New research on women’s bicycling participation reveals insights—and some surprises.

May 28, 2015

Sarah Braker, communications manager

Click here to see our new infographic about women and bicycling.

What stops American women from riding bikes? At PeopleForBikes we’re familiar with the theories relating to fashion and fear, economics, and a lack of approachability at some bike shops. Mindful of the higher women’s riding rates we see in the most bike-friendly countries, we wanted to learn more and test our assumptions. So we decided to ask. In late 2014 we commissioned the U.S. Bicycling Participation Study, an unprecedented comprehensive survey of bicycling participation. We measured all kinds of riding by all kinds of people, including women. It turns out that much of what we thought we knew was wrong. Here are six important and interesting findings from the study. 

The gap between men and women isn't so large

We surveyed more than 16,000 individuals and weighted that sample to represent the U.S. population. We found that 104 million people—a third of the population—rode a bicycle last year and of those, 45 million (43%) were women compared to 59 million men (57%). Our findings revealed less of a gender gap than the 2009 National Household Travel Survey which (using a different methodology) found that just 24% of bicycle trips were made by women.

Most women ride for recreation

We asked our participants to tell us whether they ride for recreation or transportation and found that 95% of the 45 million women who rode in 2014, did so for recreation. Nearly two-thirds of women who bike, ride only for recreation. And among women who do ride for transportation, the most popular types of transportation trips, coming in at 68%, were related to social or leisure activities.

Parents ride more

UCLA study from August of 2014 suggested that women don’t bike because they need their cars to handle childcare responsibilities. The U.S. Bicycling Participation Study reached a different conclusion: Having kids does not interfere with bike riding for men or women. Rather, women with children ride at a higher rate than those without (32% vs. 19%), as do men (47% with children vs. 31% without).

Men and women have similar bike-related aspirations

Men and women have similar goals when it comes to riding bikes. Both men and women said they want to bike more often (54% and 52% respectively) and similar numbers reported that their frequency would rise with an increase in protected bike lanes. Everyone wants to ride more, and they want more safe places to do it.

The gap widens on safety concerns

Fifty-four percent of women, including those who did not ride in 2014, expressed a fear of being hit while bicycling, compared with 49% of men. Women also worry more than men about their overall personal safety in areas where they ride. Another issue facing women at a higher level is the availability of a bike: Only 49% of women reported having a working adult bicycle in their home, compared to 55% of men.

Older girls and women ride less

In addition to gender, our study also broke down bicycling participation by age, and there is some fascinating data where these two categories overlap. We found that the gap between men and women riding continues to widen as they grow older. From ages 3-9, boys and girls ride at same rate, but starting at age 10, there’s a significant drop off for girls. That gap continues to grow, and is at its widest among men and women ages 55 and older.

Always more to learn

When we first embarked on this study, we didn’t know what to expect. Some of the data confirmed what we thought we knew, while other findings surprised us. When we talk about women and biking, advocates often dwell on the differences between men and women. What we learned from the Participation Study is that the gap between genders is consistent but perhaps not wide enough to require a radically different strategy for getting more women on bikes.

The fact that the gaps exist in virtually every category suggests that we need a broad approach to getting more women riding. Focusing on a single issue just won't get it done.

It is also worth noting that women are significantly underrepresented in some areas of bicycling, such as racing (comprising only 14% of licensed racers according to the 2013 USA Cycling Membership Survey). Women are more often outside of the core of bicycle enthusiasts, and strategies to get them riding should keep that in mind. We encourage you to read the rest of the study, learn from it, and tell us what you think.

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