My column on Seattle’s gender gap in cycling generated hundreds of comments from readers, both positive and negative.
The column was written in response to an email from a Seattle Times reader who felt, based on his own observation, the cycling population in Seattle is largely made up of affluent white men. And if that’s the case, he asked, is spending on bike infrastructure a handout to our most privileged residents?
Some readers were annoyed that I even responded to this email, which they found offensive. One reason I chose to respond is that the reader’s perceptions are actually pretty common. For example, an opinion piece in the local news publication Crosscut last year, “Seattle’s bike lobby needs to check its privilege,” covered similar ground. There are many other examples of commentary from around the country that link urban biking with gentrification and privilege.
To answer the reader’s question, I used market-research data. It showed that men of color are, in fact, as likely or more likely to bike for transportation than white men. There is, however, a huge gap in cycling between men and women, regardless of race or ethnicity. Seattle’s gender gap is among the largest in the nation.
I interviewed local bike commuter and blogger Aviva Stephens, and the Cascade Bike Club’s Claire Martini — both stressed that safety is a key concern in making cycling more equitable. In order to close the gender gap, we need to complete a connected network of protected bike lanes.
Some commenters who weighed in online responded directly to the reader’s email and its suggestion that bike lanes are a subsidy benefiting just one segment of our population.
“The premise that bike lanes are subsidies for bike riders is wrong. The biggest beneficiaries of bike lanes are drivers (since it reduces the number of them), and taxpayers (since bike lanes are much cheaper to build and maintain than roads for personal motor vehicles).”
— magnolian (June 5, 2019)
Other readers also found the premise of the column offensive. They suggested that white men should be commended, not called out, for cycling the most:
“Alternative headline: “In Seattle, white men doing the most to combat climate change. Here’s why.”
Silly, yes. But come on, genderists, let’s give credit where credit is due.”
— WashingtonGrown (June 5, 2019)
“Well said. At an analytical level sure I can appreciate some investigation into differences in race and gender into an activity, as a way of improving participation in that activity. Ok, fine. But where you lose me is when you start off with the arrogant and caustic assumption that there is something wrong AND that the group with the most representation is somehow the bad guy (in this case literally). Articles like this get very cringey very fast.”
— user1522558172564 (June 5, 2019)
And some readers delved into sarcasm.
“OMG!!! Those evil white dudes are riding bikes to work?!?!?! How dare them!!!! We can’t have them getting in a workout AND then working hard at jobs paying taxes!!! This is outrageous!!! Thank you Seattle Times for bringing this to our attention. We will devote immense resources to make sure this bad behavior is stopped immediately!”
— BengalCats (June 5, 2019)
A number of readers commented that harassment (mainly from motorists) is a major deterrent for women and female-presenting cyclists, and that should have been included in the column. I agree, and regret the omission.
“I think this article is overlooking one barrier to women/nb/queer folks cycling: harassment.
I’m a woman. The first time I tried bike commuting in Seattle I did a test run from my apartment on a Saturday so I could get a feel for the route with less traffic. The busyness of Seattle streets was a little intimidating, but I’d ran errands frequently by bike in my college town when I lived there and figured I would get the hang of it. Just blocks from my apartment I was stopped at a light when the driver behind me started honking at me, then yelling at me out his window to move over so he could take a free right. His yelling because more offensive, then he started revving his engine. I frantically moved to the sidewalk so he wouldn’t run me over, and he yelled obscenities at me until he was out of sight. I almost stopped biking right then and there.
Talking with my coworkers who bike commute, all genders receive harassment from drivers with some frequency. But feminine presenting co-workers get more harassment and worse harassment. It’s no wonder women statistically bike less in Seattle. We have enough nonsense — why open ourselves up to new and fun ways to get yelled at on the way to work?
I still bike commute and love it most days, but can also understand why others are hesitant to try it.”
— user14834791485514 (June 5, 2019)
Some commenters reiterated the importance of safe cycling infrastructure as the key to eliminating the gender gap.
“As a sometimes-biking female mom type, I thought this piece was great. A good overall examination of who bikes in Seattle, and good, spot-on reasons why women bike less. Although I’d change the “scared” factor to more of “it’s just not safe,” and we are likely the more risk-averse gender. Good piece! “
— usasiamom (June 5, 2019)
There were quite a few comments on the issue of hygiene and grooming, and the fact that many workplaces do not offer employees locker rooms and showers.
“Grooming is the big issue. And most workplaces don’t have locker rooms and showers.
So, absent facilities, women have to use a wet wipe, change their clothes in a tiny bathroom stall, do their hair and makeup in a bathroom that probably doesn’t have counters, then stuff their sweaty clothes in a bag and hide it under the desk.
When it’s time to head home, they get to put back on those stinky clothes (including a sweaty bra), cycle home, and then freshen up and change again before heading out for their evening activities (women tend to be more involved in the community).
No thanks, I’ll drive or take the bus.”
— Margaret Schroeder (June 5, 2019)
“If one works in a professional environment, who has to wear professional clothing, biking to work is very inconvenient. One gets sweaty and dirty while biking. Hauling professional clothing on a bike, without getting wrinkled, is impossible. Not all work places offer a facility to shower and if so, then one would also have to haul soap, shampoo, a towel in addition to their clothing. It just isn’t convenient for all — not to mention those that live far from work. No one wants to sit near a sweaty mess for the duration of the day.”
— WellSeasoned (June 5, 2019)
Some readers felt that the gender cycling gap is primarily due to the expectations and responsibilities typically placed upon women.
“Women don’t bike commute less than men because “they’re scared” as Stephens says, or because they need to “look put together,” or because walking into a bike shop can “be very off-putting.” Nor, as Martini says, because we lack a sense of the “bike culture and community.” How patronizing! It’s about the domestic division of labor, people! I’ve always said, behind most policy-driven or enviro-minded male bike commuters, there’s a woman in a car rushing to the store after work on her way to pick up his kids after school. I worked downtown and commuted by bike on days I knew I wouldn’t have a fundraiser breakfast at 7:00 a.m. or “second shift” duties after work. If you have kids, the fact is, you can get a lot more done by car than bike or transit and time is the most precious resource we have.”
— SN (June 5, 2019)
But another reader took exception to the idea that I expressed in the column that for women who are moms, biking with kids can be impractical.
“Picking up kids does not make biking impractical! Family bikes are popular in some neighborhoods, and at 6 yrs old, my kid can ride his own bike. We go to our local public school and take part in activities and events near home, biking to them most of the time. The more biking is normalized, the safer it will be, because drivers will be looking out for bikes. We have to be the change we want to see.”
— GreenThinker (June 5, 2019)
Finally, I heard from a handful of readers who said I should have addressed the issue of age, not just race and gender. Cycling, they suggested, is a young person’s mode of transportation.
The data shows that in the Seattle area, people who bike for transportation are indeed on the younger side, with a median age of about 35. The only younger demographic among transportation modes locally are carpoolers.
Nationally, though, cyclists are significantly older, with a median age of about 41.