How do we get more women biking?

Focus group

At the end of last year, WOB started work on a strategic planning process that will guide our activities in the coming years. One of the first steps was to learn what women in St. Paul wanted from WOB—what barriers they faced to biking and how we can help. We were particularly interested in hearing from women of color, women who don’t consider themselves bicyclists, and others who often get left out of conversations about biking in St. Paul.

To learn more, we worked with community organizations to host five focus groups.  Over fifty people gave us feedback about their experiences with biking, how they think about bikers, what keeps them from biking, and what might allow them to bike more.

Here’s what we heard.

Attitudes toward biking

Almost universally, biking was seen as a fun activity that people would like to do more often.

Many of the women who spoke to us said they enjoyed being able to bike with their families. They liked that it was an experience they could share, they thought it was a good way to get exercise, and they loved the feeling of freedom and “having the wind in [their] hair.”

But there were also cultural perceptions that biking is for other people.

Participants in multiple focus groups said that people in their communities viewed biking as “weird” or for white people with money who live in nice neighborhoods. Some saw bikers as too ardent or unwelcoming.

The main barrier to biking was having access to a bike that is the right size and in good working condition.

Some of the women, especially those with larger families, told us that they didn’t have enough bikes for all of their children to be able to ride together. Many didn’t have bikes they could ride themselves and therefore never biked or rode infrequently on borrowed bikes.

Safe biking conditions were also a big concern, especially when biking with children.

As one woman put it, “Everyone around you is driving. To be on a bike you feel vulnerable.” We heard a lot of worries about safety, which were both about being hit by cars and being robbed or attacked. For both reasons, mothers were worried about letting their kids bike alone.

Some kinds of bike infrastructure aren’t enough.

Most agreed that they didn’t feel safe being in the same lane as car traffic, and a painted bike lane was not enough to make them feel safe. Some said they only felt comfortable biking on the sidewalk, and some expressed a need for wider, buffered spaces to bike. Those with larger families emphasized how difficult it was to corral multiple children, and they worried that their younger kids might stray into traffic.

Biking isn’t a part of everyday life.

Because of these issues, as well as day-to-day logistical challenges around weather and the need to travel over long distances, most of the women we talked to saw biking as something extra in life, to be done when conditions are just right, not a daily or regular activity.

What helps new bikers start riding?

We’re still working on incorporating this feedback into our plans for the future. But for now, we’ve identified a couple of key insights.

  • Access to a correctly-sized bike in good working condition.
  • Marketing and promotion: seeing more people that look like me on bikes.
  • Safer biking, through education and through infrastructure.
  • Social rides and other community activities that build community around biking, especially when organized by people that the new bikers trust.
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