Tag Archives: class

Why women don’t bike more in the US

The following is a response-gone-wild to my fellow Reed anthro alum and bike critic counterpart Elly Blue in Portland, Oregon. She just wrote a nice piece on gender equity and cycling, arguing that economic inequities between men and women play a large role in why women don’t bike more

Great post, Elly. Thanks for shining some more critical light on this important issue. I’m happy to hear some new thinking beyond the fashion and safety issues. Here are some thoughts I have on the issue of why more women don’t bike in the US.

In the Netherlands, male cycling rates drop around the time people get families but female rates increase. Overall rates are about 45% men and 55% women. Here in Denmark, cycling rates decrease for men and women around child raising time. Rates here are 45% women and 55% men. This leads me to suspect that Denmark actually has better gender parity despite fewer women biking. This is based on a hypothesis that men may do more of the heavy lifting in Denmark when it comes to picking up and dropping off kids than do their Dutch counterparts.

Also, the distance to grocery stores may vary.  In Copenhagen, there are usually about 5-10 grocery stores within easy walking distance of any apartment. The daycare (or bus pick up) is usually within a km or two of home. Plus, we have a wide variety of cargo bicycles for kids and bigger loads. When I lived in Amsterdam it was similar at least on the grocery front. Not sure about daycares and schools.

Another key point that needs to be mentioned in this is that in Copenhagen, the vast majority of cyclists are only traveling 2-5 km (1-3 miles). Commute distances over 5 km are less common here and few make it much over 10 km. You hardly break a sweat in a 10-20 minute bike ride. Plus, few people wear a helmet (compared to the US, not historical rates in Copenhagen), which makes things like Copenhagen Cycle Chic much more plausible.

On the economy point, I suspect it’s not the cost of the bicycle. A used bike in the US is easily 2-3 times cheaper ($1-200) than a lower quality used bike in Denmark ($300+). If pretty much every American can afford a car- even a beater- they can certainly afford a fancy bike and all the expensive (and unnecessary) ‘lifestyle’ goodies that they think they need to ride it.

In most US cities it’s the rich, yuppies living in the urban centers riding bikes. But in most of the world’s developing countries, it’s the rural poor who can’t afford anything else who bike. How can we then say that biking is somehow inherently an affordability issue for the rich or the poor? Local context and culture plays a huge role here.

Economy plays a big role in cycling, but I’m not sure it’s the reason women in particular don’t cycle. If it did, I don’t understand the logic that they can’t afford a $100-1000 bicycle but aren’t too poor to afford the average $8,500/year for a car.

I think it’s more likely that what people can’t afford is not the bike, but an apartment in the city center to live within short range cycling distance of all the things they need to accomplish all of these activities. This is particularly true once they have kids and are trying to fulfill the suburban family dream.

Now, fulfilling the strong social narrative of ‘being a good mother’ and whether you can do that on a bike or while living in the city is a different matter worth unpacking. Even here in Copenhagen, many of the people I have interviewed suggest that to be a ‘good parent’ you have to get a car, and you should move to the suburbs. That’s in Copenhagen. Cycle capital of the world and all whatnot.

There are those here too bucking the trend, which is easier to do, but they are still bucking the trend and have to jump through some hoops- most notably the high cost of finding an apartment that is ‘big enough’ for kids. Most of them just hold off for a few years until the kids get older and then have to eventually move out anyway. The cargo bike may just delay the seemingly inevitable.

I suspect there are also a lot more social pressures that poor people in the US face to get a car to demonstrate that they have been “successful” to their peers, whereas the educated elite more likely show off their status by being “smart/eco-friendly/health conscious enough” to choose to ride a bicycle.

Here in Copenhagen, which values modesty and social equity, standing out and thinking you are above others is a no-no. People prefer to be seen as ‘the kind of person who would ride a bicycle’. The kind of person who doesn’t think of themselves as being too big and above everyone else. Driving a hummer or big SUV in Copenhagen would likely raise scorn and eyebrows, which explains why I don’t think I’ve seen either in the past 3 years here. Even the crown prince and prime minister both prefer to be seen on bikes.

I think it’s pretty unlikely we can change American culture to be more modest, pragmatic and equal. But perhaps we can leverage the tropes we have like freedom, independence, and self-reliance to push bicycling further in the US. And in both cases, we will have to figure out how to make affordable, family friendly cities and reframe ‘the good parent’ and the ‘successful adult’ into one who rides a bike.


Captive Users? In Copenhagen?

Is one of the key reasons so many people ride bikes so much in Copenhagen due to the fact that the bus service here is so bad?

When you ask people a simple question, “why do you bike?” often times the first response you get is “because it’s easy!” If you ask the Copenhagen municipality, they will say that they regularly conduct a telephone survey of why people bike and get basically the same answer. If you read much of the current bicycling literature or follow the current bicycle planning and activism discourse, you get roughly the same kind of argument: create provisions for bicycling (lanes, traffic lights, parking, etc.) and it will simply be ‘irresistable‘ to cycle. So there you go, right?

But people don’t make their transportation decisions in a vacuum. We need to also consider what the alternatives to biking would be. They don’t just bike because biking is made irresistable, they also bike because the alternatives are perceived to be unthinkable or, at the very least, worse.

If you probe people a bit more deeply than you can in a survey questionnaire, you will quickly realize that the flip side to “it’s so easy to bike” is “it’s not so easy to do anything else”. This is not necessarily a good thing to celebrate.

The first thing people I have spoken with mention as a competitor to the bicycle is actually not the car. It’s the bus. And the first thing they mention is the cost of the bus. With rising fuel prices in recent years, the price of bus fare in Copenhagen has gone through the roof, as in many cities.

In 1979, the cost of a bus ticket was 3 danish kroner, or just a little over 50 US cents. A bus fare today is 24 kroner, about $4.65. That’s an increase of eight times the price. If you smooth those data to compare 1979 valuation of the kroner to today’s kroner, a 3 DKK fare should be 9 DKK  today. That is to say, prices have nearly tripled by a true valuation of the price. In the graph below, you can see the price increases both terms of the cost at the time and compared to the kroner in 2010.

Gas prices, by comparison, during the same time period went from 3 kroner per liter to around 10 kroner per liter- an increase of only three times the price, which is roughly in line with inflation rates. As mentioned before, 3 kroner in 1979 would be worth 9 kroner today, so gas prices (despite much fluctuation up and down during that period) have hardly changed in real prices.

Most of these price increases have been recent. From 1979 to 1990, the price went from 3 kroner to 8 kroner. From 1990 to 2000, they went from 8 to 12 kroner. But from 2000 to 2011, the price has soared to 24 kroner.

Yesterday I spoke with an immigrant named Saadi who moved to Copenhagen from Tunisia in 1987. He said if you are two people it would be actually cheaper to use a taxi for about 40 kroner to get from the station we were standing at (Nørrebro) to the closest main train station (Nørreport), a distance of 3 kilometers. If two people took the bus it would cost 48 kroner and probably take about twice as long. A bike, on the other hand, would be as fast as the taxi and virtually free.

Saadi  remembered distinctly when he got off the bus and started biking- it was when bus fares hit 18 kroner about 5 years ago. Bike advocates and the data might celebrate this fact. One more person on a bike, and an immigrant no less! Fantastic! But we might suspect that this man might prefer an affordable transit pass.

But it’s not just immigrants. In speaking with a handful of others on the street, including working class Danes and students, I heard the same thing: sure, I ride because it’s the fastest and easiest way. But that’s also because you’d have to be crazy to ride the bus.

However, it’s not only the transit cost. Riding the bus also often takes 2-3 times longer. The busses – like anywhere- are often perceived as unreliable. Plus, people often complain, they feel packed in like sardines in a can.  Copenhagen has also recently started clamping down with stasi-like heavy spot fines of $112 if you don’t have a valid ticket.

No one I spoke with makes a comparison with a car, probably because that is even more trouble: it’s hard and expensive to find parking, gas is costly, traffic is a hassle, and distances are short. Why bother? Some of the folks I spoke with can’t afford a car and those that have one don’t hardly use it except to get out of the city for weekend and holiday trips.

So, if you aren’t so well off and you are choosing between one of the best bicycle networks in the world which is fast, cheap, and generally a pretty good experience and an expensive, packed, and slow bus ride- which would you choose?

If this is the choice people are facing, should we be celebrating that bicycling rates have gone up in the economic recession? Is this an improvement, or is this just a symptom of people pinching pennies during a downturn and a lousy transit system? Maybe what people actually want is a better transit system, not a bike.


Author’s note: I have started conducting several pilot interviews, close to 10 at this point. These interviews have almost entirely been conducted in the Nørrebro neighborhood, which is largely a working class, student and immigrant area. Most of the people were chosen randomly from people on the street around afternoon rush hour time, so this is still pretty early data.

My method has been primarily to approach people who are near their bicycle, explain my project to them briefly and then start by asking them one simple question “why do you bike?”. I then let the conversation flow from there, probing for things like how often they ride, how far, what other modes of transport they use and why, etc. Nonetheless,  there are a few key themes that seem to recur. I will be posting some of these stories on this blog in coming weeks so stay tuned.

How to make biking for all, not just the rich or poor?

Why is it that cycling seems to be primarily for poor people in developing countries like India, rich people in developed countries with low cycling rates like the US and a middle class phenomenon in developed countries with high cycling rates like Denmark and Holland?

Most cyclists in developing countries are what is known as “captive users”. They are riding not because they want to so much as because they cannot afford other options such as busses, let alone cars.

When I was in India this summer, I learned that many of the people who are cycling are men who are delivering things, like milk or vegetables. What was really shocking was that many of these people earned so little money that they could not even afford to buy their own bicycles, even though they only cost about $50. Instead, they were renting them for about 10 cents/hour from local bicycle shops. To my knowledge, there is no one with a rent-to-own system, but it would be great to set one up if anyone is looking for a social entrepreneurship project.

Milk delivery man in Pune, India

Most anyone with any money in India will immediately start riding the bus or (in the case of delivery men) buy themselves a motor scooter. If they have a bit more money, they will buy a car and if they have even more money, they will buy a fancier car. If they really have some money, they will hire a private driver to get them around. Basically, the more money people have, the more likely they are to drive a motorized vehicle and the less likely they are to consider anything non-motorized (including walking).

There are a few crazy people in India who are wealthy but still ride bicycles. I think I spoke with all four of them while I was there. Personally, I feel that these are the people who will be able to make a push for cycling in India since they have the political and economic capital to make it happen. But this is the topic of another article to come.

I just recently came back from my home country, the USA. There are many exciting developments going on in the past few years and I truly applaud the efforts there. But one thing really struck me from my visit to DC and New York (see links for cycling maps): most of the cycling infrastructure being developed is in neighborhoods inhabited by mainly wealthy, well-educated people like Park Slope and Dupont Circle and not in poorer neighborhoods like the Bronx or Anacostia.

Innovative cycling infrastructure near Dupont Circle in DC

One could be cynical and argue that this because planners are themselves living in these neighborhoods. While there is perhaps a degree of truth in that (and I believe there are some race and class issues in the planning field that need to be discussed more), I think there is more going on.

In speaking with planners, they said that they had tried to make inroads in some of these communities, but that they had received lower adoption rates. For instance, the DC bikeshare scheme Capital Bikes has a station in Anacostia but it is not used as much as in other neighborhoods. They said that this use of the bikeshare system mirrored the cycling demographics in general.


Anacostia waterfront neighborhood in DC cycling infrastructure

I went over there and investigated that area. There was a big fancy new development near the station, but much of the rest of the neighborhood seemed a bit more lower class and black. Most people seemed to be driving around in big SUVs. I met a young white man on the train who said he liked my bike and that he had just moved to the neighborhood and wanted to get a bike but complained that there was no infrastructure.

My guess is that the neighborhood is gentrifying and that the people who are using the bikeshare there are the young, largely white and educated, professionals moving in- not the poorer, uneducated black population.

In Copenhagen, by contrast, cycling is a decisively middle class phenomenon. However, what constitutes “middle class” here would be considered quite upper class in the US or India: most people have a college degree (which the government will pay you to get), being able to afford a fur coat is practically considered a human (though not animal) right, everyone has free health care, and there are virtually no homeless people.

Middle class Danish SUV

In Copenhagen you will see ambassadors, politicians and rock stars riding bicycles next to the average Dane. What you won’t see, however, is many muslim immigrants on bikes, despite the world class cycling infrastructure. Is this a skills and training issue, or is it more about integration and culture? Is bike riding just a particularly nationalistic endeavor? Is it still something for rich, white, educated people here too and it’s just that Denmark is a more homogeneous society of rich, white, educated people?

I don’t know the answer to that question though I clearly have my suspicions. What we really need is more research, discussion and action on issues related to race, class, religion, culture and cycling. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating increasing inequities in cites under the auspices of creating a more equitable transportation infrastructure.