When we think about bicyclists, we often picture this:
(No, seriously, Google assumed I meant this; check out its fourth suggestion:)
But this image of bicyclists as well-off white men on joyrides is harmful not just for the obvious reason (that I inadvertently endangered an absurd number of Brooklyn men over the last few years by calling out “Mike!” when I mistook them all for my white, bearded, ’90s-apparel-clad biker friend).
It can also lead to some impressions that hurt public support for good biking infrastructure. For one, we might think that biking is a leisure activity, rather than crucial mode of transportation. Second, if the only people who do it have the means to make a choice about whether or not to do it depending on convenience, it seems pretty low priority. After all, if the road doesn’t have a bike lane, or is unridable in the snow, bikers can just take their cars. Why invest in and prioritize bikers if they’re a minority who just do it for fun?
The truth is, in a lot of ways, our picture of the city biker as a middle class white guy riding for fun is correct. In 1997, your average North American bike commuter was 39-year-old, male, and in a household making over $45,000. But in Northern Europe, there are no significant differences between gender or ethnicity among bikers. So what’s going on ‘States-wide?
Once you dig into the data, action, and attitudes both here and abroad, you see that it’s our rich, male, white biking culture is a case of infrastructure and social norms rather than a reflection of an actual outsized love of biking among these all these men. Let’s break down this stereotype by taking a look at what made it a reality, and what’s different in places where it isn’t.
Are all bicyclists…
Here in the US, wealthier families are more likely to own bikes, which makes it much easier to both learn how to ride one, and then go off and use it a bunch.
A 2008 government survey of almost 10,000 Americans found a direct correlation between rising incomes and increased likelihood of bike access. For those with household incomes under $15,000, 29% reported regular bike access. Being part of a household in the top income bracket– $75,000 or more– more than doubled your chances of bike access, with 65% reporting access. For households in the middle, with incomes between $30,000 – $49,000, 47% said they had access to a bike.
This sort of makes intuitive sense– with more money, you’re more likely to own more stuff– but it shows how many Americans classify bicycles as “leisure” instead of “transport.” After all, a bike is a much cheaper form of transport than a car or even a monthly bus pass, so it would make even more sense for poorer families to invest in one than for wealthy homes. And in fact, members of the poorest quartile of Americans use bikes for their commutes disproportionately more than people in each of the other three quartiles, as do new immigrants. But all this biking out of necessity rather than choice leads many people to ditch the two wheels for four as soon as they get the chance. Cars remain an aspirational status item, for reasons both practical (getting slushed less; easier commutes) and psychological (started from the bottom, now we’re getting here with a motor).
One study of attitudes toward biking and perceived barriers to it among ethnic minority residents of Portland, OR found that money in fact was a major obstacle to biking. 60% of those surveyed expressed concern over the high cost of purchasing a bicycle, and 25% cited followup maintenance fees as a further deterrent. People weren’t sure where they could go for maintenance or whether low-cost maintenance was even available. It’s not that these people all had cars– many reported not owning one– but they carpooled, and bicycles seemed an unwise and expensive investment that they weren’t confident they could fix, use, and protect from getting stolen.
Additionally, transit-adjacent or conveniently located housing often costs a premium, leaving poorer people with longer commutes on roads in bad conditions. Bikes get less useful the further you have to travel and the more potholed and dangerous the streets you have to go down.
Now, people in countries with majority non-white populations (aka most of the world) bike, so we know from right off the bat that this is going to be a US-specific thing, and likely to involve class and income.
A study in Portland, OR of African American, Latin@/Hispanic, and African residents’ attitudes toward bicycling showed minority groups face a variety of biking obstacles that white cyclists might never have to worry about.
For example, every African American respondent expressed fear that drivers would be aggressive toward them if they biked. 43% of Latin@/Hispanic people said they were afraid of racial profiling by the police, and weren’t sure where to go to learn bike rules to make sure they didn’t accidentally break a law and get in trouble. People in every group said they weren’t confident that their bikes wouldn’t be stolen, since destinations like schools and even home porches didn’t seem to offer safe bike storage.
Many cultures have their own specific experiences with and associations with biking that white people would never think of. Some African American communities associate bikes with kids, 1990s drug dealers, and gentrification. Some Latin@/Hispanics told stories of friends who had been deported when police stopped them while on a bike. One Latino bicyclist reported that at a bike store, an employee responded to his question about helmets by telling him if police pulled him over they might ask for proof of legal residency. And bike outreach, such as biking events, which have been linked to increased biking among participants, doesn’t often happen in poor, minority neighborhoods, making biking inconvenient and the bike community appear uninterested in or hostile to these communities’ participation.
But changes in policy, infrastructure, and culture can change all of this. Members of ethnic minorities are the fastest growing group of bikers. The Portland study resulted in programming to give out bikes to children, teach biking skills and maintenance, organize biking groups, and work within communities to encourage biking skills, literacy, and comfort in culturally specific ways.
Here in North America, men make at least double the bike trips of women. But this isn’t because women don’t want to bike. They simply are subject to more cultural and safety hurdles than are men.
A survey of Canadian would-be bike commuters found that women stopped themselves from biking to work out of fear of their safety, difficulty carrying belongings, and the concern that they would have to fix their hair again once arriving at the office. This final deterrent shouldn’t be mistaken for frivolous vanity– there are very real differences between expectations in how women and men should dress for work and in general, and women’s clothing, shoes, and cosmetic norms make movement, and especially any that might make you break a sweat, much more difficult.
Men and women also use transportation for different purposes. For the most part, men move themselves, often to and from work, and women move others, or stuff for others.
Men travel more than women to work, at a rate of about 5 commuting trips for women’s 4. This ratio is inverted when it comes to errands. These make up 46% of all trips taken by women, compared to 38% for men. Women make 66% of driving trips with the purpose of transporting someone else, and make more trips in general: 21% more than an average man.
In Delhi, I often saw entire families commuting to work and school on the back of one motorcycle. But in the US, where car culture is dominant, and credit available enough that purchasing a car is more feasible, it makes sense that women, who make so many more trips, and lug around so many more people and items than men, would opt for cars rather than bikes, motor-powered or otherwise. Men, who take more trips alone, and for transportation of pretty much just their own bodies, have a much easier time packing everything necessary onto a single bike frame, especially since at the conclusion of their trip, they won’t even have to fix their hair. However, that coif might end up protecting you. A 2006 study by a British traffic psychologist found that while drivers tend to give bicyclists not wearing a helmet 3.3 more inches more room than those who do (perhaps from a more visceral fear of seeing brains hit pavement), they inched another 2.2 inches away from bicyclists whose helmet-free head had long hair growing out of it! Now, it seems more likely that this is about our perceptions of who needs how much protection, and less about drivers’ fear of getting blinded by locks so long they’d blow into their field of vision. It would be interesting to repeat this study with an intersectional focus on race, as studies have shown that white people tend to perceive Black people’s physical pain as less serious than the same injury in white people, or don’t even register their pain as pain at all.
But being female, even without the responsibility of children, is associated with lower biking levels. A study of transportation to school among children in Ontario showed that girls were less likely than boys to travel by walking or biking.
Safety is another major factor separating potential male and female cyclists. Some studies have shown that women judge the safety of a bike route more stringently than men, through a more risk-averse lens. What this means is that even as good bike infrastructure increases overall ridership, it has an even more dramatic effect on female riders. However, the feminist bicycling anthology Our Bodies, Our Bikes, questions the assumptions behind the idea that women are “more afraid” on bikes. The editors wrote:
Whenever a conversation turns to women’s cycling, the word ‘safety’ always comes up. But what does it mean? Not the same thing to everyone. Often, it’s about cars and the threat they pose to our vulnerable bodies on the roadway. Underlying this there’s a debate about whether or not there is a gender gap in fear… are women more risk averse, men more foolhardy? Or, as we’ve been told not-quite-in-jest, are women simply smarter? Or is it that because we are more likely to carry (or at least be the primary caretakers for) children, we are the ones with the most to lost? Or perhaps, as some studies as suggested, women are more willing to admit to fear, so we get all the credit for having it.
Whether or not women are more fearful, responsible, smart, or just honest, their actions back up the claim that they take into consideration safety before biking, as they are more likely to bike if they have access to streets with low traffic and bike lanes. But these can’t just be bike lanes going in circles on the periphery of cities: women need bike lanes that connect useful destinations, such as schools and shopping centers, so that they can actually use these routes to travel where they have to go.
Change the norms and safety around biking, and you change the gender breakdown. Over half of bicyclists in the Netherlands are women, and women make 49% of all bike trips taken in Germany. Even here, in America, the Twin Cities saw an increase in female bikers as they improved their bicycling infrastructure, and now have one of the most equal rates of biking across genders. Women want to bike. They just want to be safe and able to bring whomever and whatever they need with them.
Who Bike for Fun?
The image of the white, rich, male biker compounds the image of biking as merely a leisure activity, as this is the group most likely to use it as such. White and wealthy people are more likely to bike for fun or exercise, while poor and ethnic minority people are more likely to bike for transportation purposes, to work, school, or errands.
Where bike lanes are rare and biking in main thoroughfares is dangerous, it’s frightening to attempt to ride a bike for anything besides recreation or exercise, so only those who have no choice but to bike will do so for anything but leisure. But as infrastructure improves, the national share of bike trips taken for a purpose beyond fun rises as well. In 2001, utilitarian bike trips (those not made for sport, exercise, or fun, though they might have been all of those things as well), stood at 43%. By 2009, they reached 51%– making them over half of all bike trips taken.
Many bikers who ride for utility started out as recreational bikers. This makes sense– if you build up trust in your bike, your body, and the transportation landscape on low-stakes trips, you’re more likely to begin to view biking as a serious contender for trips when you really need to get somewhere. So if we want to increase the percentage of commuters using bikes over cars, we need to improve and increase opportunities for people to bike in fun, through parks, bike subsidies or bike-sharing programs, and a wider culture of safety and acceptance on the road.
Bikes serve an important role in transportation, reducing congestion, promoting exercise, clearing up air pollution, and enabling safe, independent travel. Ironically, the people bikes could help the most– women, children, seniors, the poor, transportation-poor, and ethnic minorities– are not seen as the face of biking, and thus aren’t fully taken into consideration when our cities and towns look for transportation and development priorities. But communities are rising up and demanding safe, convenient, and contextually appropriate biking infrastructure.
In Central Falls, RI, middle school students won a national grant for their plan to build protected bike lanes. The students wanted a way to pick up their younger siblings after school and take them to a soon-to-be-created playground in safety. Right now, they are working with planners to determine the best routes between schools and parks that they can create bike lanes in by putting up barriers between the edge of the lane and cars.
In the community of South Central, Los Angeles, Hispanic residents have fought back against been shut out of conversations about the future of their neighborhood’s urban plan. Some have taken to their council-member’s constituents office with megaphones and signs, demanding to be included in the decision-making over their environment. One major concern is a proposed overhaul of Central Avenue that doesn’t include bike lanes. Planners of the new street say it’s too narrow for bike lanes, proposing instead that bikers use alternate, side routes. Residents counter that the design for the new Central Avenue includes extra-long sidewalks, which could be cut into to make use for bicyclists, and that the city would never tell drivers to simply use another route. The larger sidewalks, coming at the expense of car lanes, are only a contingent plan that would come into effect if and when more money becomes available.
The suggestion that bicyclists simply take other roads fails to take into account the particular context of the neighborhood. Many of the small side streets in the area are gang territory, making them especially unsafe for individual bicyclists to travel through. Cyclists have been shot, robbed, and otherwise assaulted when they turn down these seemingly quiet streets. Further, people biking in South Central are riding old, rickety bikes. Putting more miles on their bikes than absolutely necessary because of out of the way routes means more frequent maintenance efforts and expenses. Many use the route to commute to work in downtown warehouses, or to make deliveries. In both cases, speed is of great importance, making detours especially harmful.
By not listening to the design constraints of the project and declining to provide bike lanes, planners aren’t changing behavior patterns so much as they are ensuring that the transportation conflicts– and dangers– continue. Bicyclists will continue to fight with pedestrians for space to bike on the sidewalks, ruining the plan’s intended pedestrian shopping oasis, or angle to gain space in the single-car lane, contributing further to congestion.