Why Don’t More Women Ride Bikes?

April Streeter explains why (and how to change things) in a new book

Many women have soured on biking, but a new book argues it doesn't have to be that way.

When her husband and son totaled the family car in an accident on Germany’s autobahn, April Streeter saw it as an opportunity. She got rid of her car and made a decision she had been considering for years: the Streeter-Mascher family would commit to a life of two-wheeled commutes.

Along the way Streeter says she's learned many important lessons—some that ring especially true to other cycling women (for instance, rain pants are a necessity, and there are important tricks to looking professional after stepping straight off of a bike). It wasn’t an easy transition, but save for the occasional ZipCar rental, she’s been at it for six years now.

Streeter has long been an advocate for increasing the number of female cyclists. She blogs about the subject at GirlsonBikes.org, and recently came out with a book called Women on Wheels dedicated to getting more women, especially those in big cities, onto bikes 

We caught up with Streeter, who lives in Portland, OR, to talk about her new book and how she manages the car-free lifestyle. 

Why are women a minority in the cycling world?
I think that women are a minority partially because of natural higher risk aversion than men. The other side of it is that, still, in general, women have a slightly higher share of different multi-tasking duties in a day. They tend to be responsible for getting to their job and dropping off their kid and after-school activities and shopping. It’s changing, but there are these multi-dimensional things and women think they need a car to do them. It’s changing slowly overall, and rapidly in some places. And not just in Portland, but in San Francisco, Chicago, Long Beach and New York—these places have really seen an upswing in city cycling in general. As they develop better infrastructure, such as regular bike lanes, more women get out on the street.

How do you convince women that cycling can be a good way to get around, especially in a city?
The first thing I talk about is that, overall, not cycling has a bigger health impact than cycling. In cities, the problems are traffic congestion, obesity, stress and air pollution—and cycling is a way to counteract them. There are certain risks, but there are risks to everything in life. I think it behooves us to do what we can do to overcome some of the problems that we have.

However, on a more personal level, when I’m talking to a woman, I try to solve all the little problems by not looking at it as an either/or—you don’t have to give up your car, but maybe try bicycling to work once a week, or doing your errands Saturday morning on bike…ease into it, and find out what works for you.

What do you see as the greatest impediment keeping women from taking up biking as a lifestyle/transportation choice?
Currently, the greatest barrier is the fact that we don’t have more separated cycling lanes compared to European cities. The sum of the other small barriers is a close number two…things like having to wear a helmet, looking professional at work, having to take your kids, and needing carrying devices so you can bring your stuff. The total combination of different factors together can seem overwhelming.

What inspired you to write a book about women cyclists?
I think it was the male majority that inspired me to write my book, but also the feeling that a revolution was happening and that there were so many benefits for women. I knew if we could get over some of the barriers, then the payoff would be great. I think city biking can solve so many urban problems and if women take it up, since there are so many women that haven’t yet discovered it, ir will really be able to keep the revolution in motion.

What do you think is the most important takeaway of your book?
I think there are two. The first one is that there are a lot of women heroines in cycling that no one knows about. The history is male-centric. I tell stories about some fantastic, though unknown women, in the book. Louise Armaindo, for example, who raced on a high-wheeled penny farthing bike and frequently bested her male competitors; or Dorothy Lawrence, who biked to the front in WWI and infiltrated a unit by cross-dressing as a soldier; or Elizabeth Robins Pennell; who rode over the Alps on a single-speed bike in the 1880s.

What do you think are the biggest challenges of living a bike-only lifestyle?
I think the biggest challenge is for families that have to do errands without a car. It’s hard if you do it cold turkey, but if you ease into it, you start to realize how to coordinate. Secondarily, it’s the challenge of arriving to work and feeling like you can be professional after you’ve bike-commuted. I think that people have to find an individual solution to this. One of them is that having a couple of outfits at the office or bringing clothes with you. Also, if your employer offers showers or bike storage, it makes it easier.

What is your Meetup group and how did it influence your book?
I have a “Women on Wheels” Meetup group with 300-plus members, where I ease women into getting comfortable with riding in traffic. We do low-stress, 5- to 7-mile rides in the city to get used to being on the roads to show it isn’t as scary as it seems. If you do a ride with five or six other people you can ease into it and you build your confidence slowly. It influenced the book because it’s easy as a current commuter to say that biking is easy, but the group made me realize that the hurdles are overwhelming for people who haven’t biked, never learned, are out of shape or don’t have a bike.

What do you find are most women’s main reasons for biking?
I think it’s a combination, and the eco-friendly factor is usually fairly low on the list. It’s a combination of health and stress reduction benefits, and as a third the money benefits—you can save quite a lot if you give up your car and take certain trips by bike. Health is high on the list but is usually combined with something else, sometimes even combined with fun.