Biking Is (Not Just) for Boys
Through the personal bicycle history of Roshun Austin, we highlight the physical, cultural and societal barriers that exist for women in the U.S.
Roshun Austin grew up poor in Memphis, Tennessee, the middle of five girls raised in the Pentecostal Holiness Church. “Religiously, there were a lot of things that girls could not do,” said Austin. “In the Holiness Pentecostal tradition, whistling was considered sinful, as was skipping. We couldn’t even wear pants, so riding a bike wasn’t that acceptable.”
When Austin was young, her father was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, forcing her mother to return to the workforce. The burden of childcare for her younger sisters fell on Austin, as did a lot of the household chores.
“I never really got to be a kid,” said Austin. “I was the 11-year-old that had to get home and make sure the roast was cooked and the cornbread was made — dreaming of a bike just didn’t come up for me, even at Christmas.”
While Austin would walk and take the bus everywhere, she remembers seeing groups of boys who rode bikes around the neighborhood and away from it, empowered and carefree.
“In the African American community, especially low-income communities, you haven’t arrived if you don’t own an automobile,” said Austin, explaining that her first desire was for a car rather than a bike. “In the ‘80s, the guys still riding bikes in our neighborhood were hustlers, probably with a substance abuse problem — you didn’t want to be like them. It was never a woman riding a bike.”
When she did see bicyclists, it was kids, mostly boys, who got bikes for Christmas or white men in suburban, wealthier areas wearing spandex and riding fancy bicycles with curved handlebars. When Austin eventually left Memphis, attending Middlebury College in Vermont on a need-based scholarship, she remembers seeing her wealthy classmates riding around campus. It wasn’t until decades later, at the age of 44, that Austin finally learned how to ride a bike.
In March, we released “Where Do We Go From Here? Breaking Down Barriers to Bicycling in the U.S.,” a report based on research conducted in 10 cities across the country. The report is extensive, running more than 100 pages, and contains a lot of qualitative data on people’s experiences bicycling. While managing the focus groups, lead researcher Charles T. Brown, of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center (VTC) at Rutgers University, heard from women that experienced or were currently experiencing physical, cultural and/or societal barriers to biking.
“Across the board, women were more likely to say that their family members, friends and others felt that bicycling was much more so for boys, and not so much for them,” said Brown. “We heard that more so from minority women.”
Brown and his team identified marketing as a major factor when it came to societal influences preventing women from bicycling. In particular, the way marketing materials tend to represent women as a “shero,” or an above-average female hero, often clad in spandex and other technical gear. Instead of mothers bicycling with their kids to work or school, promotional materials often depict a road cyclist riding for recreation. More often than not, the women portrayed will be stereotypically fit and white.
“This image of a female cyclist as a shero is great in terms of boosting the confidence of women,” said Brown. “However, it does make cycling appear out of reach. To be able to cycle, or want to cycle, you have to be able to take on this insurmountable task.”
Male participants in the study, when responding to what they thought of female bicyclists, reiterated that they thought women had to be “independent” and “confident” to be able to bike in public. For women who don’t see themselves as exceptional or simply have less confidence in the bicycling space, riding becomes all the less accessible.
In terms of cultural barriers, something that repeatedly emerged in Brown’s research among some Hispanic female respondents was the perception of bicycling as a sexualized activity. “Women have said they were prevented from riding bicycles as a young girl because they were deemed to be promiscuous,” said Brown, noting that the association had to do with one’s proximity to the seat. “In a way, these girls were shamed from riding because they didn’t want to appear as sexually active.”
Stereotypes like this are only further exacerbated by the difficulty women have when riding in skirts or dresses, as well as the catcalling almost all female bicyclists have experienced. In Memphis, where Austin still lives, many female focus group respondents noted harassment as a chief concern. One expressed a “sense of envy that [male bicyclists] feel comfortable enough to ride and feel safe enough. That’s something that I cannot get over — feeling safe to ride.” Fear for women exists on a spectrum. While it may seem harmless to one woman, eliciting a whistle from an adjacent pickup truck might prevent another from biking at all.
For women like Austin, who were raised in strict faith traditions, gendered barriers persist in different ways. While conducting a focus group in Portland, Oregon, Brown spoke with a Muslim family that saw bicycling as more dangerous for its female members, not because it went against Islam, but because they believed society at large perceived hijab-wearing Muslim women to be weaker and thus, an easy target. In the United States today, biking while being a Black or Asian woman can likewise be dangerous.
Appearance is another factor that often prevents women from biking. According to Austin, for Black women with relaxed hair, anything that involves sweating or getting caught in the rain is not on the table. For those that wear their hair natural, in braids, dreadlocks or afros, helmet sizes can be problematic. Throughout Brown’s research, respondents also shared that as women — particularly minority women — showing up to work sweaty would be an issue. As one female participant indicated, “There is a big gender element to [presentation]. Men can show up a little sweaty. It’s kind of okay. There is definitely an element of women needing to show up in the professional context looking pretty much perfect.”
The number one barrier women face, however, is safe, protected places to bike. While focus group respondents across the board emphasized the importance of protected bike lanes, women did so more, noting the need for LED lights for nighttime travel. Catcalling becomes a lot scarier when you’re alone, at night, on an unprotected and unlit bike path and you don’t speak English. As with almost all the barriers noted here, some women are affected more than others.
“When we’re thinking through solutions, we should target all women,” said Brown. “But at the same time, we also need specific solutions that take into consideration the differences between racial, ethnic and religious minority groups.”
Today, Roshun Austin is the President and CEO of The Works, Inc., a nonprofit that serves South Memphis and runs a farmer’s market. Since many local residents didn’t own private automobiles, in 2016, the community organization began exploring what bikeshare in Memphis might look like.
“I still had some fear, or trepidation, about getting on a bike. It was just never going to be at the top of my list,” said Austin. “I was all for getting community voices involved in bikeshare, but I still wasn’t talking about me riding.”
That same year, PeopleForBikes’ VP of Local Innovation Kyle Wagenschutz, who knew Austin from his days working for the City of Memphis, called to extend her an invitation for a bike study tour in Amsterdam. At first, Austin didn't quite realize the tour would necessitate her actually biking. Although she pushed back at first, Austin eventually decided that she’d learn to ride a bike. In one of the informational sessions for the study tour, Austin met a woman who biked to the meeting wearing a skirt and wedge heels, the opposite of the lycra-clad cyclists who’d come to annoy her. It was that woman, Sylvia Crum of Revolutions Cycling Co-op, who became her first teacher.
“I learned how to ride in a parking lot in about a day,” said Austin, who caught on quickly. “By the end, Sylvia took me onto the streets. It was baptism by fire.”
Austin started joining Crum for slow-roll group rides around Memphis, but by the time the group landed in Amsterdam, biking still felt more forced than fun.
In European countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, the gender split among bicyclists reflects the population as a whole — hovering around 50-50 — or in some instances skews female. In the U.S., however, the majority of bike commuters (about 72%) are men, according to the 2019 American Community Survey census data. For recreational riders, the split is slightly better: 56% male and 44% female, according to a PeopleForBikes study.
Encouragingly, the pandemic has been good for female riding stateside. Data from the bicycling app Strava shows that more U.S. women than ever are uploading rides. In 2020, women uploaded 47% more bike rides than they did in 2019. In New York City, the number of women using the app increased by 82% over the previous year (a trend that holds for other major U.S. cities). A 2020 PeopleForBikes study of bicycle participation during the pandemic found that new riders were evenly split male and female.
There are also more organizations than ever working to break down barriers to biking from a young age. The Youth Cycling Coalition, which PeopleForBikes is a part of, brings together a variety of programs that specifically target girls, including Trips for Kids, GRiT and Little Bellas. World Bicycle Relief, a global bike charity, is committed to gender equality, with 70% of its bicycles for education going to girls. Black Girls Do Bike, which serves women of color of all ages, is growing the community by hosting meet-up rides and promoting skill sharing across more than 70 chapters nationwide.
“These social groups are successful because women find comfort in the company,” said Brown. “Groups promoting sisterhood in cycling are what’s needed to keep breaking down barriers.”
Bike education programs have also expanded in the last decade and range from membership-based programs such as Get Women Cycling to national advocacy initiatives like Women Bike. All share the goal of using bicycles as a tool to empower females. In Europe, Berlin’s #BIKEYGEES has offered bicycling training for refugee women and girls since 2015. At the nonprofit, origin, religion and status are unimportant — bicycling is seen as a necessary, sustainable approach to ensuring mobility among an often marginalized population.
In Amsterdam, Agartha Frimpong, best known as Mama Agatha, has taught more than 1,500 female immigrants to bicycle using donated bikes. Mama Agatha’s 12-week course is run by volunteers and covers a lot more than just bicycling, with topics that include fears, health outcomes, family dynamics, financials and crucially, how bicycling offers independence. Many of the women come from places like Syria, China, Somalia, Nigeria and Iraq, know little-to-no Dutch or English, and occasionally, weren’t even allowed to ride bikes in their home countries. While on the bicycle study trip in the Dutch capital, Austin’s group got to meet Mama Agatha.
“Until I met Mama Agatha, I was still thinking biking was for younger people and mostly men,” said Austin. “But when I saw her, a 60-something-year-old woman, an immigrant, teaching other women like her — that changed things for me.”
When Austin returned to Memphis, her organization started hosting slow-rolls and bike to work days, and she even invested in bicycles for herself and other staff members. The more she biked, the more Austin began to find joy in it — and the more comfortable she found the seat. Today, Austin owns a Peloton, two road bikes, one hybrid bike, a “granny” cruiser and a whole lot of spandex. Eventually, she plans to start “clipping in,” attaching her shoes to her bike pedals.
“I went from not knowing how to ride a bike to being the person that yells at people to share the road,” said Austin. “When I’m most stressed, I jump on a bike and it makes me happy.”
Because Austin didn’t know how to bike, her daughter never learned, so her organization now partners with local schools to hold bike rodeos, ensuring there’s gender parity amongst bike ambassadors and encourages women of all ages to join community rides. Austin has noticed that her story, as well as her physical presence as an older Black woman on a bike, inspires others.
As the research shows though, the reasons why some women choose to bike and others do not vary considerably based on location, culture and lived experience. Therefore, all solutions must account for these differences — what works in one community might not in another. What’s clear is that in a country where women are paid less, their bodies are policed by men and societal double standards persist, bicycling can offer a release.
“Those boys I’d see as a kid, riding their bikes, they were so free,” said Austin. “It comes down to freedom.”