The question of why so many more men bicycle than women is a big, messy, and provocative topic. The tricky thing is that few generalizations work across the board, and many are misleading. Women are different from men, of course, but also remarkably different from each other. We have different backgrounds, lifestyles, choices about fashion, childcare needs, and job responsibilities. We have decidedly different access to high-quality education and jobs. The cities we live in are starkly different in their urban design, safety, and size.
The discrepancy in the number of women riding bikes, compared to men, coupled with the low numbers of women of color and low-income women out there on two wheels, is a matter I have long pondered.
In general, women are less likely to bike than men because of concerns – to mention only some of the most obvious – about safety, bike comfort, clothing, hair, nails, makeup, and childcare. But some of the barriers women face in other cities are nonexistent here in Santa Barbara, where we have good weather year-round, relatively respectful drivers compared to other areas, lots of flat terrain, and bike infrastructure.
Because this is such a complex and touchy topic, I’ve decided to break it up over the next few columns. Today’s column will address, first, the challenges of riding the way men do, and, second, the “tinker gene” that I’ve found lacking in myself and many other women.
Riding Like a Guy:First, a few qualifying remarks. My privileged upbringing, with loving parents who both describe themselves as feminists, means I have not experienced many of the psychological barriers to riding that are often cited by women. I was taught I could do anything a man could do. My family could afford to buy me a bike and had time to ride with me when I was a girl. I am naturally athletic and have often been as strong physically as my male counterparts. I have extensive training in “vehicular cycling,” starting when I was a teenager and first learned to ride on the road with traffic. Indeed, my ease with bicycling might very well be because I relate well to the more traditional masculine gender roles. It seems likely that my success in the bicycling world, such as it has been, may be because I know how to ride like a guy.
That said, I believe the best approach is to find ways to let women ride like women, not to struggle with masculine gender stereotypes. So, I applaud and encourage groups in Santa Barbara like Neon Girls Cycling Club, which is encouraging women (and men) from all walks of life and riding abilities to get out and create their own riding style and culture. I also think events like Bike Moves, CycleMAYnia, and the Tweed Ride are helping bring more women into bicycling and are encouraging alternate gender models.
The Tinker Gene: Long ago, as I was first starting to teach classes about riding in traffic and basic bike maintenance, I noticed an interesting tendency, both in myself and in many other women. While I watched men eagerly tinker with their bikes, I found myself nervous about touching anything for fear of making it worse. I even hesitated putting air into my tires, especially with those delicate presta valves. This whole syndrome may be linked to the “tinker gene,” which men allegedly have and women allegedly lack.
However, I suspect that the ability to tinker is more like a muscle than a gene, and it gets stronger with use. I’ve watched again and again the growing sense of pride and empowerment in women when I have encouraged them simply to tinker. I say to them: “Remember what the baseline was, so you can always get it back there, and see what happens with a little fiddling!” Then practice, practice, practice. Hard at first, perhaps, but it can be fun.
Women, more than men, also seem to want formal training in the form of classes and one-on-one mentoring. If you find yourself in need of some tinker-muscle training, there are resources for you. Bici Centro offers regular “Street Skills” and “Learn Your Bike” trainings, as well as mentoring during Open Shop, and several local bike shops also teach some basic bike maintenance classes.
Bike Ambassadors: Even though I still have a long way to go to feel like an accomplished bike mechanic, my dad reports that he now feels less able to change a flat than me, and I now ride as a bike ambassador, ready to help folks in need when they are lost or broken down.
I commute by bike regularly from downtown Santa Barbara to Goleta. Luckily for me, this takes me along Modoc and out along the Obern Trail bike path, which means I see a lot of bicyclists. Naturally, people break down from time to time, and I’ve gotten into the habit of asking, “Do you have what you need?” One time last year, an older man was stopped across the street, so I called out my usual question, “Do you have what you need?” He replied, “No!” So, I turned around and headed back to him. “What do you need?” I said. He clearly seemed surprised I’d turned back, and with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, he said, “I need lots of things! Love, more money, a better house … ” I laughed and headed on my way.
I had a different interaction a few months later. The sun was setting, and it would be dark soon. A guy about my age was broken down on the side of the road, and when I asked my usual question, he replied, “Do you have a pump?” I pulled over and saw that he was at the beginning stage of fixing a flat. Now, if there is one thing I have learned over my years of watching self-empowerment happen, letting people do things themselves is the number one most important first step. And he’d only asked if I had a pump, not if I could change his flat. I knew this was a situation in which my inner bike ambassador could come into play.
He had a bike bag with all the things he needed to patch the tube, but he was just holding it all and looking at me. I asked if he’d like help changing the flat, and he said yes. We looked at each other, and I asked the question I wish more people could learn to ask: “Would you like to do it, or would you like me to do it for you?” He actually seemed relieved and said, “That’d be great if you could do it. Thank you.” As I changed the flat, I walked him through the steps, and he told me he was a new bicyclist who had just moved to Santa Barbara to start a job at UCSB. His wife and newborn child were at home waiting for his return. We talked about bike culture in Santa Barbara and about some events he could join. Together we patched the tire and got him on his way.
Honestly, the best part about the interaction was how little gender seemed to matter.
I welcome your comments and ideas for future columns! What do you see as the main reasons women bike less often, and what are you or others doing to change that? What else could we do here in Santa Barbara to encourage more women, from diverse backgrounds, to join us by bike?