Saturday’s 70-mile Alleycat Acres fundraising bike ride was no walk in the park. It included miles of busy highway shoulders and a 700-foot climb to the high-ground United People’s Farm in Auburn. Many people I talked to said it was by far the longest bike ride they had ever done.
Compared to this ride, biking a few miles to work seems like nothing.
It’s estimated that only 30 percent of Washington State bike commuters are women (a tiny bit higher than the national average of 27 percent). However, a remarkable 64 percent of the nearly 100 people registered to ride in last weekend’s fundraiser identified as female.
What did Alleycat Acres do right to appeal to so many women?
First, some background:
The gender disparity in American cycling is not necessarily repeated around the world. In the Netherlands, for example, 55 percent of cyclists are women. People have offered all sorts of reasons to explain America’s male-dominated cycling trend. Some say women prefer safer infrastructure that doesn’t exist in many places in America. Others have suggested that women have more pressure to conform to physical appearance expectations, and concerns about sweat or helmet hair are a barrier.
Elly Blue writes that, while those concerns likely have some effect, economic barriers are certainly a huge, often overlooked factor.
Women are more likely than men to be poor. We still don’t earn equal pay — as recently as 2009, women made 77 cents for each dollar earned by men doing equivalent work. Other factors range from the kind of work available to women to hiring bias against pregnant women and mothers.
Another barrier: Bicycling takes time. And this is something that, by the numbers, women have less of than men. In 2004, employed women reported an average of one more hour of housework per day than their employed male counterparts. These same employed women reported twice the time spent caring for young children. Employment status being equal, we have more household duties and are far more likely than men to be caregivers for aging relatives.
These kinds of responsibilities add up to more complicated transportation needs. Women make more trips than men, with diverse kinds of trips chained together. And twice as many trips as men’s are at the service of passengers — that is to say, the school drop-off, soccer practice, and the play date wedged in there between the grocery run and the commute to work (see pages 15 and 16 of this paper). No wonder the minivan is inextricably linked with motherhood in America.
We can hope that one day none of these duties will be tied to gender. Until then, statistically, if you’re a woman, biking is going to be less accessible to you than for your statistical male counterpart.
So what was it about this ride that encouraged so many women to show up? To try to answer this question, I chatted with Liz Nixon, a Bike Works employee who won a prize for referring the most people to register for the ride.
“I think a lot of women are interested in what Alleycat Acres does,” she said, so they wanted to support it. But having a cause that appeals to a lot of women is not the only reason.
“Biking 70 miles is a really empowering thing to do,” she said. “They created a supportive environment,” setting up rest stops along the way and piling encouragement as often as possible. Rest stop crews cheered as you rode up, and people were giving high fives like they were the 1977 LA Dodgers.
The ride was very clearly not a race. The support car pumped Salt-n-Peppa and Miley Cyrus. There were no prizes for finishing early. People were encouraged to spend some time at the farm’s halfway point, learning about how the farm operates and how it tries to make sustainable agriculture thrive.
The long ride was almost more about proving that “difficult” can be done, whether it’s a personal distance biking feat or reimagining our region’s food landscape. And everyone on the ride was in it together.
So what can the city learn from this ride’s success at encouraging women to ride? Aside from creating more safe and welcoming physical infrastructure, how can we create a welcoming atmosphere and culture?
If you’re interested in talking more about women and cycling, Elly Blue will be speaking at this weekend’s Seattle Bike Expo:
Working on a new talk — about #bikenomics and gender. Will roll it out at Seattle Bike Expo this weekend. Good stuff. May incite riots.
— Elly Blue (@ellyblue) March 5, 2012