As girls age, they ride bikes less often, according to recent research from Portland State University (PSU). Girls ages 11 to 16 felt increasingly more negative about bicycling when surveyed over the course of two years; the same negative change wasn’t seen in younger kids or in tween and teen boys, says Jennifer Dill, Ph.D., an urban studies and planning professor at PSU and lead author of the study.
Why the change among girls? Dill says there are many reasons including safety concerns and time constraints. What’s striking, she says, is that young girls harbor the same concerns that keep grown women from biking.
Only 19 percent of women have biked in the last 30 days, compared to 29 percent of men, according to a national survey of 50 of the largest U.S. metro areas. The rate of bicycle commuting for men is more than double that of women, according to U.S. Census data.
This difference reveals a deeper divide, Dill says, as women’s safety concerns and supposed role in a household may influence participation.
For example, Dill notes, women often have more constraints on their travel time. “They are shuttling kids and older parents around [and] doing more of the household maintenance trips,” she says. “These things make bicycling more difficult.”
While Dill notes that her research doesn’t make an explicit link between lower rates of bicycling among women and larger societal issues, it’s important to note the age of the girls she surveyed. “These negative perceptions about biking are starting at a fairly young age,” she says. And that can have lifelong impacts. Numerous studies link bicycling as an adult to positive health outcomes while it’s a known fact that women are less likely than men to get the physical activity they need to stay healthy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. “Having a good instructor and a safer biking environment can help girls overcome those fears,” Dill says.
In the greater Seattle area, there are many such opportunities for youth of all ages. On Wednesday, many area schools participated in National Bike to School Day. An estimated 4,500 students biked to school in the Puget Sound region, says Rachel Osias, youth programs manager at statewide organization Cascade Bicycle Club.
Other efforts are planned for long past National Bike to School Day. Throughout the school year, 16 middle and high schools in Central and South King County and Pierce County are participating in Cascade’s Major Taylor Project. In this after-school bike club, students go on weekly bike rides and learn about bike safety, maintenance and advocacy. Many participants ride in our region’s largest multi-day bike event, the 206-mile Seattle-to-Portland bike ride.
Cascade also offers free group rides. Kids ages 15 and younger can participate (if an adult rides with them) and kids 16 and older can come along with parental consent. Summer biking camps are available for kids ages 6 to 15, and Osias hopes to pilot a junior counselor program in 2018. Parents interested in helping instill kids with a lifelong love of biking should also check out programs offered by Bike Works, she adds.
The hope? That by giving kids more chances to bike, the greater the chance they'll ride into adulthood — no matter their gender.