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

The New York Times: Women, Uneasy, Still Lag as Cyclists in New York City

By CHRISTINE HAUGHNEY
Published: July 3, 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.

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.

But city officials in Portland have been able to greatly increase the number of female cyclists. In 1992, male cyclists outnumbered female cyclists four to one; by 2006, the ratio shrank to two to one. City officials credit a program that offers clinics for women on bicycle maintenance that has drawn roughly 800 people since it began seven years ago and organizes female group rides in the summer. But Roger Geller, Portland’s bicycle coordinator, said that the rise in female cyclists could largely be attributed to creating safer lanes for all riders.

“It’s happened as the quality of our bike lane network has improved, as people have perceived the network to be safer,” Mr. Geller said.

Even if officials in New York were to persuade women that it was safe to cycle, they would still run up against an obstacle almost unique to the city: an obsession with fashion. Emilia Crotty, Bike New York’s operations director, said that women flooded the classes she taught on cycling basics. She said women clearly wanted to bike more, but they feared showing up at a high-profile corporate job or meeting friends for cocktails sweaty or weighed down with cycling gear.

To avoid sweating much when cycling, Ms. Crotty advises women to put more things in their baskets rather than their bags, to wear A-line shaped skirts rather than pencil skirts and to choose heels with traction over pointy stilettos.

“The concern for riding in street traffic is No. 1,” Ms. Crotty said. “Then it’s ‘I don’t want to be sweaty.’ ”

It also may take longer to persuade women to cycle in certain neighborhoods. For the last 16 years, Heike Bachmann, a Munich native who grew up cycling, has ridden her bike to voiceover appointments, used it to transport the contents of her home when she moved apartments and even rode to a gala at the New York Public Library. She tolerated name calling from male cyclists who shout “Hey, Mary Poppins” and was injured by a driver who opened a car door as she cycled by. But as she plans to move uptown with her boyfriend, she expects to cycle less because she admitted that she was “not so comfortable yet” riding in certain areas.

And if the experiences of Lisa Buonaiuto are any indication, the safety concerns are still legitimate. She started cycling three years ago, taking her bicycle from the Metro-North station on 125th Street in Harlem to her job at Barnard College. In that time, she has been nearly hit by a bus, ticketed for riding on an empty sidewalk on Amsterdam Avenue when she felt overwhelmed by the trucks and endured shouts from “daredevil” messengers. Now she travels along side streets, avoids Broadway and on a recent afternoon took the Hudson River Greenway to a hair appointment downtown.

“A lot of my female colleagues, they would never do it because it’s not safe,” Ms. Buonaiuto said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”