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More Men, Fewer Women Riding?

For some bike advocates, a few numbers in our recent Women on a Roll report left them scratching their heads. In it, we highlighted data from the National Sporting Goods Association that shows a rise in the number of female riders and slight decline in the number of men — and, last week, we shared a release from the Gluskin Townley Group that announced “Fewer males and more females are participating in bicycling!”

But, wait a minute? Isn’t that in direct contradiction to the federal data from the National Household Survey and the American Community Survey that show the boom in bicycling is mostly men? Well, yes and no. In fact, it’s more a matter of what’s being measured.

We checked in with two of the top bike-ped researchers to understand the distinction between the two sets of numbers.

By Ralph Buehler, Virginia Tech ([email protected]) and John Pucher, Rutgers University ([email protected])

It would indeed be good news for cycling in the U.S. if the share of women among cyclists were 49% and if the share of women were increasing as strongly as reported for recreational cycling by the National Sporting Goods Association and the Gluskin Townley Group survey. Unfortunately, our research and official national statistics paint a much gloomier picture of the share of female cyclists.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) reports on bicycling for individuals who ride a bicycle for the majority of commutes during a week. ACS data show that only one fourth of regular bike commuters are female and that the share of women among bike commuters increased only minimally between 2005-2007 and 2009-2011: from 23% to 26%.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), the only nationally representative sample capturing cycling for all trip purposes, shows a decline in the share of women among cyclists from about 30% in 2001 to roughly 24% in 2009. Between 2001 and 2009 the number of annual bike trips in the U.S. increased from 3.3 billion to 4.1 billion. However, the increase was exclusively among men (from 2.3 billion to 3.1 billion bike trips), while the number of annual bicycle trips by women declined slightly from about 1.1 billion to 1.0 billion.

Differences between the two U.S. government surveys and the Gluskin Townley Group survey are likely explained by several factors:

  • The Gluskin Townley survey is limited to recreational cycling, while NHTS includes all trip purposes capturing utilitarian and recreational cycling. ACS is limited to the usual main mode for the commute.
  • The survey was conducted over a very short time period, in the second quarter of 2013, while NHTS and ACS collect data year-round, and thus are far more representative for the year as a whole.
  • The survey asks individuals about bike riding during the previous year. NHTS and ACS ask about the current travel day or the previous week. It is likely that individuals more accurately recall today’s trips or last week’s trips than an entire year’s worth of trips.
  • The survey identifies individuals as cyclists if they report cycling even as little as six times per year. 

In any case, NHTS and ACS paint a more representative picture capturing those who cycle regularly and occasionally. Even though we doubt the results of the Gluskin Townley Group survey, we have many times emphasized that increasing cycling among women is crucial to overall success in cycling policy, so we emphatically agree with the goal of getting more women on bikes.

As we noted in our article for the American Journal of Public Health, the stagnation in cycling by women documented by the NHTS shows that much more needs to be done to meet the specific needs of women: especially their desire for safe, convenient, and comfortable cycling facilities.

Our new book City Cycling provides an entire chapter on women and cycling authored by the world’s most renowned experts on the topic of women and cycling: Professors Jan Garrard, Susan Handy, and Jennifer Dill. (Click here to watch our Women Bike webinar with Handy and Dill.) They find that increasing cycling by women necessitates the provision of safe, physically separated facilities for cycling along roadways with fast moving car traffic or high car traffic volumes and greatly reduced speeds in residential neighborhoods via traffic calming.

Impacts of new cycling facilities in New York (NY), Austin (TX), Portland (OR), Philadelphia (PA), Minneapolis (MN), Cambridge (MA), and Vancouver (BC) show that the share of women cycling increased after the installation of protected bike lanes and paths that separate cyclists from automobiles. Systematic before-and-after studies along specific urban corridors where protected bike lanes and paths are installed would be an important source of data demonstrating how important protected bike facilities are for increasing cycling levels among women.

One very important point to consider is that virtually all of the protected bike lanes in North America were built SINCE the NHTS survey was taken (roughly mid 2008 to mid 2009). So the increased cycling by women on the protected cycling facilities built since 2008 would not be reflected at all in the 2009 NHTS. City-specific, corridor-specific, facility-specific studies of increased women cycling are critically important — no national survey will pick up those increases.

Truly, as argued by professors Jan Garrard, Susan Handy, and Jennifer Dill, women are an ‘indicator species’ for the success of cycling policy. Bicycling infrastructure and programs should focus much more on the needs of women than they currently do.

Pucher, J., Buehler, R. (eds.) 2012. City Cycling. MIT Press. 
Pucher, J., Buehler, R., Seinen, M. 2011 “Bicycling Renaissance in North America? An Update and Re-Assessment of Cycling Trends and Policies,” Transportation Research A, Vol. 45, No. 6, pp. 451-475.
Pucher, J., Buehler, R., Merom, D., Baumann, A. 2011. “Walking and Cycling in the United States, 2001-2009: Evidence from the National Household Travel Surveys,” American Journal of Public Health, December 2011, Vol. 101, No. S1, pp. S310-S317.

Photo by John Helgers, courtesy of Momentum magazine

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