This past Tuesday evening at 7 p.m., my office was packed. No, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia staff weren't burning the midnight oil (that night, at least). Rather, nine Philadelphia women were there to take a free women's "Urban Riding Basics" class. As the instructor, I covered everything from rules of the road, to tips for turning left, to how to avoid scary parked car doors and trolley tracks. I demonstrated how to lock a bike securely, and we chatted about route selection, clothing choices, and more. At the end of the night, nine women left my office feeling more confident about keeping themselves safe while riding a bicycle in Philly.
The class was a part of the Bicycle Coalition's Women Bike PHL campaign, a program I founded earlier this year in response to a stark gender gap in Philadelphia's bicycling population. According to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia's annual bike counts (conducted at 17 bridges and intersections throughout the city), only about one-third of Philly's bicyclists are women. (See page 6 of the BCGP's Mode Shift Report). A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article covered this issue in detail. While Philly's breakdown is slightly better than the national average, it is still rather bleak.
But why, you ask? There are a number of potential reasons that women ride at a lower rate than men. One of the most widespread explanations blames the "fear factor" -- women are thought to be more risk-averse than men, and urban bicycling is often perceived to be dangerous. Other barriers include a lack of adequate bicycles and gear designed for women, the logistical challenges inherent in navigating childcare and errands by bike, and a "bike culture" -- including bike clubs and bike shops -- that is consistently male-dominated and sometimes less than welcoming to women.
Women Bike PHL works to shrink the gender gap in bicycling, making riding a bicycle more fun and feasible for Philadelphia women of all ages and backgrounds. Through group rides, classes like Urban Riding Basics, and workshops, we directly educate and encourage women in Philadelphia who are interested in biking, but concerned for any number of reasons. Strategic partnerships with schools, women's groups, and even the Girl Scouts help us reach more women and girls with our message. We also highlight the stories of Philadelphia women who already ride, building community among women bicyclists in the region. After all, it is these women who are the best resources for those considering a shift to two-wheeled transportation.
Women Bike PHL is not alone in addressing the bicycling gender gap. In New York, a bike club called WE Bike NYC (Women's Empowerment through Biking) offers rides, workshops, and social events to encourage women bicyclists. In our nation's capital, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association has a "Women and Bicycles" program harnessing the power of personal networks to spread bike knowledge and enthusiasm among women, Tupperware-party style. I am proud that Philly, like our neighbor cities, has a program addressing the barriers to biking among women.