It’s well known that women are less likely to commute by bicycle than men.
The numbers, however, are still startling, as one amateur sleuth recently discovered.
San Francisco software engineer Andrew Ford recently conducted a count of cyclists while standing outside Valencia and Liberty Streets — a well-trafficked bikeway — with a video camera and collecting still screen-shots of every bicyclist he saw.
His original intent was to measure the number of micromobility vehicles in bike lanes, like electric skateboards, e-bikes, e-scooters and other alternative modes of personal transit.
But what he found was more fundamental: roughly 76 percent of all bicyclists rolling down Valencia were men, according to Ford.
His data is far from conclusive, as Ford is a curious citizen, not a trained researcher. But it comports with broader San Francisco bicycling ridership data collected by The City and highlights a crucial goal of Mayor London Breed and city agencies to draft more women cyclists by making bicycling safer.
It is also in the tradition of advocates trying to impact public policy through data, as the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project did when it released data on the link between rising rents and corporate commuter shuttle locations.
Above, a video presentation by Ford about his Valencia data.
The disparity in cycling rates is not a new phenomenon. Numerous studies, including by The Gender Policy Report and the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, show bicycling to be a highly gendered activity, with women often citing safety as a reason not to bike, and men often expressing a higher tolerance for risk-taking in their daily commutes.
And, perhaps most importantly, it fits with the experiences of San Francisco-based women and non-male identified people of other genders who told their stories to the San Francisco Examiner on social media this week.
Many touched on safety.
“I briefly commuted by bike, but didn’t feel safe doing so, even in the Outer Sunset,” wrote Twitter user @michfit, who identified as Michelle Wernette. “Most of our world is designed for men, even if its intent is gender-neutral.”
I bike but don’t have children. I think if I did it would change. I never take wide fast roads. I feel safest on really narrow streets where cars can’t go very fast and have to change lanes to pass. Like downtown Redwood City.
— Isabella Chu (@bellachu10) January 4, 2020
Twitter user @candicecd, who identified as Candice Dayoan, said “Bought a bike when I lived in the Inner Richmond to commute to (South of Market), almost got hit and didn’t think I was experienced enough to do it, so I only used it to bike for errands.” The same goes for Twitter user @kimmie_leung, who identified on Twitter as transportation engineer Kimberly Leung, who said “I’ve tried the bike commute across the City, but it’s too stressful worrying that a car will hit me,” adding “I’ve felt intimidated and unwelcomed by drivers and even other people on bikes.”
The fear affects women of all walks. Jessica Verrilli, an entrepreneur and general partner at Google Ventures, told the Examiner she fears getting killed by a car. “I have a bike and do cycle outside of the city. But wouldn’t do it in SF proper,” Verrilli wrote. Rebecca Saltzman, a BART board director, said she doesn’t bike in the Bay Area “because it’s terrifying. There is not enough safe biking infrastructure.”
Lack of protected bike lanes. Afraid of getting killed by a car.
— Jessica Verrilli (@jess) January 3, 2020
In his data collection, Ford also provided photographs of 400 bicycle riders, including a spreadsheet of his observations.
“Before I moved to San Francisco I was, I want to say a hardcore bicyclist, or at least a frequent bicyclist,” he said. “When I came to San Francisco it was windy, it had hills, so I became an infrequent bicyclist, maybe to get groceries.”
My last workplace had indoor bike parking – yay! But they were vertical racks and I’m 4’11” – boo. So I walked instead of biking.
— Rusty (@staplesrusty) January 3, 2020
His data is observational, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the gender identities of those he observed. Survey data by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, however, backs up his observations.
The last Travel Decision Survey conducted for SFMTA in 2017, the most recent data available, showed a two-to-one ratio of self-identified men versus women riders, with less than .5 percent of people surveyed identifying as non-binary.
That number has fluctuated since the previous survey in 2015, which found 2 percent of all self-identified men and women both say they bike in San Francisco to travel. In 2015, the survey did not identify non-binary people.
Who bikes and who doesn’t in San Francisco changed in other ways from 2015 to 2017, also. In those two years, the number of people under 34 riding bikes dropped, as did the number of bicyclists who made less than $75,000 annually.
I exclusively biked when I moved here, up until a benign near death experience led me to take a few years off. I've changed my style and tactics after coming back, but it feels much less safe. I have a negative interaction with a car driver on nearly 100% of my commutes.
— kate ☔ eddiedog (@ktflghm) January 3, 2020
When it comes to safety, San Francisco is making some strides. Mayor London Breed directed SFMTA to double its pace in the creation of bike lanes in the next two years, creating 20 miles of new protected bike lanes. Studies have shown bike lanes with a physical barrier to be far safer than those that simply exist with paint — where drivers frequently, disobey the marked bike lane, swerving into it to double park.
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition told the Examiner its membership is roughly 35 percent women, which is higher than the percentage of women who bike in San Francisco. In 2015, the group launched its Women Bike SF Coffee Club, where femme-identified folks of different genders meet up to chat about biking concerns.
I biked everywhere for 8-9 years in SF, but then I got into an accident on my way to work and broke my collar bone on Folsom. A few months later I moved to Berkeley and live near the BART, so I walk more now. Plus I'm pregnant.
— katherine fernandez (@KaFe0) January 3, 2020
Jo-Anne Burgess, who runs the bike coalition’s Community Repair Nights, said few women show up to that particular program.
“It’s disappointing that so few women volunteer at Community Repair Nights,” she said. “But I understand how intimidating it can be to walk in a room where everyone else aside from you identifies as a man. I’m working to build year-round community at these volunteer nights, and am excited to currently be planning a Community Repair Night just for women, trans, and femme folks.”
I commuted by bike for years but got hit by and uber on Valencia and have been driving more since.
— nancypili (@nancypili) January 3, 2020
Non-male-identified people who responded to the Examiner on social media expressed other challenges, too.
Even bike gear can be oriented towards men, said Lea Kisssner, Twitter user @LeaKissner, a chief privacy officer at Humu. “A lot of women’s gear is effectively rebranded men’s gear that’s shrunk a bit,” she wrote. From cycling tights to gloves, to bike seats and bike cleats, all of them can be sized incorrectly forming a barrier to women riding bikes.
“Handlebars on most bikes are just too wide, which leads to shoulder injuries,” Kissner said.
Some concerns touch on the imbalance of beauty expectations in the workplace, women and non-male-identified people told the Examiner.
The looking put together aspect is a big part of it for me, personally. As a woman who is large enough that I get pretty sweaty, but not too out of shape to cycle, I could cycle but would just rather take Muni than show up to work all gross.
— Jackie Thornhill🌹 (@Jackie____T) January 3, 2020
Twitter user @jaimenina, who identified themselves as Jaime, wrote “I am a lawyer and I have to wear professional clothes that often don’t have stretch, are dry-clean only, or involve dresses, skirts, and heels. I bike on more ‘casual’ days I can get away with wearing stretchy capri pants.”
And, as in many walks of life, men can also create a hostile environment for women to cycle. Many Twitter users responding to the Examiner noted that cat-calling can be a problem while biking.
Twitter user @grrrrrrrrrrl wrote, “It’s super unsafe where I live to bike, we have no protected lanes and people drive in them as lanes. Also street harassment is a constant problem.”