Monday, April 14, 2008

The heroic bike commuter

Something cycling advocates occasionally talk about is that the overwhelming majority of bike commuters seem to be men. Some areas measure the success of their bike promotion efforts by the proportion of women to men out riding their bikes.

I've always assumed it was a matter of risk assessment, that women who feel less safe are more inclined to drive rather than expose themselves in the open. Natalie Ramsland, the bike builder at Sweetpea Bicycles in Portland told me something this morning that really gave me food for thought.
I suspect that the broader scope of women's responsibilities (work, caregiving, schelppin') plays some role female ridership. It's easier to be the heroic bike commuter if you've got somebody else picking up the drycleaning and shuttling Johnny off to soccer practice. It seems that too often that somebody is female.
This is certainly true in my family; while I'm busy self-righteously saving the planet, my wife is busy running errands and taking care of the household.

It's time for me to be a little more appreciative of my wife and to evaluate how I can contribute more to the household, I think.

You can read more about Natalie in this interview at Commute By Bike.


  1. Tis true, I imagine - but it is also about prioritizing life - and making choices that allow for commuting and building schedules that are realistic while striving for human powered transport - the family that needs to drive 30-50 miles a day for work, school, play, and extracurricular activities will have a hard time transitioning to bikes and feet - but choices that align shopping and errand running for weekends or 'off' days, scheduling and choosing services closer to home, and in extreme cases living where 'you want to be' - make it all easier.

    But, I've had it easy - I've worked from home or within a mile of home at my own office for the past 4 years - and now I'm transitioning to full time child care with only a small amount of work mixed in to balance the family budget. So I'm the male, and I'm the one out on the bakfiets (or one of my other rides when I don't have a passenger) with the little one doing the grocery shopping, library visits, and runs to the post office, bank, and hardware store. Yes, it will get harder when she gets older, for sure - but raising a little one who thinks getting to school by bak, and eventually by her own steam is 'normal' will go along way to allowing her to make those choices in her own life. (thats the theory, of course... - but she might rebel, love fast food, fast cars, video games, and trips to the mall)

    Its not easy, for sure. Lack of fitness, a newborn, and a really icy and late spring start have certainly complicated our transition - but now that warmer weather is here I'm feeling the human powered life starting to unfold again. Yes, there are car trips - some of them needless, for sure - but little steps, and little circles can make a big difference.

    Nice link and interview, thanks for sharing.

    -Mike "Can we get rid of at least one car now?" in VT

  2. I think this is true. When I organized a Bike to School Day at our high school, the female teachers were the most vocally supportive,but they couldn't participate because of their familial responsibilities like dropping kids off at day-care and things like that.

    As I help out with some of that, my bike commute days are also limited. Good to bring up these issues...

  3. Says it all when the tag is


    It's okay, boys.

    One of our local intrepid cyclists went back to driving when she and the kiddos were simply too close to becoming a grease spot.

    It is a worthy challenge to coordinate some of those errand-&-chld aspects into the cycling lifestyle.

  4. ...thought provoking post, fritz...natalie seems real on the ball & i've admired her work since i first saw some of her framesets...

    ...her personal cross frame commuter & the farmers market bike, in particular, are way cool...

  5. How to Schlep Kids to School, Without Really Trying.

    We still have a long way to go. Maybe if the role were switched. Gals might be self-righteously saving the planet. Guys might do the schlepping, the cleaning, and the shopping? Naaaaaaah. Forget it.

  6. ...bottom line, the family as a 'unit' is contributing in a positive manner even if one has to drive while one rides...obviously it's not always practical to take care of all the business on the bike...

    ...& some working couples like my friends john & annie w/ their two kids, here in fairfax, both work in the city & alternate turns sharing the car tasks & riding to work...i applaud their efforts...everything gets done, they both stay in great shape & the family unit leaves a smaller footprint on the planet...

  7. Dude, don't fool yourself. You're not saving any planets. :-)

  8. "Maybe if the role were switched. Gals might be self-righteously saving the planet. Guys might do the schlepping, the cleaning, and the shopping?"

    It's worth it...

  9. The average bike commuter's reaction to my bike wishlist is "that's crazy, you don't need all that!"

    I'm not super strong. In town, I don't need many gears. 3 covers it quite handily, even if I'm fully loaded. On some of my out of town trips, I need more like 6-8. So I want an internal gear hub for low maintenance (and so I don't need a special winter bike). The male commuter response is "but internal gears are expensive!" Yup, and so is replacing your cassette and crankset every winter or two.

    I need to carry Stuff. Mostly food, which is pretty dense. Library books and exercise equipment get pretty heavy too. So I want a bike that can handle at least 50lbs of cargo. The typical male response is "but you can't possibly eat that much!" Well... when you buy rice in 25 lb bags, getting up to 50lbs is pretty trivial. And when you're feeding 2 carfree people, they eat a lot. If they believe me on the weight, they assume a trailer is a cure all.

    And of course, I need to be able to carry the bike up and down stairs. Locked, indoor storage in the basement. Carrying a bike and trailer up and down stairs twice a trip is not high on my list of daily activities. I'm never sure whether I'll have a 20 lb load or a 50 lb load during errands, so if I went with a trailer it'd be a daily companion.

    Oddly enough, I have had a helluva time finding bikes that meet my specs. Seems like bike designers make many of the same assumptions that male commuters do.

  10. @emily Have you considered the Xtracycle? ( It has a handy handle (sort of) in the middle to lug it with... not super light but with the right bike it's not bad. You always have the 'potential' for cargo without a lot of extra. I rode one around the country and then just made it my commuter because it's fast AND a cargo bike... works well with kiddos too!

    Family Cycling is the future of getting more people riding... the bike movement has grown up... and now it has kids!

    Which reminds me... today is Kidical Mass!!!

  11. @emily Have you considered the Xtracycle? (

    Extracycle is out (along with things like cargo trikes) because of the stairs. The clearances are fairly tight, and even a regular length bike will try to knock me over. Not good, especially if gravity is giving the bike a hand. I had to rule out a Batavus for the same reason... it's too heavy and I wouldn't have been able to control it on the stairs. (and yes, I've found a couple bikes that should work :). Should be able to pull the trigger within the next month or so.)

    It was a really interesting search, because men in particular would assume that certain solutions just *had* to work. Things that are problems for me (like handling the bike on stairs) just aren't a problem for my partner. An extra 8" of height and 50 lbs more muscle seems to go a long way to making problems go away *g*. So I can see why men figure some bits are easy. For them, they *are*.

    It opened my eyes to why so many women use cars. The kinds of things I need and want on a bike aren't cheap, but they aren't very glamorous either. Makes it a hard sell, especially if your partner is standing next to you insisting "you don't need that!" and you've never ridden a bike for transportation at all... and are socialized that spending money on your "toys" is bad. Making the jump to "my bike *is* my car, not a toy" is hard.

  12. Emily (and anyone else, in case Emily has already found her perfect car-bike):

    You sound like my boss, who has a Breezer. I don't know which year or model, but it's purple and has the U-frame. She rides it everywhere, and I've seen her heft it under one arm with a carrying basket full of reference books. (She's a smallish woman.)

    Maybe that helps?