grrl power: encouraging more female riders key to city's cycling health

It’s safe to say that Detroit Shoreway resident Ashley Nobis rides her fixed-gear State Bicycle everyday. When she’s not commuting to her job as a barista at Erie Island Coffee on East Fourth Street, she’s competing in cyclo-cross events with Joy Machines’ Scum City Racing.

Marie Kittredge, Executive Director of the Slavic Village Development Corporation (SVDC), and Christina Znidarsic also are perpetual riders. Kittredge, 55, commutes daily to her workplace on Broadway near E. 55th, using the 2.1-mile Morgana Run Trail that runs along an old rail corridor. Znidarsic, a Bike Cleveland member, does a “modified park and ride commute,” driving from her home on W. 49th to a lot three miles away from her job in Downtown Willoughby and riding the rest of the way.

“Drivers out there tend not to get the ‘share the road’ concept,” states Znidarsic, 32. But overall, each of these three women report mostly positive experiences on Northeast Ohio roads with mutual exceptions, like the Detroit-Superior Bridge.

They also admit, however, that they are the exception to the rule -- that rule being that women are less likely to cycle without infrastructure that makes them feel safe. At least, not as likely to ride as men, who in general feel more comfortable cycling in vehicular traffic and tend to ride more aggressively.

“Female cyclists are more tentative,” says Nobis, 27. “We’ll hold back more and make sure traffic is clear on every side. Men will charge through and be aggressive to take the lane.”

“My sister wants to bike more, but feels terrified on the road,” adds Znidarsic.

If women indeed are the barometer of a healthy cycling city, as experts say, then how can we make women feel safe while cycling in Cleveland? It isn't just women who wish to feel safe while riding; men, not surprisingly, prefer to ride out of harm's way, too.

Simply Show Up

Last August, Carolyn Szczepanski of the national advocacy group League of American Bicyclists released a report on this very topic aptly titled Women On A Roll. Her findings reflect what we see in Cleveland.

In 2009, the report states, women accounted for just 24 percent of all U.S. bike trips and continue to be underrepresented in bicycle advocacy leadership roles. But the report also acknowledges that 82 percent of women view people who ride favorably -- and between 2003 and 2012, there was a 20 percent boost in female riders. In other words, women are the new majority of bicycle owners between 17 to 28 years old.

This change is reflected in Cleveland’s cycling advocacy community, with women like Krissie Wells joining the Ohio City Bicycle Co-Op board and Marie Kittredge on Bike Cleveland’s board, along with Nancy Desmond, Barb Clint, Angie Schmitt and Julia Schnell. The key to increasing female presence in Cleveland cycling, according to Kittredge, is simply to “show up.”

“I try to ride visibly and let people know how much fun it is,” Kittredge explains.

This means cycling to different events and through neighborhoods that have, perhaps unfairly, earned poor reputations.

“It creates life on the street and makes a neighborhood more livable,” says Kittredge, specifically noting her trips through the so-called Forgotten Triangle. “It lets people know their neighborhood is not scary.”

Still, many female cyclists are not willing to take to the streets without infrastructure that makes them feel safe. We’re talking cycle tracks that offer physical barriers between the cyclist and vehicular traffic or separated bike paths like Slavic Village’s Morgana Run Trail.

Unfortunately, that type of infrastructure is a rare sight in Cleveland or is disconnected from other cycling infrastructure. It is worth mentioning, however, that the City of Cleveland released in January a plan to install 70 miles of bikeways over the next four years, adding badly needed infrastructure to the city’s current subpar tally of 47.5 miles.

Yet to be decided is the type of bikeways that will be designed, which will be key in attracting more female bike commuters. Notwithstanding her comfort on car-oriented roads, Nobis supports cycle tracks.

“More protected bike lanes will get more people on the road and make it safer for everyone,” she believes, adding that simply relying on paint could be a deterrent for more casual cyclists.

The 5 Cs

The League of American Bicyclists recommends cities focus on five key areas to increase women’s ridership: comfort, convenience, consumer products, confidence and community.

“'Comfort' means the city can follow the lead of many Bicycle Friendly Communities by prioritizing bicycle facilities, from painted bike lanes to cycletracks to neighborhood greenways, that make cycling more comfortable for those who are deterred by riding with traffic,” Szczepanski explains.

"Convenience" refers to focusing on bike infrastructure that “serves destinations that women travel to and from.”

"Consumer products" is more industry focused, Szecezpanski explains. “The city and advocacy groups can increase awareness and opportunity to purchase women-specific cycling products by hosting women's forums, pop-up shops or show-and-tell-style events that introduce women to products that may not be stocked in their local bike shop.”

This leads to the final “C” -- community. “We want to encourage and support women's rides and social events to build the community of female riders,” says Szecezpanski.

To the above, Szcezepanski would add "cycle safety," encouraging woman-specific classes that would help boost confidence. The gender-specific meetings would foster the opportunity to ask questions that might be uncomfortable in mixed company.

Don't Get Left Behind

Cities that don’t take female riders into consideration undoubtedly will be left behind in the battle to lure the coveted millennial workforce and the growing number of people who see auto commuting as a financial and environmental strain. Luckily, Bike Cleveland has the needs of female cyclists on their radar. In fact, on May 3, they’re sponsoring the 2nd Annual Ohio Women’s Bicycling Summit in Columbus.

The eight-hour day includes cycling education, a mechanic session with a representative from Trek Bicycle, and a panel discussion with bike advocates from Ohio, Pittsburgh and Indiana.

Jacob VanSickle, Executive Director of Bike Cleveland, stresses the importance of events like these that focus on female cyclists.

"By advocating for more stress-free bicycle facilities like protected bike lanes, Bike Cleveland is making biking safer, more convenient, and is growing confidence to get more people on bikes,” he says, hitting on some of the League’s 5 Cs. “These types of facilities attract more people to biking, especially women and family bicyclists."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Joe Baur
Joe Baur

About the Author: Joe Baur

Joe Baur is an author, writer and filmmaker who has worked for a variety of local and national publications including Matador Network, Yahoo! Travel, National Geographic and BBC Travel. In addition to freelance writing, he is the author of Best Hikes Near Cleveland and director of numerous travelogues from across the globe. You'll currently find him working in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, because spending the first year of marriage where others vacation seemed like a good idea.