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Tomorrow at UIC: The Women Bike Chicago Conference

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.

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