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Why bike sharing could get more women riding in Seattle

Over the past nine years, the percentage of Seattleites commuting by bike has slowly climbed from 2.31 to 4.1 percent. Seattle officials see the forthcoming Pronto! bike share program as an opportunity to not only get more people riding, but a more diverse group of people as well. If other cities with bike share programs are any indication, Pronto! could very well provide an increase in the number of women riding bikes in Seattle.

Nonprofit Puget Sound Bike Share recently announced Alaska Airlines’ title sponsorship for the Pronto! Cycle Share program. Alaska’s five-year, $2.5 million contribution was a critical step toward making Seattle’s bike share a reality. The program is slated to launch in September of this year with 500 bikes at 50 stations downtown and in the University District, Capitol Hill and South Lake Union.

Rentals will cost $8 per day, $16 for three days or $85 for an annual membership. Users rent a bike from a sidewalk docking station, ride it, then can return it to any other open docking station in the city, allowing for one-way trips. Bike share rides are typically less than two or three miles — far enough that you might not want to walk, but perhaps too short for buses or driving. With the program's low cost and ease of access, bike advocates and Mayor Ed Murray alike have expressed their hope that bike share will get new people riding.

At a press conference announcing Alaska’s sponsorship, Mayor Murray suggested that the costs of bike rentals will be low enough to attract broad sections of the population. “For just $8 a day, someone can ride a bicycle," he said. "There is an equity issue here.”

“Bike share bikes are designed for ease of use and for an easier, more casual and social pace,” said Holly Houser, Puget Sound Bike Share Executive Director. “Putting 500 more bikes on the road is just going to further motivate the city to improve and add infrastructure. Seattle’s only going to get better and it will encourage more people to ride.”

Several American cities with bike share programs such as Washington, D.C., New York and Boston have found that the split between men and women is less imbalanced than the national average and, in some cases, close to a 50-50 split.

According to bicycle researcher and Rutgers University professor John Pucher, women make up about 25 percent of bicyclists in the United States. In Seattle, women account for a marginally higher 28 percent of bicyclists, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation’s 2012 bicycle count.

But in 2012, an average of 43 percent of all North American bike share members were women (most bike share programs just track gender information for annual members, not single-day users). To understand why so many more women are using bike-share systems than would ride otherwise, it helps to understand some of the common barriers to bicycling cited by women.

According to Carolyn Szczepanski, head of the League of American Bicyclists's newly launched Women Bike program, some of the most common barriers are: perceptions of safety and comfort in traffic and issues of convenience of riding while juggling the brunt of household responsibilities, including child care. And, she says there is a lack of a sense of community, caused in part by “looking out on the streets and seeing mostly men, many of whom are athletic and wearing gear that may or may not be something women are inclined to wear.”

But she says, cost, convenience and even cachet mean that women are taking to bike share in considerable numbers.

“With bike share, there’s such a low barrier to entry,” said Szczepanski. “A lot of women don’t have a bike or have a bike that’s been sitting in the basement and needs to be taken to the bike shop or fixed up. Bike share bikes are shiny and ready to roll for just a few dollars and you have access to those bikes at a drop of a hat.”

She added, “Bike share bikes are engineered to fit the lifestyle of people who are using them. You don’t have to don't have to worry about your pants getting caught or dirty, because there’s already a chain guard on there, there are already fenders on there. It’s a bicycle built for folks coming into the city, possible for work or wearing attire not in line with what people think you need to be on a bike.”

To be sure, it’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen with Seattle’s bike share program, and not all bike share cities have seen equal ridership. In 2013, only 21 percent of Chicago’s Divvy bike members were women. But given the trends across bike share programs, its likely Seattle will see a higher percentage of women riding bike share than our current 28 percent.

Since most North American bike share programs are still relatively young, their long-term impact on bicycling’s overall gender gap remains to be seen. Anecdotally, advocates like Szczepanski say the shift is noticeable.

“Just looking at streets [in D.C.], we’re seeing more women riding bikes. We’re definitely seeing more people in general out on bike share bikes. Drivers and pedestrians are seeing bikes become part of the urban landscape. Bikes have been somewhat normalized as part of the mix of ways to get around the city.”

Houser hopes the same shift is coming with Pronto!

“I'm excited about expanding our bicycling culture here in Seattle,” said Houser. “Bike share [takes] bicycling from recreation that requires certain type of bikes and gear — which lowers access for many different communities — and turns it into just another way to get around, an alternative to walking, busing, driving that everyone has access to.”

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