The arrival of the bicycle in American life in the 1900s added a measure of freedom unknown to women. A woman could get on a bike and go places. No one would know where she was, which was amazing at the time. This bit of bicycling history (which I heard from Sue Macy, author of “Wheels of Change,” at last year’s Women’s Cycling Forum in Washington, D.C.) came to mind when the 2012 Bike Walk Twin Cities and City of Minneapolis count reports were released in February.
While bicycling has increased by more than 50 percent over the last six years (2007-2012), it appears that the percentage of women cyclists as a share of the total number of bicyclists has dropped, from a high of 33 percent in 2008 to 27 percent in 2012. The figures are based on annual counts of bicycling and walking at set locations around the Twin Cities.
The numbers seem odd to some who feel that there are many more women using bicycles these days, more women visible on the streets. At some locations, the proportion of females is up. On the Franklin Avenue Bridge, women’s slice of the cycling pie grew from 31 percent in 2008 to 36 percent in 2012. On the Lake Street Bridge, women have held a steady 29 percent share even as cycling has increased. But, on 15th Avenue South in Dinkytown, even though women cyclists are up 36 percent between 2008 and 2012, their share of the total dropped by a couple of percentage points.
The numbers make female cyclists wonder. Are the count locations just not the top places women tend to ride? Or is it simply the case (as the numbers suggest) that the growth in women cycling hasn’t kept pace with the overall increase? Do the types of facilities make a difference, with women preferring separated or off-road bike paths rather than bike lanes on streets?
Some studies have suggested women prefer bicycle boulevards over bike lanes on busy streets. Bicycle boulevards are quiet residential streets maximized for bicycle and pedestrian use. Two good examples are the Riverlake Greenway on 40th and 42nd streets in South Minneapolis and on 5th Street in Northeast Minneapolis. Buffered bike lanes — bike lanes with additional painted space between the lane and motorized traffic — are another way to feel more protected. Lately, there is much interest in cycle tracks, here and around the country, as the ticket to getting more hesitant riders (including women) happily on two wheels. For more about cycle tracks, see the Green Lane Project and, locally, Bikeways for Everyone.
Here are the top locations for women for 2012, based on the overall number of women counted and on the female percentage of the total. (Source: Bike Walk Twin Cities)
Top locations — daily number of women cyclists. (percentage change since 2008, if data available)
- 15th Ave SE, north of University — 1,692 (up 36 percent since 2008)
- Midtown Greenway, west of Hennepin — 846
- Franklin Avenue Bridge — 750 (up 27 percent since 2008)
- Lake Street Bridge — 712 (up 32 percent since 2008)
- Cedar Lake Trail — 700
Top locations — highest percentage of women cyclists
- Riverside Avenue, east of Cedar — 38 percent
- Franklin Avenue Bridge — 36 percent
- Larpenteur, east of Cleveland — 35 percent
- Loring Bikeway Bridge — 34 percent
- Lyndale Avenue, north of Loring Bikeway Bridge — 33 percent
These locations include on-street bike lanes, the famed Midtown Greenway, and off-street bike paths. For current women cyclists, the top locations don’t seem to show a bias toward on or off-street bicycle facilities. Prescott Morrill, who works with the count data at Bike Walk Twin Cities, says he sees a correlation between top overall locations for bicycling and top locations for women, but only by a small margin.
What would get you out on two wheels — or your mother? There are many options as spring melts the snow and Nice Ride stations open again. As you ponder your options, consider that in Portland 31 percent of cyclists are women and in Boston 32 percent, according to their recent count reports.
Hilary Reeves is communications director for Transit for Livable Communities.