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.