Why Aren't More US Women Riding Bikes?

An article recently came out in The Guardian titled, “The reason fewer US women cycle than the Dutch is not what you think it is.” This title grabbed my attention immediately, as it was meant to do, and I began to wonder if there was something I already thought about this matter as the title of the article suggested.The subtitle was even more enticing, “American women aren’t being put off by a lack of bike lanes but by lives that are disproportionately filled with domestic chores.”Honestly, I hadn’t given much thought to specifically comparing female bicyclists in the U.S. and the Netherlands. But if I had to guess, I would think that Dutch women cycle more than U.S. women largely because there is a much more robust bike commuting culture, and the infrastructure to support it, in the Netherlands. But the article was going to tell me otherwise, and I was hooked.The article referenced a recent study from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) that explored gender differences in household travel. The title of the study was equally attention grabbing – “Honey, Can You Pick-Up Groceries on Your Way Home? Analyzing activities and travel among students and in non-traditional households.”The study was specifically focused on gender differences in household travel for non-traditional households (i.e. those other than a two-sex, married couple household), but there was also an emphasis on gender differences specifically in household travel.mommy-clipart-imperfect-mommy-clip-art-854x1024There are numerous interesting findings in the study, which I won’t go into detail here, but the major one cited in The Guardian article is the following:

Even in households where women earn more, are better educated, and work more hours than their partners, these women still make 1.5 times as many child-serving trips and 1.4 times as many grocery trips as their male partners.

For most American women, I doubt this comes as any surprise. And as the authors also argue, the reasons for this are likely more cultural than economic. As an American woman, I would agree that this tends to be the case. No, I’m not citing any particular study to back this opinion up. That’s simply my observation.Consider, for example, these unusual bike commuting needs. Though clearly, despite family duties, some women are still managing to bike commute.Alright, so the study is well done and worth a read. But as I spent a little time looking at it, I began to wonder what on earth it had to do with bicycles or Dutch women. Out of curiosity, I did a quick little text search, and the word “bicycle” appears only 3 times in the entire report. “Biking” also appears 3 times. “Dutch” appears 0 times.But the emphasis of The Guardian article, which mind you was co-written by one of the study’s authors, was on the differences between U.S. and Dutch women’s cycling habits. But the study does not explicitly look at bicycle use, nor does it explicitly compare U.S. or Dutch women’s habits.Ok, so who cares, right?Dork alert, but I guess I care. As a PhD student, I study the translation of science and communication of science for decision-making, so I suppose if anyone is going to be bothered by this, it’s going to be me. I’m all for attention grabbing headlines about cool new research, but only if the headline is related to the actual research.The article in The Guardian goes on to argue that the reason Dutch women bike commute more frequently is that they have more time due to family-friendly policies, shorter work weeks, and more mobile children and elderly people (so they spend less time chauffeuring their families around). I would imagine all of these points are quite valid, though I haven’t seen research to support it (doesn’t mean it’s not out there though).There’s also the issue of bike infrastructure, which is often cited as one of the biggest factors in closing the gender gap in U.S. women’s cycling. It’s no secret that the Netherlands have great bike infrastructure, and shorter distances to travel in many cases, than do many places in the U.S. The article refers to the issue of bike infrastructure, but it’s presented as being secondary to this issue of women’s domestic duties.Ok, so what’s the point of me nitpicking about all of this? Well, I’m honestly still curious why fewer U.S. women cycle than Dutch women. Unfortunately, the referenced article and study can’t give us those answers, because that is NOT WHAT THE STUDY WAS ABOUT. Sorry for shouting… The article presents some interesting hypotheses and results, but those weren’t tested in the referenced study, so it’s all just opinions for the time being.And the opinion that U.S. women are weighed down by all their domestic duties and therefore don’t bike commute just doesn’t hold water with me. Is that a factor? Absolutely. Is that the most significant factor? Eh…I don’t think so, but there’s no research to say one way or the other.carousel-be-active-bike-errandSo that leaves me to share some of my own opinions. Thank goodness, what else is blogging for anyhow? I think it’s hard to compare U.S. and Dutch women in the first place. It’s a little bit of an apples and oranges kind of thing. The Netherlands as a whole are so different from the U.S. – socially, culturally, politically, geographically – that making such a comparison would definitely require a more rigorous categorization and method.It might be more useful to compare rates of women cycling within the U.S. We could make some interesting comparisons between different women based on age, employment, marital status, # of children, etc. The aforementioned study does it’s due diligence comparing different types of households (just not between women in the U.S. and the Netherlands), so something similar within the U.S. focusing on bicycle use would be really interesting. How do different factors among American women affect their willingness or ability to bike commute? The problem with that is that the data on bicycle use in theU.S. is a little weak, and it’s hard to do rigorous comparisons of bike commuters without a good dataset.That being said, Women Bike has done some really interesting preliminary research into these factors. As mentioned earlier, bike infrastructure is a biggie, but there are a lot of other factors that affect whether or not women ride. Check out the report “Women on a Roll” to learn more.womenonaroll And then, of course, there are the amazing anomalies who blow all of this out of the water. Take for example, Emily Finch, a Portland mother of 6 who bike commutes with ALL of her children on the SAME bike. Wow.Anyways, all this is to say, I’m still not sure w
hy fewer U.S. women cycle than Dutch women. But seriously, ugh, I need to go ride my bike.

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