25 May 2023

Women Ride In Copenhagen. Why Not Here?

In an earlier post, I wrote about how women's greater propensity for obeying the law--or simply our risk-adverseness--actually puts us at greater risk of injury and death while cycling.

In that post, I wrote about how the "Idaho Stop" could help to close that "gap."  Briefly, the "Idaho Stop"--so named because the Gem State legalized it all the way back in 1982--allows cyclists to treat red lights like "Stop" signs and "Stop" signs like "Yield" signs.  In other words, cyclists can proceed through a red light if there is no cross-traffic in the intersection.  That allows cyclists to proceed through the intersection ahead of any traffic--including right-turning trucks and buses--that might be following them.

I got to thinking about that in reading Cara Eckholm's comparison of bicycle commuting in Copenhagen, where she spent her early twenties, and New York, where she currently resides.  She points out that in the Danish capital, female cyclists actually outnumber their male counterparts, but on the Big Apple streets, men outnumber women on bikes by a factor of three to one, even though women outnumber men in "spin" and other indoor cycling.

Some of that difference, she contends, has to do with the state of bicycle infrastructure in each city (and country).  Studies show that women's participation in cycling tends to increase when there are more protected lanes and other cycling infrastructure. But she also believes that the cultural norms around gender and cycling are perhaps more important.  As an example, she cites reports--and I can attest--that drivers are more likely to encroach on a female cyclist's space that that of a male rider's.  

Moreover, women are far more likely to be using their bikes to ferry their children to school or ballet or soccer practice, or to shop or do household errands, than men are.  For such riding and riders, the monocoque carbon frames and spandex riding outfits featured in most ad and p.r. campaigns aren't very practical.  Eckholm contends that showing women--whether on city, cargo or e-bikes--in non-bike clothing with their kids, groceries, books or other items that don't fit in a jersey pocket would probably encourage more women--and members of racial and ethnic minorities--to think, "Hey, I can ride a bike!"

Illustration of "New Woman" by F. Opper in Puck magazine, 1895.  From the Library of Congress.

That is more or less the image cycling has in places like Copenhagen.  And, ironically, it harkens back to the images of the 1890s that showed proud, confident women in their "bloomers" and derby hats astride two wheels.  

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