Women Bike: Closing the Gender Gap, Growing the Movement

TheLEAGUE-WBIt was a day or two into the 2010 Alliance for Biking & Walking Leadership Retreat when Alexis Lantz stood up during lunch. Then the Planning & Policy Director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (now CalBike’s Board Chair), Lantz had a proposal that energized every female leader in the room: The convening of a Women’s Caucus.

That gathering at the Leadership Retreat was short, informal but incredibly inspiring. There was so much to talk about: issues we face as women within our own advocacy organizations and the broader movement; how to increase female mode share out on the streets; how to stay better connected with other female leaders, in bike advocacy and beyond, to build community, share ideas and deal with collective challenges and opportunities.

2010 Womens Caucus

The Women’s Caucus carved out just a tiny window within dozens of other sessions, but for me at least — still new to the bike world after a first career in journalism — it was the most powerful and memorable moment from the entire weekend. With little time to develop specific next steps, we had to keep the outcome simple. The main consensus: Let’s keep the conversation going.

Well, in a matter of months, we turned that small conversation into a national chorus. Now, I’m proud to lead a dedicated program at the League of American Bicyclists aimed at creating pathways for women of diverse backgrounds to embrace biking as an everyday activity — changing the face of bicycling by getting more women on bikes and participating as riders, advocates and leaders.

But Women Bike is more than a national initiative. It’s informed and propelled by a growing grassroots movement and energy that’s rising up in communities across the country — especially in California.

Attendees at the 2013 National Women's Bicycling Forum

Even back in 2010, we knew we weren’t the only ones talking about these issues. According to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, women accounted for just 24% of bike trips in the U.S. and there was a (small but) growing recognition that, if we want to mainstream bicycling, we have to change that equation. Further proof came from the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals’ Women Cycling Survey, in which 11,000 women in the U.S. shared all sorts of information about why they bike, what would make them bike more and a wealth of other opinions and experiences. The insight gained from the survey was not only revelatory; it was also an incredible spark that ignited a much deeper discussion.

But the push for parity in bicycling isn’t confined to presentations at bike summits and discussions within our niche advocacy circles. Nationwide, bicycling is booming, from the painting of bike lanes in major cities to the placement of bicycles in all forms of advertising. And it’s not just men in Lycra, but women in heels, who are propelling this urban trend.

Forget the previous stereotypes about bicyclists: If you look at the streets of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other trend-setting cities, it’s women (and men) of all ages, wearing everyday clothes, who are pedaling in the bike lanes. What we’re seeing now is just the beginning — just a preview of the potential. A national survey, conducted by the League with Princeton Survey Research Associates in September 2012, revealed that 82 percent of American women have a positive view of bicyclists. Two-thirds said their community would be “a better place to live if biking were safer and more comfortable.”

I see this shift happening before my eyes here in Washington, D.C., where the number and diversity of riders is on the rise — noticeably different than when I moved here just three years ago. Yes, the growing miles of cycletracks and Capital Bikeshare program have done wonders to boost bicycling… but there’s more going on.

One of the inspirations for the national Women Bike program came directly from the local level when the Washington Area Bicyclist Association took a bold stand by calling attention to the gender gap and dedicating resources — just an intern, at first — to build a model program to engage and empower more women to ride. Meanwhile, Veronica Davis and Najeema Davis Washington started Black Women Bike DC, which grew almost overnight from a Twitter handle to an organization with rides, classes and hundreds of members. And Megan Odett, now with the Alliance for Biking & Walking, started mobilizing moms and families, kicking off the Kidical Mass movement in the nation’s capital.

Women on a Roll- 10 Myths Infographic

As national leaders, we knew we needed to seed, support and grow this momentum in communities from coast to coast.

So working with the two amazing leaders from APBP — Kit Keller and Fionnuala Quinn — I organized the first National Women Cycling Forum in early 2012. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I knew the women on our panel — high-powered leaders like Elysa Walk, GM of Giant Bicycles USA — would bring incredible insight to the table, but would anyone show up? And what would their reaction be? Well, the room was packed and the energy was off-the-charts. Throughout the National Bike Summit I heard from countless women (and men): You have to do this again.

So, partnering with the Pro Walk Pro Bike conference, the League expanded the two-hour panel to a half-day Women Summit in Long Beach, Calif. With so many innovative female leaders and women’s-oriented groups in the Golden State, it was the perfect venue to take the conversation to the next level. I was honored to work with Melissa Balmer of Women on Bikes SoCal and engage the insight of diverse panelists from throughout the region including Alexis Lantz, Allison Mannos (Multi-Cultural Communities for Mobility), Yolanda Davis-Overstreet (Ride in Living Color), Kit Hodge (San Francisco Bicycle Coalition), Dorothy Wong (LCI and race organizer), the Ovarian Psycos all-womyn bicycle brigade and others. The only trouble? So many people wanted to attend that, even after we sold out, I was on the phone, convincing the conference venue to bring in additional seats!

Felicia Williams (black and white) heads to the fashion show at the Women's Bicycling Summit (Credit Maureen McGinnis)

That event wasn’t just a watershed moment because of it’s success; we also made an important announcement. Because we believe this type of work and attention and community-building needs to happen, not just once or twice a year, but every single day, the League launched Women Bike.

In its first official year (2013), we’ve continued to convene leaders to network and share best practices at our National Women’s Bicycling Forum — and added a Women Bike Pop-up Shop to bring innovative female entrepreneurs into the mix. In just one year, the annual event grew to nearly 400 attendees.

We launched a Women Bike Grant initiative to help fund great models, like WABA’s Women & Bicycles campaign and the Marin County Bicycle Coalition’s “Women on Wheels in Spanish” classes, that can be deployed in other communities.

We hosted webinars and webcasts on topics like “How to Start and Sustain a Women’s Bike Club” and spread the message that Women Mean Business to industry reps at Interbike with factsheet and social media campaign armed with compelling images and important data.

Interbike campaign meme

We also released a first-of-its-kind report, Women on a Roll, that compiles more than 100 original and trusted sources of data to showcase the growth and potential of female bicyclists in the U.S. — and suggests five key focus areas (the 5 Cs) to increase women’s ridership. This type of information doesn’t just sit on the shelf: From industry insiders to advocacy professionals to entrepreneurs putting together businesses plans, I’ve heard from dozens of women and men who are using Women on a Roll to gear up their own endeavors.

So what’s on the horizon? Well, I couldn’t be more excited to share what’s next for Women Bike at the California by Bike Summit — and, perhaps more importantly, continue to listen and learn and be led by the work of local leaders. Just like that first meeting at the Leadership Retreat in 2010, I’m inspired daily by the desire from all corners of the country to innovate and collaborate to build a more inclusive movement.

This summer, our Women Bike Advisory Board gathered in New York City for a strategic planning session and came up with a powerful set of values that will propel our work.

  • We believe in the power of women to create change.

  • We believe that, by uniting our efforts, we are stronger.

  • We believe that women should be equally represented in the industry, in advocacy and in retail.

  • We believe that bicycling should be accessible to women of all backgrounds.

  • We believe the time is now.

Do you? Join us: www.bikeleague.org/womenbike

-Carolyn Szczepanski, League of American Bicyclists, Director of Communications, Women Bike


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