Are Seattle cyclists, by and large, just a bunch of privileged white dudes?
It looks that way to one Seattle Times reader. He emailed me after taking in the scene on the Fremont Bridge, a heavily used crossing for cyclists traveling between downtown and North Seattle.
“Young white guys peddling fast to jobs downtown, getting in a workout,” is how the reader described what he saw — not many women or people of color. And that observation led him to question the city’s spending on bike infrastructure.
“Are bike lanes basically a subsidy to the group that is least in need of a subsidy?” he asked.
There is data that can help us get a sense of who bikes in the Seattle area, and it supports some of the reader’s perceptions. A lot of cyclists here are white guys, and they do tend to be affluent.
But the data also reveals that men of color are just as likely to bike for transportation as white men. The real disparity is between the sexes. Men are much more likely to bike than women, regardless of race and ethnicity. And it turns out Seattle’s cycling gender gap is one of the biggest in the country.
Market-research giant Nielsen collects data from people around the country about their transportation choices. They surveyed more than 400,000 adults nationally between 2016 and 2018, including about 5,900 people in the Seattle metro area.
Nielsen asks respondents to select from a list all the modes of transportation they’ve used in the past seven days, for any purpose — commuting, running errands, going to school, and so on.
According to the data, an estimated 169,000 adults in the Seattle area use a bicycle for transportation. And the slight majority of them are, in fact, white men — about 55% of the total.
Overall, 6% of the population bikes for transportation in the Seattle area, but for men, it jumps to 9% — and that number is the same for both white men and men of color.
So if white men and men of color are equally likely to bike, why do you see more white men on bikes around here? There’s a simple explanation. White men make up 36% of the adult population in this area, while men of color make up 14%.
The data shows that nationally, men of color are actually more likely to bike than white men. The highest rate of cycling for transportation is among Asian men. Latino men and men of Native American or “other” races also bike at a higher percentage than white men. The rate of cycling for transportation among black men is slightly lower.
The data on gender, though, tells a very different story. Women are a lot less likely to use a bicycle for transportation than men, and that’s true in every large metro area surveyed.
In the Seattle area, of the estimated 169,000 cyclists, 128,000 are men — about 76%. While men here are a little more likely than the national average to bike, women are a little less likely. In fact, among large metro areas, there is only one where cycling is more male-skewed: Sacramento, California.
Aviva Stephens, who writes about her experiences bike commuting in Seattle on her blog, Biking in the Rain, can reel off a number of reasons why women are less likely to bike. But the lack of a connected network of bikes lanes is at the top of the list.
“Personally, I see people that want to get on a bike, but they’re scared. If there were safe bike infrastructure, they would ride,” she said. “People tell me I’m brave.”
Of course, a lack of bike lanes can deter people of all genders, but infrastructure improvements have shown to increase biking parity between men and women.
Stephens mentions other barriers for women who might want to bike commute. Women who are moms often do the bulk of parenting, and having to pick up kids on the way home makes biking impractical.
Some women might also feel like they’re held to a “higher standard of looking put together,” said Stephens. So showering and dressing at work may not suit them.
Stephens also says that it can be very off-putting for women to walk into a bike shop, just like it can be at a car repair shop.
“You walk into these bike shops, and it’s all guys, and they’re all gear heads,” she said. “It can be very intimidating. It’s like you’re expected to know every single part on a bike.”
Claire Martini, policy manager at Cascade Bike Club, says that community is a key factor for women who are interesting in getting into biking.
“It is really important to be part of the bike culture and the community — and it should be for all ages and all abilities,” she said.
To foster a sense of community, and to support and encourage women in cycling, the Cascade Bike Club conducts a series of classes, rides and events for women, called She Bikes Cascade.
While women are less likely to bike than men across the U.S., that’s not the case everywhere. In the Netherlands — a famously bike-friendly country — more than half of all trips on bike are made by women.
Biking can be one of the least expensive modes of transportation, which means it can be a great option for lower-income folks. Even so, the market research shows that cyclists in the Seattle area do tend to be more affluent, with a median household income of $88,500. Nationally, cyclists rank only in the middle for household income.
But even with the high median income in the Seattle area, the data show that one in four local cyclists have a household income of less than $50,000.