09.04.10

A New Era in Urban Bicycling

The livable cities movement has caused a dramatic increase in bicycling across the country. Public Bike's Rob Forbes on the stylish, female riders that are leading the charge.

Bicycling in the United States is no longer limited to lycra-clad, gearheads. The activity has experienced dramatic growth during the last two decades, driven by the use of bicycles as everyday transportation in cities. Leading the urban bike trend: women.

Urban riding has never been more accessible or safer than it is now. Encouraged by civic improvements and the popularization of fashionable, retro commuter bikes, a record number of urban women have taken to the streets on two wheels. As a result, city governments are paying attention and urban culture is being redefined.

Gallery: Girls On Bikes

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City officials, and advocates across the country have rallied for more livable streets that make our public spaces more inviting for pedestrians and bicyclists. The staggering increased in cities has proven that it’s working. For example, from 2000 to 2007, bicycle commuting in Chicago increased 203%; from 2005 to 2008, there was a 104% increase in Philadelphia; and since 2006 there has been a 53% increase in San Francisco.

Mayors have been particularly instrumental and effective. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City has completed numerous bike infrastructure projects, including doubling the number of bikes lane miles and adding more than 6,000 new bike racks over the past few years. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was seen a few weeks ago painting bike lanes to inaugurate a citywide integrated bike lane program. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley launched B-cycle bike sharing program this year, and leaders in many other cities have also pushed bike sharing.

Another reason is that streets have become safer. In New York City, for example, bicycling is up 66% from 2007–2009, and injuries are down 50%. Clearly there is safety in numbers as bicyclists have more visibility and greater respect from motorists.

But the greatest reason is that more women are riding, and they are more visible. The numbers are harder to quantify, but more interesting to observe from a style and culture standpoint. Female bike commuters are obvious to anyone looking at the streets—they tend to dress more fashionably and wear brighter colors. Newspaper style sections, including The New York Times, are obsessed with the trend, as are fashion photographer blogs like The Sartorialist.

Women today ride in dresses, pumps, hats, and all kinds of professional and casual attire. They are also more visible socially and politically. Women are opening bike stores around the country, manage and staff hip bicycle cafes, and design innovative and stylish cycling clothes and accessories. They also head up some of the most influential advocacy organizations in our country.

This gender reversal may seem odd in the U.S. where many bicyclists are typically male lycra-clad sports riders and rugged mountain bikers. But I see this trend everyday at PUBLIC, the company I launched earlier this spring. The majority of our customers are women. This defies industry averages, where eighty percent of bicyclists are male. Our bikes can partially explain this; we designed them to be especially female friendly with frames and pedals that allow you to ride in skirts and any type of footwear, but there are other more compelling factors.

Personal health may be the single greatest factor. The rise in women bicyclists parallels the growth in yoga in the U.S. Both yoga and bicycling are stress-reducing activities that simply make people feel better. Both of these activities can be integrated into one’s daily life easily and economically. Also, women are a lot more interested with style than with speed.

There are precedents. Women have been leading the city biking movement in Europe for decades. More women ride in Europe because they feel safe. They feel safe because their cities have invested in infrastructure—everything from separated biking lanes to covered parking places. The same factors apply to the U.S. When dedicated safe bike lanes are established in our cities, female ridership goes up dramatically compared with male ridership.

But whether in Europe or the U.S., one thing is certain: everybody looks and feels better on a bicycle.

Rob Forbes is the founder of PUBLIC, a San Francisco-based bike and gear company.