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We’re Not Just an “Indicator Species!”

March 26, 2012

Despite or perhaps because of my background in ecology, I find being called an “indicator species” insulting. Perhaps if I was a beaver or butterfly it would be fine – and I wouldn’t know the difference anyway, as far as I know – but I’m not. I’m called that just because I’m a female bicyclist.

Women and bicycling have historically had an on-again, off-again relationship. When bicycles were first introduced, they offered women an exciting new alternative. Cars were considered too unsafe for ladies to drive and the original cars were extremely difficult for most women to start up. (I suspect they were extremely difficult for most men as well, but they didn’t want to admit it.) Bicycles offered a method of transportation that women could embrace for their own, providing a new sense of freedom and ability to travel. The first woman bicycled around the world decades before my grandfather and three of his friends set off to do the same feat. Apparently, it was an adventuring trend at the time, but one in which women were permitted to participate. Women in the late 1800s and early 1900s even changed their style of clothing to better accommodate this new mode. Bloomers arose in part because the bulky skirts of the earlier era made it impossible to pedal. Because of these advancements, bicycling became a favored mode of transport among the suffragettes. In fact, Susan B. Anthony said, bicycles have “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” Although I haven’t read it yet, this book looks like an excellent review of the subject.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all rosy. Like all women who have tried to fight for more rights, female bicyclists were mocked and demonized. Some men apparently believed that if women were allowed to move at such speeds under their own power, they couldn’t help but be reckless. The pictures from this time (parodied so wonderfully by Kate Beaton) are hilarious and sad in their over-the-top nature.

As with the streetcars, another form of transport making a modern comeback, bicycling in the U.S. dropped off when the government emphasized the building of the highway system. With the building of the suburbs, it was simple to drive and increasingly difficult to bike anywhere. Bicycling became a children’s activity, left up to little boys with their baseball cards in the wheels and little girls with their pigtails.

Yet now, it’s making a comeback. Unfortunately, unlike the days of yore, it’s not quite seen as a symbol of freedom for women. In fact, male cyclists outnumber female cyclists in most American cities. African-American women biking in D.C. felt so unacknowledged that a number of them formed a group called Black Women Bike to show that yes, they do exist!

The reasons for this are numerous, although some of the reasons are false and sexist. One of the most common ones is that women don’t want to mess up their hair or wear dorky clothes. As the fabulous fashionistas I described in a previous post prove, fashion is not a very good reason for not bicycling and can even be augmented by a well-chosen bicycle. Besides, most women have much better reasons than that.

In polls, one of the main reasons women who want to cycle but don’t is that they don’t feel safe. The “indicator species” comments refers to the fact that having a large number of female cyclists in a city demonstrates that the city has good, safe cycling infrastructure. Men tend to be more likely to take risks and are more willing to put up with high-speed roads and dodgy intersections. In a survey by The Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, improvements in infrastructure and having Bike Friendly Places were the number two and three changes that women said would motivate them to start cycling or do so more often.

In addition to the infrastructure, women also have to feel safe within a city. Due to society’s framing of crime and the view of women as vulnerable, society tells women to be far more scared of walking or biking places than men are. In addition to feeling confident of not getting in an accident, women have to feel that they won’t get mugged. I myself can attest to experiencing this phenomena; I always feel much more cautious when walking alone at night than Chris does. Unfortunately, some of the most bikable areas in some cities can overlap with some of the sketchier neighborhoods. Once, while trying to get to a party of a friend on Capital Hill from a different, also very bikable area of the city, I was stuck going through a vaguely industrial area that made me nervous.

Along with being concerned about our personal safety, many women also have to bring their children on errands with them. (Many men do as well, but they don’t have the same level of societal pressure to do so.) Although cargo bikes and clever carriers are making this task easier and easier, it’s still a very complicated operation. While getting groceries on a bike can be a bit heavy on your own, adding children and any gear they need (toys, food, etc) is a Herculean task. My friend from church is attempting to do this with her kids, and she’s gotten some stories that make me think she has the patience of a saint and legs made of steel. In addition, a lot of families with kids live out in the suburbs, where biking for transportation tends to be inherently more difficult.

Fortunately, there are a number of groups working to change both the view of women as some unusual animals on two wheels and the number of women actually on the road. The Women Cycling Project is doing a webinar on Wednesday about this subject with some very exciting speakers. Community groups can promote this as well, if only by having female-led bicycle rides.

Despite being thought of as an “indicator species,” I’m proud to be a woman who bikes. I think in this age of being tied to our cars, biking is still empowering. Being able to move under our own power needs to be something we embrace. Knowing this, we need to continue making the streets safer and bicycling more accessible. Because the little girls out there will be young women soon enough

Writer’s edit: Great news! The Washington Area Bicyclist Association has just started a new campaign, Women on Bikes. The best thing is that it encourages women themselves to reach out to other women and be SpokesWomen. If you live in the DC Metro area, I encourage you to sign up.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2012 10:40 pm

    Liking this post. Yes, this indicator species thing gets old, and I feel quite mixed about it. I’m not a woman on a crusade, yet I feel passionately about bicycling and wish more people (including women) rode their bikes for transportation. There are several legitimate barriers to making that happen for people, as you show in your post.

    • March 27, 2012 12:53 pm

      Thanks for your input! I am a little on a crusade (as the name of this blog attests), but I don’t like getting in people’s face about it. It just seems weird to focus on women as this separate group when the suggested changes would help all hesitant cyclists, no matter what their gender.

  2. Nancy L. Seibel permalink
    March 28, 2012 1:05 pm

    Thank you for voicing this. Very well said. Another point is that women cyclists are not a monolithic group. We differ in our levels of fitness, cycling interests, clothing and color preferences and so on. So getting more women – and men – to ride bikes probably involves some combination of common issues (i.e. safe infrastructure, society-wide attitude changes) and others that are variable (i.e. bikes and gear that fit varied sizes and purposes).

    • March 28, 2012 11:18 pm

      So true! That’s one of the biggest issues when people in a majority try to think about how to “make things better” for a minority. They see the group as just a group instead of individuals. Although it shouldn’t be this way, we as that minority need to speak up and remind people of that.

      • Nancy L. Seibel permalink
        April 1, 2012 11:14 am

        Well put.

  3. March 31, 2012 9:50 pm

    We sound delicate, the indicator species or canaries in the coal mine. It is true that the safer the cycling infrastructure in general, all types of people and ages will bike that infrastructure route.

    When I was in Copenhagen for almost a week, there were a ton of local women cycling around. Sometimes I was surrounded by 80% women cyclists, yet none of us knew each other. We just were going around doing our thing to our separate destinations.

    What is particularily annoying is the claim that alot of women won’t cycle because of helmet hair.

    I guess..I can’t see how this jives with jogging women and messed up hair when they visit local shopping stores in their jogging outfit or cafes straight from jogging. Whatever.

    • Nancy L. Seibel permalink
      April 1, 2012 11:10 am

      I had overcome a lot of practical and psychological barriers to start bike commuting. Motivated by the public transit mess that ensued after the Red Line accident several years ago, I tackled these barriers one by one and of course they were all manageable. I think similar fears stop lots of people from trying bike commuting. What do you suppose helps people get past them? I know that once a couple of us at my office started bike commuting, it spread and after a while there were about 5-6(out of 70) bike commuting full or part time. I think there is a bit of a peer support effect. You have the example: if she can do it, surely I can to! You have someone to turn to for advice, ideas, and moral support, as well as practical help (such as someone to help you change a flat tire, for example).

      • April 1, 2012 3:31 pm

        I think a three-fold approach is best in terms of helping people overcome those barriers. First, an effort to improve infrastructure overall. As Jean pointed out, the better the physical system is, the more new people will use it overall, regardless of gender, race or anything else. Second, an effort to provide the educational structure to help people feel comfortable, such as Confident City Cycling classes and group rides. These will help ease people into the idea in safe environments. Third, one-on-one mentoring/ tutoring by cyclists to people who are hesitant. This could be anything from a formal buddy system to just emailing a friend whose expressed interest. We’re starting a bicycle ambassador program this summer in my town which will hopefully cover the second and a little of the third.

      • Nancy L. Seibel permalink
        April 2, 2012 12:22 pm

        This makes a great deal of sense. Your thoughts address the community-level issues, as well as those that make a difference for individuals, education and support. I got a lot from the Confident City Cycling class I took several months after I started bike commuting. So even though I was no longer brand new at it, it still was a huge help. Ideas, understanding and help from other bike commuters made a big difference too. It continues to be great to be able to both give and receive that help. Another great resource is info available online. WABA is one source. There are lots of blog posts on the topic too. I could see there were some issues most people agree on, and others where there are varied opinions. That helped me think things through for myself.

      • April 2, 2012 8:28 pm

        I signed up for a Confident City Cycling class once, but it was pouring outside and I couldn’t motivate myself to get into and across the city in the rain with my bike. I think I’d still like to take it even though I feel a lot better biking in the city just for the experience and some tips.

        I like your point about getting assistance from a number of places. I think reading a lot of different perspectives helps people think thoughtfully about an issue, which helps people then in turn become more confident.

  4. April 1, 2012 6:16 pm

    It helps to live near bike routes (which was purely accidental for me in my first city where I lived and returned to cycling) alot. Plus at least 1 experienced cyclist who is patient that you can follow along (my partner, who is cycling advocate …for a long time).

    For certain, just telling people not to wear a helmet (or getting rid of helmet legislation) and jump onto the bike is not going to solve problems or get alot more people cycling in North America. It still won’t be safe for people. There are alot of angry drivers and now, way more distracted drivers than a decade ago, with cellphone use, texting…despite some jurisdictions that make use of cellphone while driving, illegal.

    • April 1, 2012 7:14 pm

      Very true. I think that bicycle safety in terms of riding should be a part of all children’s gym classes and bicycle safety in terms of driving should required as part of all drivers’ education.

  5. January 2, 2013 10:47 pm

    Check out WE Bike in NYC! They are really rad (which has nothing to do with the fact that I’m the founder, full disclosure!). Our goal is to get women on bikes and to empower women to ride together for fun, fitness, transportation and exploration! http://www.facebook.com/webikenyc (real website in the works). Thanks for an awesome article!

    • January 5, 2013 1:07 am

      Thanks! It’s great to hear what’s going on in New York City and I think the women specific groups can be a lot lower-key than some of the mixed groups. Good luck!

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