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Biking in the City: What Would Get You To Ride More?

City cycling presents various obstacles and safety concerns, especially for less-experienced riders.

Helen Pidd, an editor for The Guardian, recently looked into why so few women feel comfortable riding bikes in cities. Her theory: They think it is dangerous. For the most part, Wisconsin Bicycle Federation's Jessica Wineberg agrees.

Although cycling in Britain is about as safe as walking in terms of fatalities, the perceived lack of safety discourages many women from riding, Pidd contends. Many women express a desire to ride more, but various factors contribute to discourage them from riding - such as underrepresentation of females in urban planning and city councils, as well as the lack of segregated bike lanes. 

In the United States, according to the most recent gender-specific data from 2009, women account for only 24% of bicycle trips. Jessica Wineberg, deputy director of the Wisconsin Bike Federation, acknowledges the fundamental truth of the article and sees low female ridership as a concern in Milwaukee as well.

Wineberg largely agrees with the idea that low female representation among urban planners, traffic engineers, and city councils contributes to a less inviting environment for all riders, especially women. She contends, "When people aren't involved in the process, their needs aren't going to be met."

"When people aren't involved in the process, their needs aren't going to be met."

In Milwaukee as in Britain, women want safe spaces to ride. In Milwaukee, trail ridership is much more gender-balanced, according to Wineberg, because women feel safer. Most city cycling lanes, however were "originally designed for strong and fearless cyclists," she says, and reckless driving represents another threat to biker safety on the roads. Wineberg contends, "If we want to get a much bigger slice of the population biking, then we need more advanced facilities with actual physical separation." Milwaukee, she believes, has the ability to create such facilities. "We have space in Milwaukee. We have very wide streets, we have wide right-of-ways. We have abandoned railroad corridors." 

The unwelcoming city cycling environment, whether real or perceived, has very tangible consequences for female riders, as many women feel hesitant on the roads. Wineberg says women are "less likely to own the road," which puts them at greater risk. Through the Wisconsin Bike Federation's Savvy City Cycling for Women program, women learn their rights on the road and become more comfortable asserting themselves, thus improving safety for cyclists and drivers alike. 

Credit Kristoffer Trolle / Flickr
Automobile traffic and other safety concerns often deter women from biking in the city.

A recent UWM study of Milwaukee cyclists found that both men and women believe unsafe intersections, bad drivers, and automobile traffic represent significant concerns and barriers to biking. Wineberg notes, though, that women in the survey identified these obstacles at a higher rate (60%) than men (50%). Women also were more likely to claim personal safety concerns as an obstacle to cycling. Although women show greater concern for these issues, Wineberg believes  the same concerns preventing women from riding are also shared by many other riders.

Making the road safer for women cyclists, she says, would also be good for children and older people. Rather than designing city cycling for the most experienced riders, Wineberg says, cities should work to accommodate the least able riders. By designing city cycling to make it safe and comfortable for riders of all ages, genders, and experience levels, Wineberg believes, would increase the accessibility of cycling and its accordant health benefits to all. "That is our next push and it'll have such big public health benefits, economic benefits. Everyone wants these facilities." 

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with theLake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.