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Female Cyclists Share Tips and Encouragement at Women on Wheels Summit

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Test riding a Divvy bike at the conference. Photo: Melissa Manak

“I became one with the biking culture,” said Angela Ford, discussing her personal cycling renaissance during the keynote speech at Women on Wheels, a conference hosted last Saturday in Pilsen by the group Women Bike Chicago. “This is what I’m gonna live,” she decided eight years ago.

The summit was the second annual “day of discussion and dialog” organized by Women Bike Chicago, an opportunity for women to share cycling stories and tips. The group’s goal is to encourage more women to ride in a city where 70 percent of people who bike to work are male, according to the 2010 Census. Attendees included veteran and newbie cyclists, ranging from seven to 67 years old.

Angela, who owns a real estate management firm specializing in environmentally friendly practices, said she gave up biking when she got her driver’s license at age 16. She got back into biking 18 years later when her son needed to learn to ride for a school outing. Since then, she’s gotten involved with promoting cycling to her peers as a strategy for maintaining health and wellness. “Let’s not let fear or all these other excuses take us away from it,” she told the audience. “I’m telling my girlfriends, ‘Ride with me once.’”

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Angela Ford. Photo: Melissa Manak

The conference included group sessions on bike commuting, visiting bike shops, planning routes, cycling with kids, “bike safety, comfort, and style,” and more. It also featured a corral where attendees could try out hybrid, road, touring and cargo bikes, and a Divvy representative was on hand to explain the bike-share program and offer test rides of the blue bikes. You could try your hand at loading a bike on a CTA bus rack, and learn basic bike maintenance skills like fixing a flat.

Anne Alt and Veronica Joyner hosted the session on commuting. They discussed how combining cycling with bus and rail can extend your travel range, explained how to use the bus racks, and noted that CTA and Metra staff are sometimes willing to help with carrying bikes on and off their vehicles.

The leaders of the ride-planning seminar shared several low-stress routes throughout the city. The session then split into groups to discuss two different routes. One group talked about the Bloomingdale Trail, an elevated greenway that’s currently under construction on the Northwest Side. The other focused on a “sweets and treats” itinerary that got all the participants excited about summer and ice cream.

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Why Do Women Use Their Divvy Memberships Less Than Men?

Divvy Explorer

Here’s a breakdown of all Divvy trips in 2013, including the disproportionate share of trips by men. Use Transitized’s Divvy Explorer app to get more info about how men and women ride Divvy.

Divvy’s data release last month raised as many questions as it answered about bike-share use in Chicago. Chicago Spectrum was the first to point out that there’s a large gap between male and female Divvy members. Women make up 31 percent of the membership, but the trip data showed that women made only 21 percent of the trips.

This is out of sync with other bike-share systems, which tend to see a greater share of female riders than the cycling population at large. The reverse seems to be true in Chicago.

Approximately 27 percent of Chicago bike commuters are women, and according to the most recent available data (from 2009), women made 24 percent of bike trips nationally. In New York City, where Citi Bike launched in May 2013, students at Hunter College observed that women accounted for 31 percent of Citi Bike riders, compared to about 24 percent of other cyclists, not including delivery workers.

So why are women riding Divvy less often than men, and why is women’s share of Divvy trips smaller than their share of overall bike trips in Chicago?

According to the League of American Bicyclists’ Women Bike Report [PDF], more women than men say they don’t bike because they need to “carry more stuff,” and fewer women than men “say they’re confident riding on all roads with traffic.” The authors also concluded that “in the United States, travel patterns tend to be more complex for women than men, due to childcare and household responsibilities.”

In interviews with 14 women – all but one of whom already bike in Chicago – several common threads surfaced about the what might be holding women back from riding Divvy more.

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A Note on the Personal Choices Facing Women Who Bike

Women Bike Chicago 03/23/13

Editor’s note: After Michelle reported on the Women Bike Chicago Conference earlier this month, the Tiny Fix posted a critique of Cynthia Bell‘s advice to “not look too sexy” at a workshop on comfort, safety, and style. This is Michelle’s response.

The Tiny Fix article begins:

As part of a gang of female bikers, I should be … thrilled every time I hear about an event encouraging more women and girls to ride, right? But then sometimes I catch a little excerpt of something that takes all that “hey, ride a bike! It’s fun, it’s efficient, it’s good for you, and it makes you feel totally awesome” and turns it into something awfully patronizing and insulting.

Nadarine and Tiny Fix, thank you for bringing up this important issue. I’ll admit that as I sat taking notes on the event for Streetsblog, Cynthia’s words made me wince, because of the points you made in your post: Women shouldn’t have to tone down their clothing, look less feminine, and avoid drawing attention, because that makes bicycling seem dangerous, puts the blame on the victim, and in the end, it often doesn’t matter.

But you know what? I had the same reaction when I heard other topics brought up, and applied the same logic, to wearing helmets, wearing safety vests, and avoiding the criminal element.

I believe that the sight of widespread helmet use in a city is detrimental to encouraging bicycling because it sends the message that bicycling is a sport, it’s dangerous, and it requires special equipment. If a bicyclist is killed by a driver, the mainstream media often notes whether she was wearing a helmet or not – especially if she wasn’t – even if an SUV ran her over, and a little plastic on her head wouldn’t have made a shred of difference. The insinuation is: Didn’t wear a helmet? Tsk, tsk, she was asking for it.

I think that advocating for people to wear bright orange safety vests while riding their bike isn’t optimal because it puts the onus on the bicyclist to look clownlike in an attempt to be more visible, when the real responsibility is held by the people maneuvering their enormous motorized vehicles to look where they’re going.

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What I Heard at the Women Bike Chicago Conference

Women Bike Chicago 03/23/13

Julie Hochstadter and Cynthia Bell discuss clothing, safety, and style. All photos by Michelle Stenzel

Michelle Stenzel is co-chair of Bike Walk Lincoln Park, a committee to make walking and cycling safe in that neighborhood.

During a “Bike Comfort, Safety and Style” session at Saturday’s Women Bike Chicago conference, one woman shared how heavily padded bike shorts came in handy when her menstrual cycle began a few days before her first bicycle ride of 100 miles. There was a sympathetic murmur of laughter, and another participant, Susan Levin, piped up enthusiastically, “This is exactly why we wanted a women-centric event!”

The conference, held at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s African-American Cultural Center, was organized as a grassroots effort to give women an opportunity to gain practical skills and tips, learn from women who already ride bikes in Chicago, and share their experiences with others. I talked to several attendees to understand why they ride a bike and why they came to the conference.

Julie Harpring of Lincoln Square was volunteering by setting up the “Bike Buddy” map and stickers. (Participants were asked to wear color-coded stickers indicating their geographic area in order to encourage people to find others with whom to “buddy up” with for commutes or rides.) Harpring said she rides her bike to the Ravenswood Metra station and then takes the train the rest of the way to get to work, and she hoped to convey to other women that they can take incremental steps to incorporate bicycling into their commutes: “You don’t have to go all the way and burn yourself out.”

Women Bike Chicago 03/23/13

Volunteer Julie Harpring shows off the Bike Buddy stickers.

Dawn Wolfe of Oak Park said that after a serious health scare two years ago, she decided to begin riding a bike again after 20 years. She said that riding bike “makes me feel like a kid again.” She rides on the Salt Creek Trail for recreation and uses her bike to run local errands. She has biked to her job in the Loop three times and would like to do so more regularly, but parts of the route can be “a little dicey.” She came to the conference to meet new people in the bicycling community, and perhaps a new commuting partner with a slow pace similar to her own. Wolfe said she’s still working up to full strength and feels that “I slow people down.”

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Tomorrow at UIC: The Women Bike Chicago Conference

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Carmelita Sams, a mechanic at West Town Bikes / Ciclo Urbano in Humboldt Park, with a pledge to inspire a woman to ride. Photo courtesy of the shop.

Guest contributor Lisa Phillips trained as a journalist and then urban planner, while becoming an almost-daily bicyclist. She has worked at the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Department of Transportation, and has volunteered with Cycling Sisters and Bike Winter.

If you are a regular cyclist who happens to be female, you may have noticed that on the streets of Chicago – and across the country – you are in the distinct minority. In fact, women account for 24 percent of the bicyclists on the nation’s streets, according to the League of American Bicyclists. This Saturday morning, just in time for spring, the Women Bike Chicago conference will take steps to change that. The free event takes place from 9 AM to 1 PM at UIC’s African-American Cultural Center, 830 South Halsted Street.

Women Bike Chicago, a group that bills itself as “a movement to empower more women to ride bikes for transportation,” was born from a very small grassroots effort, according to Anne Alt, a conference organizer who is also president of the Chicago Cycling Club and an Active Transportation Alliance volunteer. It began with a conversation last fall between Alt, Lisa Curcio, also of Chicago Cycling Club, Jane Healy, a board member with Active Trans, Ash Lottes, organizer of the Critical Lass ride, and Jennifer James, author of the blog Chicargo Bike. They soon met with Carolyn Szczepanski, who leads the Women Bike program of the League of American Bicyclists, and were inspired to host a local event as part of LAB’s larger national effort.

The Chicago women were all aware of the gender disparity in cycling, both both via Chicago Department of Transportation bike counts and anecdotally, but they sensed the potential for getting many more women to ride. “We realized we had each had multiple, similar encounters with friends, coworkers, family, hairdressers, and even strangers who, after learning we were bicyclists, would ask a lot of the same questions,” said Alt. Many of the questions started with “I would really like to ride my bike but…” and ended with “I don’t know how to deal with traffic,” or “I’m scared,” or “What’s the best way to get to X location safely?”

Curcio, who will be presenting tomorrow, is a case in point. “For every woman who sees me wheeling my bicycle into my building at work and says, ‘Good for you,’ there are three who say, ‘Aren’t you afraid to ride your bike in the city?’” she said. Tomorrow she’ll talk about her experiences starting to regularly ride a bike again at age 57, after not riding more than a handful of times since she was a teen. “I am no sociologist and I can’t cite any studies,” Curcio said. “But I know I have read more than once that big societal change occurs only when women embrace it.”

“The goal is to really address a spectrum of needs to help give more women a good start in riding bikes,” said Alt. Accordingly, tomorrow’s workshops include getting started riding or getting back on a bike, such as after a crash or injury; family biking; how to get the most out of a bike shop visit; bike repair; and traffic safety basics. Reserved indoor spots are sold out, but the goal is to rotate attendees through both the indoor and outdoor activities, so additional attendees will likely be accommodated. There will also be a bike corral where folks can try out different kinds of bikes to find the best fit for them, and more. Women on the verge of a biking breakthrough should be sure to stop by.

Handouts from the presentation

Uploaded April 15, 2013. All PDFs prepared by Anne Alt.