Confident Riders = More Women on Bikes

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When I first rediscovered riding for daily transportation in 2008, I was living in Kansas City, Mo. Though a growing urban center, I was easily able to cruise comfortably on lightly traveled streets and quiet neighborhood roads for the majority of my trips.

Moving to Washington, D.C. was a different world. 

On the one hand, even in 2010, the nation's capital was taking significant steps to make streets more accommodating to bicyclists and the bike lanes were already filling up with fellow riders. On the other hand, I was vying for space on streets with far more cars (and cyclists!) than I had before.

Don't get me wrong: I wasn't intimidated. But I did feel a little out of my element.

I wanted to get tips from folks who had long navigated these streets and brush up on my bike skills to be as nimble as I could in this new landscape. Like a growing number of people, I signed up for a Confident City Cycling course with my local advocacy organization, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

So, in diving into the research for our Women on a Roll report, I wasn't surprised to find that confidence appears to be one of the major components in boosting female ridership. There's plenty of studies showing that women, in general, tend to be more risk-averse than men. But that doesn't mean we're scared. It doesn't mean women are frightened to ride. But it does mean, just like driving a car, women want to feel competent and confident behind the wheel(s).

According to our report:

  • 47% of "interested but concerned" riders in Portland are women
  • 58% of women, compared to 81% of men, say they're "very confident" riding a bike
  • 29% of women, compared to 83% of men, say they can fix a flat
  • Only 6% of American women, compared to 13% of men, say they're confident riding on all roads with traffic
  • More than 1/4 of American women say bicycle skills education would encourage them to start bicycling or ride more

That desire is evident in many cities, where women make up a majority of participants in classes like the one I took from WABA. For instance, in 2012, 62% of participants in the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s bike education classes and 75% of Adult Learn to Ride classes were women. The SFBC also launched a popular Family Biking series that focused on issues like pedaling while pregnant and when it's safe to bring the little one along for the ride.

Those types of classes geared more specifically toward women are proliferating nationwide. This year, several of our Women Bike mini-grants went to intiatives that  encourage women from all backgrounds to ride, by giving them the resources that inspire confidence: 

  • WE Bike NYC: "Our goal with this grant is to create outreach and educational materials in print and online that encourage Latina women to join the bicycle movement," says WE Bike NYC founder, Liz Jose. "By compiling existing Spanish language resources as well as creating new, downloadable documents, the work created under this grant will create a model for language inclusiveness for groups across the country, as well as materials such as a Spanish-language 'Fix-A-Flat' book featuring Latina women and a Spanish-language 'Club Pack' that can be used to begin work in local communities."
  • We Are All Mechanics: "The grant from the League will enable us to offer scholarships to women who would otherwise not be able to participate in our Basic Bicycle Maintenance Course,” says Ali Dwyer, a co-founder of WAAM. “Participants in our Basic Course report that they are excited to share what they know with others, and they report riding more often, for more reasons, and with more confidence after taking our course. Our successful program, and our original materials will serve as a model for other programs and bicycle educators.”
  • Marin County Bicycle Coalition: "Our Women on Wheels classes are designed to help women gain the confidence and skills they need to ride a bicycle for errands, to get their children to school or for recreation,” says MCBC’s Wendi Kallins. “With this grant, we’ll be able to offer these classes in the low income, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of the Canal area of San Rafael and make the curriculum for Spanish-speaking women available to other communities around the country.”

Of course, women aren't just the students; we need to be the teachers, as well. But, currently, less than 30% of our more than 3,500 League Cycling Instructors are women. In 2012, Melissa Balmer, of Women on Bikes SoCal found that, despite living one of the most densely populated areas of the United States, there were only 3 female LCIs in all of Long Beach, the South Bay, and South and East Los Angeles County. To get more female leaders engaged in bicycling skills education, Balmer garnered the support of organizations like the California Bicycle Coalition, Bike Long Beach, and the California Endowment to launch the first all-women’s LCI training, engaging 10 women from diverse backgrounds.

That SoCal training was led by LCI coach Jen Laurita and, one of the trainees was Maria Sipin — both of whom will be joining us later this week for a live discussion on Women and Bike Education. We'll also hear from Lesly Jones, an LCI and ride leader for Black Women Bike DC and Claire Stoscheck from Cycles for Change. Don't miss it: Tune in to this link at 2 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, Sept. 25!

And, if you're like me back in 2010, looking for a class in your area, plug your zipcode or city into our Connect Locally box on the left and find resources in your city.