Pedal Pushers: Female cyclists are the key to Philly’s bicycular future. Here’s why—and how to get the spoke-averse in the saddle.

Story by Julie Lorch | Photo by Amanda Jaffe -- Snappy lass Sarah Skelly dons her turn-of-the-century best for Philadelphia’s third annual Tweed Ride, held every fall.

Philadelphia needs to get more women on bicycles, and not just because we look so fine in Lycra.

The biology term “indicator species” is often used to describe female cyclists in urban areas. If the environment is suitable, a 2009 article in Scientific American argues, then the population will flourish. Though it sounds kinda clinical, it’s really just a way of saying women are perhaps the most important demographic for transforming a city with a cycling subculture into one with a cycling-centric city transport ecosystem. Why is that? Essentially, since women are generally more risk-averse than men, women will ride more often only as the perception of safety increases.

Perception of safety obviously includes many complex factors, but discomfort riding alongside traffic and fear of bicycling accidents are high on the list. So, most cycling advocates believe the key to increasing numbers of female riders is better bicycle infrastructure.

This logic bears out in Philadelphia: According to the May 2011 report Mode Shift: Philadelphia’s Two-Wheeled Revolution in Progress by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, on streets without bicycle lanes, only 22.7 percent of riders are female; on streets with buffered bicycle lanes, that number jumps to 37.4 percent. (The report is based on counts conducted in the falls of 2009 and 2010 at designated intersections and the Schuylkill River bridges.)

In terms of bicycle commuting—the Holy Grail of a bike-friendly city—Philadelphia ranks number one of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. at 2.16 percent (beating out cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles). More significantly, 36.7 percent of commuters in Philadelphia are women, creaming the national average of 26.74 percent (according to the 2009 American Community Survey). That’s the eighth highest percentage of female commuters among the 70 largest cities.

So, while we need to lay down a lot more bicycle infrastructure before Philadelphia starts competing with, say, Copenhagen (aka cycling Valhalla), we’re doing relatively well attracting female riders in comparison to other U.S. cities. But “relatively” is the operative word here—as the data suggests, the ratio of bicycling males to females in Philly is still roughly 2:1.  

But aversion to traffic is just one of many reasons—from as picayune as being intimidated by bike shop gearheads, to as serious as the threat of violence and crime—that women aren’t cycling in numbers similar to men. (Issues of crime and violence against females on bicycles could be a separate article entirely. Of course some women feel safer riding than walking, but all the rules about urban safety apply: Travel in groups; be alert, use lights and be mindful of traffic, especially at night; do your best to stay on well-lit, well-traveled streets; don’t bike intoxicated.)

“I think a lot of women are intimidated by bike shops,” says Shelly Salamon, owner of Fairmount Bicycles. “It could be because they’ve never been to one before, or because they talked to some condescending bike dude at some point.”

After surveying a number of ladies who don’t ride, the top reasons (after traffic) for not doing so have to do with not knowing exactly how to begin. This includes choosing and maintaining a bicycle and finding safe places to get comfortable on one before hitting the road. But they want to bike. And not one person I talked to said, “I don’t want to mess up my hair or get sweaty.”

“I like the idea of biking, because it’s quicker than walking,” says GRID’s Claire Connelly, “but I was always afraid of all the cars and congestion, and even all the other bikers.” Connelly used to bike the less-congested streets of West Philadelphia, but stopped when her bike fell into disrepair.

Emily Fisher, an engineering student at Penn, is worried about the learning curve: “I want to practice getting comfortable with it someplace private, but in a city, there’s nowhere to do that. I keep telling myself that I need to take my bike out more often on low-pressure rides.”

Connelly and Fisher exemplify the “Interested but Concerned” group of would-be cyclists, which the Portland Department of Transportation estimates to be approximately 60 percent of the population (behind “Strong and Fearless,” 0.5 percent; “Enthused and Confident,” 5 percent; and the remaining “No Way, No How”). They want to ride. They just don’t know where to begin.

Well, first thing’s first: If you are the interested-but-concerned female rider, you need a comfortable, well-sized and safe bicycle to ride, and a helmet to protect your cranium. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you want, or if you don’t know what size you are. Walk into the shop confidently and open-minded. Remember, there was a time when the people working in the bike shop didn’t know the names of the parts of a bicycle either! And local bike shops are no different from most other local businesses—they have owners who are passionate about what they’re selling and they want to tell you about their products (of course, if you don’t get this impression, there’s another shop out there that will make you feel more comfortable). If you don’t want to buy outright, borrow someone else’s for an afternoon. And, again, make sure you have a helmet.

Next, you’ll want to grab a friend to go riding with. Preferably this is someone you trust, and who will ride at a speed you’re comfortable with. It’s good to have a buddy who can show you where to go, and it’s also good to have company should you encounter a mechanical issue.

Finally, take it slow. No one says you have to start biking down Walnut Street tomorrow. Start in an empty parking lot—the stadium lots on non-game days tend to be empty and accessible. Then jump to the paths—Schuylkill Banks Park, West River Drive and the gravel-packed Forbidden Drive (in Wissahickon Valley Park, where Kelly Drive meets Ridge Avenue) are great for low-pressure rides like the one Fisher wants. Next, move to buffered bike lanes like the ones on Pine and Spruce. Then try the regular lanes on Spring Garden. Or not. Only ride in a manner in which you feel comfortable (though do stay off the sidewalks, for real).

And if you want this all condensed into one little package, check out Take Your Time Bicycle Rides at Fairmount Bicycles. The program is still in formation, but Salamon hopes to host regular, low-pressure rides (and offer bike rentals, too!) this summer. The group is mixed-gender, but there will be a few female-only rides sprinkled in. If you want to get on the mailing list, or if you want your non-bike riding girlfriend to get on the list, email her at takeyourtimebicycle@fairmount.com.  

One day, with some healthy peer pressure and a little more infrastructure, Philadelphia could have equal numbers of female and male riders—which would be excellent for those of us tired of waiting around for our slowpoke friends on foot.