Bike share for everyone, Part 1: Closing Seattle’s cycling gender gap

bike_with_P_alaskaPronto Cycle Share is on schedule to launch in September, bringing 500 public bikes into Seattle’s dense central neighborhoods and the U District. With its launch, Pronto could change the way people get around in Seattle and put city cycling within reach of far more people.

But this will not happen by accident. In this ongoing series, we will look at ways that Pronto, Seattle and King County can make sure bike share truly is a transportation tool for everyone. In part one, we’ll take a look at the bike commute gender gap.

While it’s hard to measure the exact gender gap in cycling, US Census surveys do provide a glimpse into commute data. Only looking at work trips (no errands, trips to a restaurant or park, etc), women represent only 28 percent of bike commuters in Seattle. This is a bit higher than the national average (24 percent), but is clearly not good enough.

In the Netherlands, more than half of bike trips are made by women. While it bothers me when people say women are an “indicator species” for a truly comfortable and safe cycling city (who wants to be described as a different “species”?), it is definitely true that if far more men bike in your city than women, something is wrong. After all, riding a bicycle to get around is not an inherently gendered activity, but local bike cultures can be.

Bike share may be one key part of the solution. As Josh Cohen reported recently for Crosscut, women use bike share systems in other US cities at a much higher rate than the Census survey’s commute rate. The national average is 43 percent (only counts registered pass holders, not daily users), and some cities have rates approaching 50 percent.

There are a great number of reasons why this might happen, but it’s a sign that launching bike share is a good way for Seattle to work towards closing its cycling gender gap. From Cohen:

According to Carolyn Szczepanski, head of the League of American Bicyclists’s newly launched Women Bike program, some of the most common barriers are: perceptions of safety and comfort in traffic and issues of convenience of riding while juggling the brunt of household responsibilities, including child care. And, she says there is a lack of a sense of community, caused in part by “looking out on the streets and seeing mostly men, many of whom are athletic and wearing gear that may or may not be something women are inclined to wear.”

She added, “Bike share bikes are engineered to fit the lifestyle of people who are using them. You don’t have to don’t have to worry about your pants getting caught or dirty, because there’s already a chain guard on there, there are already fenders on there. It’s a bicycle built for folks coming into the city, possible for work or wearing attire not in line with what people think you need to be on a bike.”

(Speaking of child care, this awesome bike share child seat has been making the rounds on the web recently. Though it clearly violates the DC system’s terms of use, there’s a big demand for this capability. Hopefully Pronto and Alta will work to allow such an attachment, if not at launch then in the future.)

Another factor will be marketing and the system’s image. Outreach efforts will need to focus on ease of access to everyone, and they will need to reach general audiences in hopes of attracting people of all ages, genders, races and income levels. As much as I’d love for Pronto to blow their whole marketing budget on Seattle Bike Blog ads, they need to make clear that the system is not about people who already bike everywhere. Pronto is for everyone.

Seattle is way ahead of the game in one very core and difficult-to-change way to make sure women are included in bicycling efforts: The leaders of nearly every big bike organization, including Pronto, are women.

What do you think Pronto can do to make sure it appeals to women as much as it does to men?

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29 Responses to Bike share for everyone, Part 1: Closing Seattle’s cycling gender gap

  1. Jim says:

    My wife wants to ride her bike more but doesn’t due to a single word: traffic.

    Marketing and outreach is great and all, but without high-quality segregated infrastructure that separates her from motor vehicles she’ll continue to not want to bike anywhere. She’s firmly in the “willing but wary” category and will remain so until the situation improves.

    • Jayne says:

      This isn’t an issue with bike infrastructure, it’s an issue with carte blanche car culture. Charge for cars and gas what they actually cost, charge users for road repair,charge for congestion, lower speed limits in city to 15 mph city streets / 20 major thoroughfares, and make licensing requirements reflective of the potential harm caused and viola, no more problem.

    • Allan says:

      I also won’t allow my wife to ride in traffic in Seattle. Seattle has some of the most aggressive drivers in the world. Stupid camera booby traps in school zones are not going to fix that. Actually catching people driving badly in traffic might fix it, I see it all the time but I almost never see anyone get caught. My sister lives in Orange County, Ca. We both agree that drivers are far worse here than in other cities. I have done some cycling and riding in Portland, Salem, and OC, Ca and I agree with my sister that Seattle is the worst. The only thing I can say for putting new riders in traffic is that they will act as a buffer for us old riders. Like Napoleon said, “you have to break a few eggs if you want to make an omelette.” Meanwhile, if I want to bike with my wife, I put the bikes on the car and go somewhere safe.

      • Lol says:

        Haha. You won’t “allow” your wife to ride in traffic.

        You are part of the problem. I sure hope you can accept that and start dealing with it.

      • Lol says:

        Haha. You won’t “allow” your wife to ride in traffic.

        You’re part of the problem. For the sake of women everywhere I sure hope you can accept that and start dealing with it.

      • Regis says:

        You won’t allow her? Is your wife five years old?

        Assuming your wife has the desire to ride more and in more locations, possible even in (gasp) traffic, why not help her gain the skills and knowledge to do so? How about taking a cycling skills & safety class together (so you know what she knows)? How about riding with her on low traffic streets, on neighborhood errands, in different conditions, so she gains more confidence and experience?

        As Tom pointed out above, riding a bicycle is not an inherently gendered experience. Consider adjusting your attitudes and language to reflect that.

      • amy says:

        You won’t “allow” your wife to ride in traffic – what a disgusting comment. I’m sorry that she allows you to deprive her of the joy and freedom of riding wherever the hell she wants. Sure glad I have a supportive fiance who encouraged me to get comfortable riding my bike on city streets, and now I commute downtown in traffic, despite not being a stereotypically confident/fit cyclist. Can count on one hand with fingers left over the number of times over the last 5 years I’ve had genuinely close calls with aggressive cars in the street where I felt personally endangered. Ironically, I’ve had way more close calls on the Burke-Gilman with peds, pets, and other bikes behaving dangerously and unpredictably.

      • Allan says:

        Jeez, she does not want to ride in traffic either. I try to avoid Seattle traffic as much as possible when riding and take alternate routes. Really, the drivers make Seattle a junk city to ride in. Maybe I should have used the words “successfully discourage her from riding in Seattle Traffic.” Her reflexes are not as fast as mine on a bicycle.

      • Jayne says:

        Way to make the two most misogynistic posts this blog has seen. Your inability to discern or exhibit appropriate behavior no doubt extends to your time behind the wheel as well, creating your impression of Seattle’s Worst Drivers On Earth.

      • Brian says:

        Oh get off his ass. My fiancé tells me constantly that I’m not “allowed” to own a motorcycle when we have children, but in the context of our relationship it’s not some sort of order. Dial back the outrage, folks.

        As to the substance of the comment? Does the OP really want to make the claim that Seattle drivers are more aggressive than Orange County drivers? I’ve experienced both. I would never make that statement.

      • Misogynists everywhere says:

        Thanks for sticking up for us Brian. And good point about how a man being told he wasn’t allowed to do something once is equal in weight to centuries of women being commanded and controlled. That’ll teach these dumb women to shut up and stop complaining.

      • Brian says:

        Maybe you should lay off the assumptions? You’re way off base here…

  2. Aunt Polly says:

    “Pronto Cycle Share is on schedule [Citation needed] to launch in September [of what year?].

    “Only looking at work trips (no errands, trips to a restaurant or park, etc), women represent only 28 percent of bike commuters in Seattle”
    It surprises me that it is that low, but my perceptions may be biased, I work odd hours so I don’t see the bulk of commuters, and I usually ride a cargo bike, so I tend to notice other cargo bikes, which seem to me to more often than not be ridden by women with children. Of course, they are still a small minority, but much like as with car drivers, the details of other bike riders don’t really register (but then I’m not protected by 2 tons of steel, so even if I don’t know your gender, it is still in my best interest not to run you over, besides, I’m sloow.)

    I’m not so sure the article you linked to really supports your premise. Sure fenders, dress guards and chain guards are all very nice, but they are only a start. A few quotes from the article you linked to:

    “women are more likely to choose to ride on quiet residential streets” how many of the share stations will be on such streets?

    “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 ” But remember, you have 30 minutes before the bike has to be back at the station, and while the share bikes may weigh nearly as much as a cargo bike, they are not cargo bikes. Despite Tom’s hope that Alta will support a kid seat, they did send a cease and desist letter in the case he mentioned.

    “… norms in clothing, makeup, and hairstyles…”, How many people of any gender really want to wear a rented (i.e. used) helmet? BTW, since there are only four months left until then end of Sept. 2014, has anyone seen a prototype (much less a production version) of the helmet vending machines? Has Pronto signed any leases for the facilities where these things will be processed?

    Even though you have mentioned it is a political non-starter, you might better spend your time lobbing for repeal of the helmet law than promoting bike share. And I don’t think an exemption just for bike share would be the way to go, while it would be hyperbole to call it a fourth amendment issue, I still think it would be a bad idea. Now, while all I know about statistics is that 87% of them are made up on the spot, and I’ll grant that a 2 mile ride on a share bike in the city may be safer that a 30 mile ride down a highway on a twitchy road bike, but what if I’m riding my own slow, upright commuter bike 2 miles in the city? (actually I’d wear a helmet in either case, but that’s not the point)
    While there are bike shares coexisting (barely) with helmet laws, it would be optimistic to call then “successful”. A failed bike share attempt in Seattle is unlikely to be beneficial to the biking cause.

    Oh, that reminds me of an idea I had, since they were talking about RFID chips in the rental helmets, how about using an RFID chip in a personal helmet one buys with their annual membership as the key to the share station? For the tourists, the hotels, cruise ship companies, tour guides etc. could own/ rent/maintain the helmets. Well, sure that way people would have to carry around a helmet all the time, which they wouldn’t want to do so they wouldn’t use the bike share But would that really be that much different that with the used helmets from a broken/vandalized/vapor-ware vending machine?

    I haven’t been down 2’nd lately, has anybody seen groups of traffic engineers with clipboards? maybe some preliminary marking on the pavement? Someone said: (name withheld ’cause he was just being a politician, which of course, is exactly what he is) ” Protected bike lane on 2’nd Ave. before Proto launches this fall [of some year, maybe, see also; “missing link”]

  3. amy says:

    I think to get attract new riders from all under-represented groups, you have to help them

    a) visualize themselves on a bike
    b) understand how the bike can be useful for them
    c) give them confidence that they will know what to do when they’re on it

    All promotional and instructional materials should show a variety of genders, body types, races, lifestyles, occupations riding the Pronto bikes. People have some pretty narrow stereotypes about what a person who rides a bike looks like. Show them a mirror instead.

    Produce videos that follow a few different folks (preferably relatable newish riders) through the real-time process of checking the bikes out the station, taking a short ride to an easily-relatable errand or location, and checking the bike back in. Wary people will want to understand and see how the process works and how much time it takes. Timid will folks want to understand what the road looks like from a bike’s perspective.

    Produce a video about how the bike’s gears work. I was afraid of gears before I started riding – I didn’t really get how they worked in practice and it seemed like something extra to “worry about” as a new rider.

    Provide sample itineraries online/at the station. Have an hour to kill downtown? Here’s a couple of places you could ride on a rented bike from this station, and here are the directions. Never ridden in this neighborhood before? Here’s a short, easy 15-minute tour.

    Encourage folks to ride together. Maybe offer a 2-for-1 happy hour rate? Riding is more fun and less intimidating if you ride with a friend, in my opinion.

    Work with the city to produce simpler bike maps specific to neighborhoods around each station. The existing maps are pretty information-dense and hard to look at for a beginning cyclist. I think an ideal map is zoomed into a small area (say 10-15 blocks tops) and displays streets, a few popular points of interest, and lines connecting the points of interest indicating the most generally used routes with the best facilities.

    Post a top-10 FAQ about cycling road rules at each station – answer questions like whether it’s legal to ride on the sidewalk, if you need to walk your bike at crosswalks, what is a sharrow, what to do if there is no bike facility on a road, what’s the safest way to turn left if you are in a bike lane on the right side of the street. Do not assume that users are familiar with bike rules/regs in the City of Seattle and how they are different from the rest of King County.

    I was lucky to have a supportive partner who helped me visualize myself on a bike and patiently answered all my newbie questions. I was sure I was too fat and too timid to ever ride a bike in the street, and I’ve never been so pleased to be so wrong. Since not all newbies can have that experience, showing potential riders that all kinds of folks ride bikes and answering super-basic questions about how things work will go a long way towards getting them to leverage this awesome resource.

    • Matthew Snyder says:

      I really like the happy hour idea. Hopefully the new software Pronto is using will support that kind of flexibility.

      I also think one way to attract new riders, women or not, would be something along the lines of a “try-before-you-buy” program. Maybe your first ride is free. Or, you can buy a daily membership for $8, and then if you like it and you want to become an annual member, you can apply that $8 fee towards your annual membership cost.

  4. Allan says:

    The responsible way to encourage more people to ride bikes would be to criss cross the city with bike routes that are separated from automobile traffic. We should also provide free training on how to negotiate the city safely by bike, and on how to find the safest routes. I would also have fit cops on bikes ticket cyclists for riding around in the dark without lights that can be seen, preferably lights that are noticeable in traffic as well.

    • Jayne says:

      “Fit cops”.. That’s a good one. I’m pretty sure being 40+ pounds overweight is a requirement for SPD.

    • Steve Campbell says:

      RCW doesn’t require lights, only a white front reflector OR light and a rear red reflector. How would they ticket someone for not having something that is not required by law?

      • Jay says:

        Ok, you are right about lights PLURAL, but a front light IS required AND (not or) a rear reflector (rear light is optional) RCW 46.61.780

  5. Allan says:

    Rental helmets? I just don’t think I would like to wear a helmet with head lice or fresh bug spray in it.

    • Jayne says:

      Then bring your own, your majesty. Or, *gasp* choose not to wear one!

      • Marie Antoinette says:

        Since “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” was misattributed to me, the comparison is weak, still, I was probably better off than the “death of a thousand cuts” Pronto is likely to face.

        “Let them buy their own bike”, at first blush sounds just as bad, but for far less than the cheapest new car, and maybe on par with a halfway decent used one, one could get a pretty well equipped bicycle. If storage is a problem, get a Brompton, hell for still less than a new car, get a Bromton for commuting , and a Big Dummy and/or a bakfiets for shopping/kid hauling.

  6. Josh says:

    On the mandatory helmet issue and bikeshare, does anyone know if there’s ever been a racial/regional analysis of citations issued under Seattle/King County Health Department’s mandatory helmet rule? Interesting news out of Dallas…

    “This ordinance was intended to drive a public safety and public health benefit,” Kingston said. “It hasn’t done that in any way, shape or form. It has been used as a law enforcement tool.”

    “data showed uneven enforcement trends, with no citations issued in biking hubs and many given out in poorer, minority neighborhoods.”

    (Personally, I don’t believe that an unelected local Health Department should be allowed to legislate vehicle equipment requirements anyway, but that’s a matter for the Legislature to address.)

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  8. Ballard Biker says:

    I still believe PSBS is going to be an epic fail. Regardless, even if it is a roaring success, based on the neighborhoods it is going to serve, it is not going to increase minority participation. Much like MOST (not all, just the majority) bicycle commuters in Seattle, this is going to be for rich white males.

    • Allan says:

      I think this could work in places like Alki Beach, Myrtle Edwards Park, and Ballard. It would be really wonderful for tourists and visitors to the city.

    • Al Dimond says:

      Census says… bike commuting rates are fairly even across income levels. There was a chart on this blog back when the census stats were coming out. Rich people tend to get more attention in the media, and in government when asking for infrastructure improvements.

    • Billionaire Bill says:

      How much more of a minority can you get than “rich white males? We are after all the 0.01% If you can get a billionaire to ride a bike, I’m pretty sure I can get my minions to ride with me.

  9. ks says:

    I mostly gave up bike commuting because of daycare . Lunch time is the only time I’m not with kid or car driving hubby. I’d happily keep a helmet at work (in Sodo) so I could have freedom at lunch.

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