclusively by men, and often feel like very unfriendly places to be (sometimes despite concerted efforts by the owners). Sales and maintenance staff don’t understand our perspective and needs, and the products on sale aren’t always designed with women in mind. Women whose primary language is not English and/or women of color are especially disadvantaged in these situations.
To that end, we recommend that the City implement a comprehensive invitation to biking program, with a special focus on women, particularly people of color, non-English speakers, people with disabilities and businesses.
Source: Christina B. Castro on Flickr.com
Most transportation options are subsidized by government in the U.S. We subsidize MUNI, BART, Caltrain and every other transit agency to keep it affordable to everyone. We subsidize electric car purchases and use, gas prices for traditional cars and trucks and rideshare companies. But though bikes are about as affordable as it gets when it comes to transportation, no unit of government currently subsidizes their purchase or production. Bike infrastructure and programs amount to about 1-2% of the City’s annual transportation budget. Beyond that, the only “subsidy” the City pays is millions of dollars in emergency services to deal with the aftermath of preventable crashes. This makes no sense. We propose that San Francisco begin a need-based subsidy program that helps anyone who wants to buy or upgrade their existing bike to be suitable for commuting in San Francisco. This includes one of the following per family member, per the person’s choice:
- Bike Share membership
- Personal commuting bike (note: this would not apply to recreational bikes) set up with lights and ways to carry goods (baskets, bags, child seat)
- Electric assist bikes, including conversion of existing commuter bikes into electric assists, also set up with lights and ways to carry goods (baskets, bags, child seat). The reality of much of San Francisco’s topography and people’s journeys makes this option the only way many people will be able to bike in the city.
- Cargo bikes, with and without electric assists, for both carrying kids or goods
- Adaptive bikes for people with disabilities
- Bikes for children over the age of four
These subsidies would be redeemable at San Francisco businesses, putting money back into the local economy (unlike most transportation subsidies). We strongly encourage the City to work with local culturally expert community groups to market and implement the program. This job would include working directly with residents and businesses as well as local bike shops to be ready to welcome a more diverse population into their doors.
Bike Shop Development & Support
While some neighborhoods are reasonably well served by bike shops, some, like the Bayview, are not. So even if people are able to somehow procure a bike, through a community bike build, for example, they have no way to maintain the bike. To that end, we recommend:
- Shop & Mobile Repair Grants. The City provide grants to support women and people of color to open a new non-profit or for profit bike shop, expand an existing one or provide mobile, on demand bike repair in places in which there is a culturally competent bike shop desert.
- Job Training Program & Pipeline. Partner with local community groups and other institutions to develop and run bike technician training, with a focus on women and people of color. Technicians certified through this robust program would be recommended to local bike shops — who are constantly on the hunt for good mechanics — for jobs.
Business & Government Fleet Conversion
DHL delivery by cargo bike. (Source: DHL)
Businesses and government collectively cost themselves, and everyone in the city, a great deal of money by depending on cars and trucks for delivery and service fleet work. A huge percentage of that work can more quickly and cheaply (with less impact to the city) be done with electric cargo bikes. The European Union has run a multi-year CycleLogistics project after researching and finding that 50% of commercial trips in European cities could be conducted by cargo bike. While the number may not be as high in San Francisco, it is still very significant, and we are nonetheless clearly missing a huge opportunity to improve business and quality of life in our city.
We of course look to City government to lead the way, showing the benefits of operating by bike. After all, many other cities and countries deliver mail, pick up and haul trash and landscaping materials, transport field technicians and much more by electric-assist cargo bike. Why should San Francisco continue to waste time and money by sticking these valuable professionals into oversized trucks and cars and waiting for them to wade through traffic? We also encourage the City to fund a program to educate and help businesses, small and large, convert their fleets to electric cargo bikes.
3. Secure Bike Parking
Boy is it frustrating to pull up to a bike rack and try to lock your bike, only to realize that the person who designed and installed the racks never accounted for the likelihood that you have a basket, or a pannier or a double kickstand or a cargo bike, so you spend a lot of time trying to lift and angle your bike in around a pack of tightly fitting bikes. Or to pull into the bike room at work and realize that the designers assumed that everyone would be riding light, unencumbered bikes that can be lifted and hung vertically.
Parking in Buildings
The San Francisco Planning Code’s bike parking requirements in private and public buildings is chock full of good policies, but it still largely fails to account for the growth and need of larger, encumbered bikes, which women are more likely to ride. Bike room floor parking configuration, elevator size and door design all impact the ease of being able to securely park a bike made for more than speed.
The SFMTA handles installation of public sidewalk and street bike racks. Some racks work beautifully for utility bikes. But again, many installations fail to account for larger, encumbered bikes, particularly the on-street bike corrals. The corrals are too shallow for most family bikes, and have rack spacing that makes it difficult to maneuver bikes with baskets and bags. Updating these policies and installation practices is an especially easy change to make.
We also strongly encourage the City to develop specific guidelines for overnight secure public bike parking in high density residential neighborhoods, with a particular focus on bikes that carry stuff and/or children.
I see many women riding fast on sporty bikes. Are you accounting for them?
We have nothing but respect for these women, and occasionally are these women. There is certainly a huge variety of women biking. But the majority of women who want to commute by bike in the city but don’t feel able need a basket, panniers or a cargo bike. And by and large, the City continues to design for people on relatively sporty bikes.
What about just better enforcement of the laws and education for people biking and driving?
Education and enforcement alone have been shown repeatedly to have little impact on people’s perception of street safety, and overall biking rates. Infrastructure is absolutely essential to behavior change. After all, no matter how well educated, people by nature make mistakes, particularly kids. But any reasonable person should be able to agree that the price of those mistakes should never be death or serious injury. Hence the need for protected space for biking, separated as much as possible from people driving cars.
Moreover, enforcement in particular is complicated by the overwhelmingly white, male gaze it tends to bring, which has resulted in too much bias, and, too often, outright danger to people caught in its net.
Don’t most men want the same thing?
Yes! But studies show that, on the whole, women want and need it more. If you identify as a man and are actively taking action to get the City to build protected bikeways and intersections, thank you!
How does the Mayor’s 2016 Executive Directive relate to these solutions?
The Directive will hopefully catalyze the City’s transportation agencies to catch up to the promises laid out in previous planning documents. And also take its design work more seriously, accounting for the details that are so critical to women riders in particular. But to date there has been little on street change resulting from the Directive. Instead, the City has approved at least one design project that is at odds with the call for serious street protection. We applaud the SFMTrA for stepping up to demonstrate the impact of protected bike lanes and intersections, and encourage you to donate to their work.
What does success look like?
Reasonable parity in bike network usage across all genders. To get there, we believe that the city government will need to a) speed up its implementation and redesign of high quality protected bikeways across the bike network and b) stop offering project design alternatives that are known to discriminate against women. We strongly believe in community input in tailoring designs to fit with local character, but we also believe in our rights under the law to not be excluded from a public facility.