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What Do Iowa Women Think?

For presidential candidates, winning Iowa is a game-changer. For the Women Bike movement, understanding the successes and barriers for female riders outside the big cities is just as important.

Put simply, there wouldn’t be a Women Bike movement if it weren’t for efforts like the Central Iowa Women Who Bike (pictured above). This past weekend, I had the pleasure of both presenting and hearing from women who ride in the Hawkeye State.

As a former resident of Des Moines myself, I was delighted to get the invite to attend and present at the Iowa Bicycle Summit & Expo. While renown for RAGBRAI — the multi-day cycling party that traverses the state — Iowa is also home to some amazing advocates and innovative initiatives, from successes in rural Safe Routes to School programs to the nation’s first Bike Share Design Studio at Iowa State University.

In addition to learning some cool ideas myself  — including the brilliant concept of a funding speed-dating session, where advocates were able to talk through their projects with a handful of agency and private funders — I got the opportunity to present on Marketing to Women, giving a high-level overview of some of the key myths, top motivations, effective messaging and important media platforms to connect more women with bicycling. See my presentation below.

Then, on Saturday, I had the honor of co-facilitating the women’s meet-up at the Expo — a perfect focus group of women of different ages and backgrounds, sharing their experiences as cyclists. Lo and behold, many of the local successes and individual concerns confirmed the trends we shared in our Women on a Roll report. Here’s just a few of the themes that emerged…

  • Recreation often trumps transportation. Whether because of unsafe streets or time constraints, the vast majority of women at our meet-up rode for fun and fitness, pedaling predominantly, if not exclusively, on the many area trails. Only a handful of ladies rode for their commute or for competition.
  • Finding companions keeps women in the saddle. In a number of cases, women started riding with their husbands or partners — until their spouses upped their game with racing or lost their interest altogether. So finding others outside the family circle to share their passion for cycling became critical to continued riding.
  • Biking with other women is encouraging. Virtually everyone in the group agreed: No offense to the guys, but riding with other women is often more… fun. Whether fast or slow, the conversation and sense of camaraderie is different in a women’s group. That’s been the case for the Central Iowa group, which is organized organically on Meet-up and has offered rides of all lengths and to different destinations, including local breweries.
  • Biking with other women is empowering. Not only does riding with other women provide the support and inspiration to ride further and set new goals, but also adds a sense of security, mitigating the fears of getting a flat in the middle of nowhere or being harassed while alone on a trail. 
  • Women don’t want to feel like second-class street users on their bikes. The frustration was clear: The majority of women said they can’t ride on their local streets because, even when there’s a bike lane, they don’t feel comfortable jockeying for space with cars. I’d love to let my kids go to soccer on their bikes, one mother said, but there simply aren’t any safe routes to do that. I hate that I can’t leave my house and ride to the trail, another said, but my streets are too narrow and nobody is looking out for bicyclists. 
  • “Why do I have to look like a man to ride a bike?” Finding a women’s-specific bike was a revelation to several women in making cycling vastly more comfortable, but many others agreed clothing and accessory options are a challenge. Three key words: Cute, visible and wicking. Hint to someone who wants to make a fortune: Female cyclists are still waiting for a great wicking bra. 

Thanks again to the generous hospitality of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition — and hope to see a big group of Iowans here in D.C. for the National Bike Summit and Women’s Bicycling Forum in March!