Women, Uneasy, Still Lag as Cyclists in New York City

Women, Uneasy, Still Lag as Cyclists in New York City

Posted By Dan Flanzig || 6-Jul-2011

When Julie Hirschfeld opened a bicycle boutique for women, she envisioned fashion-obsessed customers with a disdain for spandex flooding in to buy bikes and accessories they would model along New York City's paved catwalks: miles and miles of new bicycle paths. She lined her shop downtown with vintage-inspired bikes, many with Brooks saddle seats; partnered with Kate Spade to sell a $1,100 bicycle the color of freshly cut grass; and sold helmets that would pass more for fashionable hats.

Multimedia
Michael Kamber for The New York Times

Heike Bachmann with her bike along the Hudson River bike path.

One year later, Ms. Hirschfeld has conceded that it takes more than fashion to get women on bikes.

"Women want to feel safe," said Ms. Hirschfeld, who has expanded her Reade Street boutique, Adeline Adeline, to also cater to male cyclists. She said that if the perception of danger dissipates, "women then will ride, and ride more than men."

Despite the city's efforts to become more bike friendly, male cyclists in New York continue to outnumber female cyclists three to one, just as they have steadily over the past two decades. Data tracked by the city and private groups shows the gap between male and female cyclists is even wider in areas where vehicular traffic is more concentrated. These figures lag not only far behind those in most major global capitals like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where women make up the majority of cyclists, but also behind American cities like Portland, Ore., that have narrowed the gender gap.

"Within the United States, New York is far behind in terms of the percentage of women cyclists compared to cities like Washington, D.C., and San Francisco," said John Pucher, a professor of planning and transportation at Rutgers University who is working on a book about global cycling trends. "I'm convinced that one of the reasons New York City has such a low percentage of women cyclists is that it's dangerous."

Data tracked by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the nation's 10 largest cities shows that in 2009 New York City had 12 cycling fatalities. But the city ranked fifth in per capita deaths.

"Other cities in the United States and Canada have indeed made cycling much, much safer than it is in New York," Mr. Pucher said.

Bicycling in New York is not more dangerous for women than men, but women may be less inclined to engage in something that is perceived to be risky, experts said; high-profile bicycle fatalities, like the death on Saturday of Marilyn Dershowitz, a retired special referee in State Supreme Court in Manhattan and the sister-in-law of the lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, add to the perception.

City officials and local bike advocacy groups say they have focused more on making cycling safer for all New Yorkers, not just women. One group, Transportation Alternatives, offers a women's bicycle repair class, and it has also attracted more women to events for both men and women like group rides and its bike ambassador program, which pairs up cyclists, said Caroline Sampanaro, the group's director of bicycle advocacy. The city's transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, stressed its programs - like adding 250 miles of bicycle lanes over the past four years - help all cyclists.

"We are building streets and bike paths that make them safer and more inviting for everyone who uses them - whether you're 7 or 70 years old, or male or female," Ms. Sadik-Khan said in a statement.

Women in New York City certainly are cycling more than in the past. According to census data, only 2,446 women in the city cycled to work in 2000 compared with 3,888 in 2005 and 5,683 in 2009. Andy Clarke, president of the Washington-based League of American Bicyclists, estimates these census figures represent 15 percent of the actual number of people cycling because they track people commuting to work exclusively by bicycle and do not factor in part-time bicycle commuters or leisure cyclists

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