Transportation is a social resource. The choices we make about how we move ourselves and our stuff are made only after complicated historical social forces have decided for us what our choices will be.
In 1955, the racist laws that dominated society profoundly affected how people rode the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, she was demanding equal and fair access to a shared transportation resource: a seat on the bus. The boycott of the bus system led by Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. launched the civil rights movement.
Sixty years earlier, women were also struggling for the most basic measures of equality, including equal access to transportation. The bicycle became a major tool of women's emancipation, providing women the vehicle to travel further than they could walk, under their own power, independent of the family carriage. Society resisted, but women prevailed, even changing social mores about proper dress in order to gain equal access to bicycling. [To learn more, come to the Freedom Machine presentation on March 1st.]
Today, the struggle remains the same. Freeways slice through the poorest neighborhoods. Our suburban highways get far more resources than our urban transit systems. In 1996, the Los Angeles' Metropolitan Transportation Authority was found guilty of racially discriminatory practices and forced to buy more buses for city residents. And today, women still apparently don't have equal access to the bicycle. Roughly, of the 24,000 bike commuters every day in San Francisco, 19,000 are men, 5,000 are women.
I'm not sure that it's sexist that so many more men bike than women, but I suspect the reason has to do with society's sexist assignment of certain personality traits to people based on gender, and how those traits compare to the public's image of bicyclists. According to the public image, bicyclists (and men) are more aggressive and more willing to take risks than nonbicyclists (and women). The fact that these traits figure into our transportation choices is evidence that our transportation policy is sexist and it points to the need to create safer streets and to change the image of cyclists.
While in the U.S. 20% of adult bicyclists are women, in Holland that figure is 58%. At the SFBC, we believe that getting more bicyclists onto the streets is the best way to judge our success and the best way to increase our power. Closing the gender gap, so that 19,000 men and women bike every day, on average, is one way to almost double the number of bicyclists in our city. To support that cause, this issue of the Tube Times honors National Women's Month with a series of articles on women and bikes. Enjoy.