By Roxanne Robles and Tom Fucoloro
Editor’s Note: Roxanne Robles conducted an online survey between September and December of 2019 asking people who identify as women, trans, femme or gender nonconforming to rate how comfortable they feel at 42 Seattle bike shops. Though Seattle Bike Blog did not work on the survey itself, the two of us have worked together on how to present the data. I stand by Roxy’s work. You can read more of her thoughts on the survey on her blog.
Bike shops are vital infrastructure. They are the places you go to keep your bike working, and the experts who work in shops offer hard-earned knowledge that only the most dedicated do-it-yourself hobbyists can hope to match. Beyond just fixing bikes, though, shops can be the heart of a bike community, a place to meet up to have fun or learn.
Because shops are an important part of cycling, it is important they are inclusive and accommodating places to visit. Cycling is marked by a prevalence of not only cisgender men, but able-bodied, white, and wealthy people. Walking into a bike shop can be stressful if you do not fit within these intersections. It is a really common experience for many people outside these demographic categories to be ignored, talked down to, or talked over when they are trying to procure a professional service.
The Seattle Pedalers Looking for Action to Inform (“SPLAIN”) survey was developed to take the temperature of Seattle bike shop culture, to have a better understanding of where people feel comfortable, and to offer a space for them to relay their stories and experiences. People usually start their cycling journeys in a bike shop, looking for a bike — if this experience is stressful, traumatic, or uncomfortable it might turn them off to cycling completely.
We want to be very clear about what these ratings say (and don’t say). The survey was developed with Google Forms and distributed via email, Slack, Twitter, Cascade Bicycle Club’s social media, the Seattle Bike Blog Bike News Roundup and word of mouth. The survey had one page for each bike shop and asked respondents to rate their experience in each shop they had visited from 1 (“I don’t feel comfortable here”) to 5 (“I feel comfortable here”), with a space at the end of the survey for feedback and anecdotes. Respondents were asked to give feedback only for those shops they have visited. There were 90 responses in total. To calculate scores, the responses were weighted and the total was divided by the number of responses for each shop.
Because the survey was distributed organically and respondents self-selected, this cannot be viewed as a scientifically accurate poll representing all women, trans, femme and gender nonconforming people in Seattle. Rather, it is a qualitative snapshot of 90 people’s reported experiences. And people could have wildly differing experiences at the same shop. For example, Alki Bike and Board received a below average 2.78, but the only comment anyone left in the optional text box was, “Alki Bike & Board is the BEST!!!!!” Some shops received fewer votes than others, so their scores might be significantly impacted by just one or two ratings. The total number of votes received is noted within the bar for each shop on the chart.
After many years of discussing the issue of who feels respected and comfortable in bike shops using generalities, this survey gave people an opportunity to be more specific. And our hope is that it sparks constructive conversations in every shop about what they could do better to treat everyone with respect and to avoid making assumptions about what people are looking for or how much they know about bikes. As discussed in the accompanying interview with Shawna Williams of Free Range Cycles, even a shop at the top of the list works daily to improve how they approach and serve people who enter their door. That daily work is probably what put them on top. It’s a core part of their business.
Bike shops are important parts of our community. Part of loving your community is providing feedback even when it’s difficult to hear. Another part is celebrating. The citywide average was 3.43. We have no idea how this compares to other cities or even to Seattle 10 years ago, but it means respondents find the majority of their bike shop experiences to be positive. That’s good, but we can do better.
And perhaps this survey can also challenge shops to rethink who their customer base is or could be. Men make up less than half the population, and if you cater mostly to men because most of your customers are men, that might be a self-fulfilling outcome. Of course, the major bike manufacturers also play a huge role in deciding who gets marketed to, but that’s another story.
Even from a purely business standpoint, there’s a ton of business out there you’re missing out on if your shop is mostly appealing to men. As Gloria Liu wrote in a June 2019 article for Bicycling:
And some might argue that many negative shop experiences could be an issue of perception — behaviors like condescension, exclusivity, and even sexism are usually more subtle than outright. But bike shops are retail and customer experience businesses, and they exist in a market where customers have alternatives: namely, the internet and even specialty stores like REI… Ninety-five percent of the 332 independent bike dealers who participated in the National Bicycle Dealers Association’s  study reported that internet competition is their number-one challenge… 56% of women and 44% of men have stopped going to a shop altogether because of a negative interaction with an employee…Shops that treat customers poorly aren’t only hurting their own bottom line. Bad experiences in bike shops can turn off beginners or anyone who doesn’t ‘fit the mold’.
Online bike sales cannot replace local bike shops. You can’t take your bike to Amazon to fix your flat tire or troubleshoot why your gears are shifting poorly. And Amazon’s recommended products are based on some sales algorithm, not on what’s best for you and your bike like the advice everyone should get from an expert in their local bike shop.
So thank you to everyone who took the time to complete the survey. And thank you to all the shop owners, managers and employees who have taken the time to engage with these results and use them as an opportunity to learn, reflect and talk about them with your coworkers.
Before publishing, we reached out to every shop on the list to tell them their score, give them a chance to ask us questions and an opportunity to respond if they wanted to. Here are the responses we received as of press time:
From Aaron Goss, President and Master Mechanic at Aaron’s Bicycle Repair (AKA Rat City Bikes):
We have stood behind our services for 23 years, and we invite everyone to visit our new White Center location and the neighborhood that we are a part of. We have learned to be even more accepting of the Womxn-Trans-Femme community. We apologize for making anyone feel uncomfortable. All are welcome at our shop. It is a safe space where we want everyone to feel comfortable. We love fixing bicycles and we are really, really good at it! It is what we do best. We are working more on our humanity!
From Erica Boyd, Rad Power Bikes’ Seattle Showroom Manager:
Our mission is to provide an unrivaled customer experience in each and every interaction, so it’s incredibly disappointing to hear that some of the respondents of this survey expressed having a low comfort level at our Seattle showroom.
As a woman of color, and as the hiring manager for our U.S retail locations, I’m committed to creating an environment where our visitors feel comfortable and represented when they walk into our store, and we’re proud to employ many talented and experienced women and gender non-conforming people throughout our company. It’s unfortunate that the seven survey respondents did not leave specific feedback for areas that we can improve upon, but we do take these results very seriously and will use this as a learning opportunity to continue to improve the experiences guests are having at our showroom.
From James at (mend) bicycles:
I think this is an incredibly important issue in the industry and in everyone’s lived experience day to day, in every way.
While I have always been a cisgender white male, I came to cycling and the industry late in life. Even coming from a place of privilege, I had terrible, intimidating, and downright disrespectful experiences in shops before I got my first job in a shop. Even this year I had a mechanic at another shop explain something to me in a profoundly rude and condescending fashion, not knowing my background or relationship to the industry. If it can happen to me, considering my place of privilege, I cannot fathom how challenging, intimidating, or uncomfortable women or LGBTQ individuals must feel in attempting to find a safe, welcoming, and respectful bike shop experience.
When I started (mend) I wanted to have a shop that was open and welcoming to all people. A bike is a means to joy for so many people. A bike shop should be a key partner for everyone to access and enhance that joy. (mend) should be such a shop and while I am heartened that the results of this survey are not necessarily negative, they also do not reflect the experiences I would want every customer to have when they come to us. I want everyone who sees this study to know that I and my staff take this very seriously and do our best everyday to be better.
From Samuel Lettes, Owner of Hello Bicycle:
We are sure that the results of this survey will create quite a stir in the cycling community, and we believe that it should. It is important to remind ourselves from time to time that the cycling industry is not just made of cold machines, but also of the people that adorn those machines. It’s easy to fall into a rhythm when working at a bike shop. One that completes the most repairs. One that sells the most bikes. One that wonders if it’s financially viable to operate a soft serve machine. We quickly lose focus as to what keeps the whole industry afloat… people. And not just people, but the connection we have with these people. Hello Bicycle would have been long gone, like our espresso cart, were it not for our connections with the Seattle cycling community, and for that we owe you all our livelihood. It is with this in mind that we reflect on our results from the survey and know that we will take a big step back and reevaluate the connections we strive to make on a daily basis in order to open the doors of cycling to all. Thank you to all that participated in the survey, we hope you continue to keep us all honest.
Anyone interested in learning more about how to evaluate their organization and initiate change is encouraged to utilize the resources below:
- Diversity & Inclusion Self Assessment by the National Alliance of Mental Health Leadership Institute
- Minority Inclusion Tool by the National Federation of State High School Associations
- The Brown Bike Girl Bicycle Advocacy Consulting
- Fakequity Blog and Consulting
- Gender Pronoun 101 for Cis Accomplices and Pronouns in Professional Settings by Grease Rag Bikes
- WTF Bikexplorers Cycling Industry Pledge