Women drive, walk and ride the El, but what about bikes?

2012-01-22T20:00:00Z 2012-01-23T00:15:03Z Women drive, walk and ride the El, but what about bikes?By Marisa Paulson Medill News Service nwitimes.com
January 22, 2012 8:00 pm  • 

CHICAGO | Lisa Lubin began cycling regularly a few years ago after traveling the world and witnessing how common commuting by bike is in other countries, especially in northern Europe.

Lubin said in Chicago she sees women who are intimidated to ride on city streets.

"Just yesterday I had lunch with a woman who wants to ride more, but her friend was hit by a vehicle and that added to her fears," she said. "I think it's unfortunate, because I think Chicago is a great cycling city."

Chicago was ranked No. 10 in Bicycling Magazine's list of "America's Best Bike Cities."

The city quadrupled its share of people who use bikes —  from 0.3 to 1.2 percent — from 1990 to 2009. The city also doubled its bike lane network from 75 to 157 miles between 2000 and 2010, according to a Rutgers University study.

Plus, Chicago's Bike 2015 Plan aims to make bicycling an integral part of daily life in Chicago, and part of that plan includes establishing a 500-mile bikeway network. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has committed the city to creating 100 miles of protected bike lanes — which have proved to increase ridership and reduce crashes — by the end of his first term.

But despite all of this, there is a gender gap in cycling in Chicago.

The Chicago Department of Transportation's most recent bike count, in September, found that 73 percent of cyclists were male and only 27 percent were female.

In comparison, Portland's breakdown is 69 percent male and 31 percent female, Minneapolis is 72 percent male and 28 percent female, and New York City's is 72 percent male and 28 percent female, according to the most recent data available for each city.

So, why aren't more women on bikes?

Safety is a big concern. The Rutgers study stated New York and Chicago have "by far the most dangerous cycling." Indisputably, cyclists are involved in crashes and some are hurt.

In 2005, 1,268 Chicago cyclists were injured in 1,296 crashes involving one or more cyclists. In 2010, 1,584 cyclists were injured in 1,636 crashes involving cyclists, according to an analysis of Illinois Department of Transportation data by Steven Vance, Chicago transportation planner and co-founder of GridChicago.com.

This data doesn't bode well for meeting one of the two primary goals of the Bike 2015 Plan: "To reduce the number of bicycle injuries by 50 percent from current levels." The Bike 2015 Plan was approved in 2005 and is the master plan guiding cycling-related planning and development in the city.

Lucy Tebbetts has cycled in Chicago for 20 years and said the gender disparity doesn't surprise her because riding in the city without bike lanes can be dangerous, and she thinks men are less likely to care about the danger factor.

"By dangerous, I mean physically: in terms of being hit by a car, experiencing a breakdown because of potholes and navigating through tough weather," Tebbetts said. "Without bike lanes and a culture where car drivers are used to having bikers around, a ride in the city can be tenuous."

Dottie Brackett, co-founder of the cycling blog Let's Go Ride a Bike, said she also thinks the streets are safe for cycling, but that needs to be made more obvious to those who don't bike.

"I think most normal people are pretty risk-averse when it comes to being scared of being hit by a car. So, if we want more people to ride bikes, then the answer would be to make it safe. Which I think it is, objectively, pretty safe now," Brackett said. "But we'd have to make it subjectively safe, so that people actually feel safe."

Brackett said she also speculates that more women are cycling than the Chicago Department of Transportation bike counts indicate, since many women elect to travel on side streets instead of main roads because they feel safer and less stressed. Brackett said she would never be included in the bike counts, despite commuting by bike daily, because she doesn't travel those routes.

Kim Werst, who teaches bike maintenance and safety for women and transgender people at West Town Bikes, also tries to avoid the crowds when she gets on her bike.

"The secret for me personally is to find secret routes that are off the main street where I can just ride on my own," she said. "That's a big thing."

In an informal survey of 10 women who travel by bike regularly in the city, the most common responses for ways to get more women on bikes were more protected bike lanes, cycling education for adults and children, encouragement by current cyclists and marketing campaigns that demonstrate cycling is a normal, common mode of transportation.

"I think we need to make it a viable transportation option, and then everyone will cycle — men and women, so that will even it out. There wouldn't be a disparity anymore because it would just be a normal thing to do, like men and women both take public transportation, men and women both drive," Brackett said.

"It would even out, not because it's doing something to cater to women, but because it's doing something to cater to people."

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