When New York City's bicycle share program, Citi Bike, rolled out in 2013, we were already well behind the times. The Netherlands and Denmark had them as early as the 1960s, and by the 1990s Paris had rolled out their own. Now a new study [PDF] released by NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management has revealed we're behind in another way: Gender parity.
The study points out that "77.7% percent of member rides were taken by a man." A 2014 study by Hunter College [PDF] on overall city cycling, not just through Citi Bike, states that male riders account for 91% of all riders. "In contrast," says the NYU study, "in European cities with separated bicycle infrastructure, women account for 50% of riders."
So what's going on here? Delving into both reports, the issue appears to be safety. From the NYU report:
[Our research indicates] female riders [opt] for safety: 40 percent of women's top stations are adjacent to or have connections to a bike lane or protected greenway, compared to 30 percent for male- preferred stations. Women also choose stations on lower-traffic streets, with an average of two lanes of traffic, and highly restricted truck access; men's top station streets average 2.6 lanes of traffic and mostly unrestricted truck access.
Finally, these stations vary in their recent safety records: between March 2013 and February of 2014, the stations preferred by women have a lower average number of cyclist injuries in recent memory: 0.8 for female- preferred locations versus 1.3 for male- preferred locations. The locational memory of safety conditions likely affects station and route choices.
The Hunter report seems to back this up: Of all cyclists in NYC, "Female cyclists were far more likely to wear a helmet (51%) than either male recreational/commuter cyclists (32%) or male commercial cyclists (24%)."
I can understand the thinking. Although I am a male, my own cycling preferences fall distinctly into the female behavior category cited in the studies. I signed up for Citi Bike at the beginning, love it and use it religiously, traveling from downtown to as far as the '50s and occasionally into Brooklyn; however I'm not an experienced cyclist—getting on a Citi Bike in 2013 was the first time I'd been on a bicycle since living overseas in the '90s—and am highly safety-concerned. I have seen too many crashes, witnessed too many ambulance scenes, read and heard too many stories, and passed too many white-painted bicycles with flowers laid around them, to take chances.
On top of that, every single NYC cyclist I know—not some of them, all of them—have had at least one crash.
Thus I won't ride without a helmet, and will often pedal far out of my way to get to 1st, 2nd or 9th Avenues, which all have separated bike lanes, rather than taking a more direct route where chances are greater I'll get run over by some yahoo in a Tahoe. New York City motorists are as clueless as they come—I should know, I used to be one—and with more people texting and driving these days, I prefer not to compete with them for road space and count on them to be paying attention.
For Citi Bike to get their female numbers up to their male numbers, they will need the city's cooperation. "With the growth of protected bike lanes and the placement of additional Citi Bike stations near safe routes," the NYU study says, "more women will turn to biking as a safe and convenient travel mode."
A 2013 study on the subject produced by the University of Oregon [PDF] proves this will work:
Cities like Portland, Oregon with high cycling quantities also have higher female cycling numbers. Studies in Portland show that women respond positively to on-street bicycle facilities with a buffer from automobile traffic.
Female ridership shows a stronger relationship to bike paths. Women's data shows a positive correlation between change in infrastructure and change in ridership over time.
Also, getting the gender numbers to line up isn't just about equality: It's simply good for business. If Citibike can increase their female ridership this will be reflected in their balance sheets. And if New York City can roll out more vehicle-separated bicycle infrastructure, that will be better for every cyclist, regardless of gender.
We will know we've reached that better point when we look around and see as many female riders on blue bikes as men. "Women are early indicators of a successful bike system," Sarah M. Kaufman, one of the authors of the NYU study, told the New York Times. "If you have more women riders, that means it's convenient and safe."