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Women on wheels

The bicycle’s feminist legacy has faded, but modern feminists are fighting for cycling again

The bicycle’s place on city streets has been contentious from the beginning. At once vulnerable and menacing—fragile in the face of oncoming traffic, but with the power to flatten unwary pedestrians—bikes provoke extreme reactions. In urban settings especially, they inspire cults of allegiance and waves of opposition. This intensity of feeling dates back to America’s first cycling craze, in the 1890s, when the machines went from novelty to ubiquity at dizzying speed. Manufacturing increased 20-fold over the course of a decade, and by the end of the century, a million bikes a year were rolling out of factories. In 1900, the United States census report claimed, “Few articles ever used by man have created so great a revolution in social conditions as the bicycle.”

From the start, that revolution was divided by gender. For men, the bicycle was “merely a new toy,” wrote Munsey’s magazine in 1896. But to women, it was “a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” Compact, cheap, and liberating, the bicycle was the tool that broke the lock on a generation. Suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony claimed it had done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. “I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike,” she said in 1895. “It gives her a feeling of self reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat.” Anthony wasn’t the only reformer to hail the joy and liberation of cycling. Her friend, the suffrage activist and temperance leader Frances Willard, wrote a book about learning to ride a bike at the age of 53, a “steed of steel” she christened Gladys. To Willard, there was a clear and appropriate link between the balance needed to pedal a bike successfully and the mental and moral balance that came from teetotal living.

Willard’s use of the bicycle as a metaphor for steadiness was unusual. Far more common was the fear that women—and their morals—were pedaling downhill fast. It was impossible to ride a bike in sedate sidesaddle: to pedal, a woman had to hitch up her skirts, fling a leg over, and straddle the machine. Because riders could be seriously injured, even killed, if their skirts caught in the wheels or chain, women soon began to design and sew their own, more practical costumes. “Because biking was new, the clothes used for biking were open to interpretation and invention,” says Sarah Gordon, of the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society (where I was recently a postdoctoral fellow). Those inventive new modes of dress—featuring divided skirts, bloomers, or some other loose approximation of pants—brought with them different dangers, more social than physical. “It’s awful—one wants nerves of iron…” a British woman named Kitty J. Buckman wrote to a friend in 1897 about riding her bike. “The shouts and yells of the children deafen one, the women shriek with laughter or groan and hiss and all sorts of remarks are shouted at one, occasionally some not fit for publication. One needs to be very brave to stand all that.”

But for those who could stand it, the liberation was unequaled. A bicycle could whisk a woman far away from the safe surveillance of homes and family. “Where are all the women on wheels going?” wondered a writer in the San Francisco Call in 1895. “Is there a grand rendezvous somewhere toward which they are all headed and where they will some time hold a meet that will cause this wobbly old world to wake up and readjust itself?” Women met up to bike the streets in packs, riding for pleasure and to experience all the ways that their towns and cities were already readjusting to accommodate them. “Bicycles were a new way for women to exist in public,” explains Gordon. “Like amusement parks and, by the early 20th century, moving pictures, they allowed women to have fun and to present themselves as modern.”

Portrait of Violet Ward and Daisy Elliot, circa 1895, photograph by Alice Austen, Alice Austen House, Collection of Historic Richmond Town
Photo courtesy of Museum of the City of New York

Access to this modernity was uneven, shaped by race and class, although because bicycles were relatively cheap and easy to share, it wasn’t only wealthy women who were pedaling into the future. Black women, however, met—and fought—discrimination in the cycling world as in every other area of social life. In 1893, a keen cyclist and racer from Boston named Kittie Knox joined the nearly all-white, all-male League of American Wheelmen, and when the group tried to ban African-American members the following year, she mounted a protest at its annual meeting. The segregationists won that round, but her activism forced open the question of who was allowed to be a part of the cycling world, and black women continued to embrace cycling where they could.

It wouldn’t be long, however, before the arrival of the automobile chased the bicycle out of the spotlight. Ever since then, cities have struggled to reconcile competing visions of the bicycle’s place in the urban fabric, and to balance the needs of cyclists, pedestrians, and motor vehicles. The Depression revived the fortunes of the cheaper bicycle, and the era‘s New Deal policies also promoted cycling as healthy recreation. A new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York details the long “love-hate” relationship between bicycles and the city; in the 1980s, bike messengers in New York spearheaded protests against the city’s car-centric planning, and fought for their right to ride on roads and in parks. More recently, cities around the world have embraced the health benefits and clean, sustainable advantages of cycling, launching bike-share schemes and installing various forms of protected lanes. Somewhere along the way, the feminist legacy of the bicycle has faded. But modern feminists seeking to combine environmental activism and social justice have begun celebrating and fighting for cycling anew.

In 2009, after finding that women made just 24 percent of bike trips in the United States, the League of American Bicyclists founded the advocacy initiative Women Bike, aiming to correct that imbalance. Its 2015 report argues that “for too long, planners and bike advocates have ignored the intersectional lives women lead.” In Britain, sustainable transportation advocates have also begun to study the cycling gender gap, both as a question of equity and, more recently, as part of larger environmental initiatives that aim to get more people riding.

Even in the 1890s, there were fierce fights over where bikes belonged on city streets, and how they ought to coexist with pedestrians and other vehicles. Because the bicycle straddled the divide between transportation and pleasure, it seemed to belong equally in parks and on roads. This dual status has continued to complicate the bike’s place in urban culture. Cities tend to build bike lanes along direct commuting routes, privileging the needs of white-collar workers, often young men. At the same time, bike-share companies like Citi Bike in New York are popular with pleasure riders, often tourists—the company’s data shows consistently heavy use, for example, at the lower end of Central Park. But between tourists riding in parks and bankers riding to the office, there are hundreds of other journeys and routes that are underserved—and as advocates have discovered, these tend to be the rides women do, or want to do: the school run with kids, trips to the grocery store, or an evening spin with a group of friends, 1890s-style, along routes that can accommodate cargo bikes with large trailers, or protection for children on their own wheels. These kinds of rides require a network of safe, connected routes, rather than a few isolated, point-A-to-point-B lines.

According to Rachel Aldred, a transportation policy researcher at London’s Westminster University, there are multiple reasons why women don’t cycle. The most obvious is infrastructure. Cyclists of both genders want safer lanes, routes without cars, but for women, who more often cycle with children, safety issues are more pressing. All cyclists want direct routes to the places they need to go, but women and older riders have a stronger preference for shorter journeys, and for routes without obstacles like curbs and gates that require them to stop and dismount. And they need bike parking and bike-hire stations—not just lanes—along the routes they travel, to make those shorter journeys more convenient.

It’s not only the shortage of protected lanes that can make cycling feel unsafe. Quiet routes might have the advantage of less motor traffic, but they can carry the risk of harassment. To address these kinds of details—to even know that they might be obstacles—Aldred argues that city planning needs more diverse voices, more women, especially women of color, who can speak to the experience of moving through a city while female.

Many studies on urban cycling cite Copenhagen as the gold standard. There’s no significant gender gap in cycling in that city, where nearly half of all journeys to work or school are made by bike. A network of protected cycle tracks all across the city lets citizens of all ages ride safely door to door, and cycling is not only normalized—it is a point of urban pride. Certainly, improving bike lanes helps make cycling more appealing to women. The 2015 Bike League report showed that, in Philadelphia, the presence of a bike lane on a city street increased women’s ridership by 276 percent. In New York, a 2011 count showed that only 15 percent of riders on a street without a bike lane were women; on a nearby street with a dedicated lane, the percentage more than doubled. Yet the report also forcefully pushes back on the idea that infrastructure improvements alone will rebalance cycling’s gender gap. It’s not merely bike-friendly infrastructure that makes Copenhagen Copenhagen: it’s also the fact that Denmark as a country prioritizes “citizen welfare” and gender parity in all areas of social life, with taxes to match. Cities where women make up half the cycling population are already places that are serious about gender equality.

Combating the biking gender gap is also a question of attitude. Do women still need “nerves of iron” to cycle? In a recent assessment of cycling in seven British cities, conducted by the sustainable transportation organization Sustrans, its chair of trustees, Lynne Berry, reported that women often comment “how brave” when she arrives at meetings in cycling gear. The report found that only 12 percent of women in the cities studied cycled at least once a week.

One way to combat this disparity is to embrace the social aspect of biking that early women riders so loved. Groups like New York’s WE Bike NYC (Women’s Empowerment through Bicycles) organize free group rides and a variety of training and educational events, with an emphasis on the enjoyment of casual cycling. The group is open to women, female-identifying, and gender-nonconforming people, and hopes to make the city’s male-dominated cycling community better reflect the diversity of the city. It began in 2012, when founder Liz Jose was working as a bike mechanic and having difficulty finding a women’s cycling group that wasn’t focused on racing. She reached out to a network of friends and interested strangers, and in May the group joined Bike New York’s 5 Boro Bike Tour, the country’s biggest group ride. But the group also runs several lower-key events, including rides in Central Park and across the city, happy hours, social rides fueled by donuts or ice cream, and maintenance workshops—all with a view to bringing more women to cycling “as a means of transportation, a means of wellness, and a means of socializing and fun.” That combination of practicality, health, and pleasure would be perfectly in tune with the attitudes of 1890s riders.

Cities where women make up half the cycling population are already places that are serious about gender equality.

Getting more people biking in cities has obvious collective as well as individual benefits. It alleviates the burdens on other forms of transportation as urban populations continue to grow: a 2014 study compared the impact of bike-share operations in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis, and showed that in D.C.’s dense urban core, bike-share members reduced their use of the metro by 47 percent. In Minneapolis, bike-share members increased public transportation use outside the city center, but used bikes once they were there, meeting the broader goal of getting people out of their cars.

Encouraging a shift from car use to public transportation and biking is also part of the increasingly urgent effort to tackle climate change. If car drivers switched to cycling for short daily trips, according to a 2008 report by the Rails to Trails Initiative, the U.S. would see a reduction of between 21 and 45 million tons of CO2 emissions per year—an effort that has to begin in urban centers. In recent years, city governments worldwide have been taking the lead on climate issues locally. The C40 Cities initiative brings together 94 cities—home to more than 700 million people—to implement the most ambitious goals of the Paris climate agreement, and it has highlighted the benefits of cycling as part of that effort. The group, currently chaired by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, puts a particular focus on gender in urban development, recognizing that women use and experience cities differently from men, and that they tend to be underrepresented in city government and planning.

One of C40 Cities’ recent case studies, conducted over the summer of 2018, looked at the gender and racial disparities in biking in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, a large, mixed-use area that is relatively well served by bike lanes. San Francisco’s climate goals are ambitious: The city aims to get 80 percent of trips within the city made by sustainable, non-car means by 2030, with net-zero emissions by 2050. The 2030 target would require 10 percent of trips to be made by bicycle—currently, that number is a little under 4 percent.

Consistent with other studies, the report found that white men are “disproportionately represented in city biking.” Women make up only 29 percent of cyclists in San Francisco. When women do bike, it’s often during off-peak hours and for non-work purposes—which also means those women tend not to be counted in studies that focus on peak-period journeys. “Gender roles affect when, where, how, and why we travel,” the report concluded. For instance, despite San Francisco’s relaxed reputation, women still worried about dressing appropriately for both bike riding and the office, and turning up at work sweaty. These fears were particularly acute among women who didn’t bike regularly, suggesting that they might be addressed by getting them used to cycling in less pressured situations, and building their confidence by pairing them up with experienced riders. At the same time, businesses and schools could be encouraged to provide showers, lockers, and changing rooms to make bike commuting more practical for more people.

Central Park Bicyclists, Courtesy of NYC Parks Photo Archive.
Photo courtesy of Museum of the City of New York

The report is one of several to find that cycling’s gender gap is exacerbated by race. In San Francisco, women of Asian descent were less likely than white women to use a bicycle, while the lowest rate of cycling participation was among Latina and Hispanic women. “People need to see people like them cycling,” says Westminster’s Aldred—both physically in the streets and in advertising and media. Last spring, Ayesha McGowan, who is working to become the first ever African-American female professional road cyclist, published an open letter in Bicycling magazine that explicitly called out the lack of diversity in the imagery of cycling. She challenged her readers in the industry to look at the websites for apparel companies and manufacturers to count the numbers of nonwhite faces. Much of the representation of people of color in these spaces, she pointed out, “depicts at-risk youth and/or impoverished communities”—in other words, it’s there to highlight a company’s charity initiatives, rather than presenting the face of a potential customer. For McGowan, avoiding this kind of “tokenization” in favor of deliberate, broad representation is essential if there is to be real change in the perception of cycling and who has access to it, whether as sport, leisure, or transportation.

The San Francisco study was further evidence that making cycling more inclusive calls for a holistic approach, tackling infrastructure and attitudes at the same time. Practical recommendations from the report, not surprisingly, begin with an increase in the number of protected bike lanes. But the report also calls for consistency in design and signposting to make the network of lanes clearer. Importantly, safety efforts need to reach car drivers as well as cyclists—the report highlighted the need to educate ride-hailing service drivers, in particular, about sharing streets safely. Other practical measures included more secure bike parking locations, and an expansion in city-run bike education classes. The report also called for “changing the narrative” of who gets to bike by changing the image of a cyclist from a young, fit, white man to include a wider range of genders, ages, races, and abilities.

Recovering the feminist legacy of cycling requires overcoming the practical obstacles that keep women off bikes, and making sure women’s voices are heard in city planning. But perhaps most importantly, it will mean reclaiming the joy, pleasure, and sense of possibility that those early cyclists felt. Women deserve to reconnect with the idea that by riding our bikes we are creating a better future, for ourselves and for our cities.

Joanna Scutts is a writer and curator, and the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It (Liveright, 2017).

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