Bridging the Gender Gap
By addressing the barriers women face when choosing to bike, Arlington County and DC can make getting around better for everyone.
Arlington and DC are among the few cities where the number of people biking to work continues to grow, bucking national trends of slight decline. Though Arlington has tripled its bike commute mode share since 2009, the percentages of men and women biking remains almost identical in 2017, with women making up about 26% of those who bike to work.
Despite overall growth in the number of people biking to work, there are still some challenges that need to be addressed by cities, organizations, and employers for more women to bike more often.
Infrastructure/The Built Environment
In the Arlington County 2017 Bike Element Survey, 45% of all survey respondents were satisfied with the number of bike lanes. However, only 10% of female respondents reported being satisfied with the number of bike lanes. This discrepancy provides a huge window of opportunity for growth if cities like Arlington can learn what’s keeping women from biking and make changes that match their needs.
During a recent focus group conducted by BikeArlington and Mobility Lab, participants cited a disregard for traffic laws by people driving, biking, and walking, and a lack of access to a safe, comfortable route as common barriers preventing them from biking. Additional analysis of the research found female participants expressed exclusive concern over the following:
- Fear of threats to personal safety, including concerns about lighting and how populated a place is at night.
- Childcare responsibilities, including the need to make multiple stops for child-related or household work like grocery shopping.
- Gendered expectations of personal appearance, including hair maintenance.
These results mirror findings from other cities, where researchers stress that “given the consistent pattern of fear, anxiety, and stress that women and minorities reported encountering when navigating public spaces, additional support must be given to cultivate and maintain a diverse biking population.”
While the problems of systemic sexism and violence against women don’t have easy solutions and require cultural shifts, there are a few things that can happen to create a more conducive environment for women to bike.
More Protected Infrastructure
Creating separate, on-street facilities that offer the protection of trails while providing the eyes-on-the-street feeling to guide women’s transportation decisions will likely address their fears of personal safety and lead to biking more often. Cities investing in such infrastructure are seeing a steady rise in women riding. In other cities, like Vienna, Austria, and Stockholm, Sweden, planning staff are purposefully engaging with women during the planning process to ensure their needs are met.
Development planning efforts that make trip-chaining easier also needs to be considered. Biking will be an option for more women if it is easier to access everyday stops, like grocery stores, childcare facilities, and schools, via safe and protected infrastructure.
Education and Incentives
Similar to the broader community, infrastructure improvements topped women’s lists of things that would help them ride more in the 2017 Bike Element survey. But they were also more likely to identify adding education for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. Creating women-specific education and social ride programs that address concerns of how to carry things on a bike, bike with children, and manage multiple trips by bike are opportunities to empower women to go by bike more often.
Employers play a role in encouraging their employees to bike to work by relaxing dress codes, offering access to shower and locker facilities, and monetary incentives, like the Bike Commuter Benefit.
Women are also more likely to consider riding when other women in their life ride. Peer modeling and encouragement programs, like WABA’s Women & Bicycles events and classes and Phoenix Bikes’s All the Cycle Ladies and Black Women Bike DC are the types of programs cities need to encourage women to bike. Family-focused and volunteer-run groups like Kidical Mass and DC Family Biking are also crucial to encourage parents to bike with their children.
Undertaking policy, programs, and infrastructure changes that specifically address the barriers women face has the greatest potential to improve the walkability and bikeability of Arlington, leading to better streets for all people, no matter how they get around.
Cornell University professor Mildred Warner sums up this approach well: “Asking, ‘Would a woman feel comfortable walking here at dusk?’ and getting an affirmative response likely means that most people will feel comfortable using the space. Women can be used as a bellwether for safety, as well as other planning priorities. Regarding transportation planning, women are choice riders: if more women ride transit, more people will ride.” The same can be said for bicycling. If we can make biking is an easy, safe, and convenient choice for women, more people of all kinds will ride.
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