Five days a week, through rain, snow, blistering heat and bone-chilling cold, Pam Nelms rides her bicycle 7 ½ miles from her home near the State Fairgrounds to her human resources job in downtown Minneapolis.
“I think of myself as a bicycle commuter, that is my self-identity,” said Nelms, 51.
That’s a big change for Nelms, who drove to work for 25 years before turning to the bike just five years ago. “I see the bicycle as a transportation machine, a wonderful transportation mode.”
That’s the kind of conversion that organizers of next week’s Bike Walk Week Twin Cities are hoping to see in other women.
Just 25 percent of Twin Cities bike commuters are women. While that is on par with the national average of 24 percent, it marks a decline from the 33 percent the Twin Cities recorded in 2008, according to some counts.
Advocates say three major factors keep women off the roads: safety, gender roles and certain stereotypes of the male-dominated biking community, such as skintight jerseys and shorts.
“You don’t want to be a poser, have people say you don’t look like a biker, you are not in super shape and you are not carrying a messenger bag,” said Jessica Hill of the Commuter Connection, one of seven organizations encouraging people to walk or bike to work at least one time between Sunday and Saturday.
“This is the kind of perception that I am trying to stop, that you need to be totally in the know and be in great shape to bike to work,” she said.
The arrival of Nice Ride Minnesota, the popular bike-sharing program, may be helping with that. The sight of women in skirts and business suits on bicycles is helping break down the misconceptions, Hill said. She has also added bike accessory items that appeal to women to the Commuter Connection’s store in the US Bank Plaza skyway in downtown Minneapolis, and posted biking articles on the organization’s Facebook page that show women biking.
Connections are crucial
To get more women rolling, Bike Walk Week organizers will sponsor free clinics on “Riding in Traffic” and “Basics for Bicycling Transportation.” They also will hold “pit stops” around the Twin Cities where cyclists can get free bicycle and pedestrian safety lights and connect with other commuters.
Those connections are crucial for women, who are more likely to ride in places frequented by other bicyclists, said Hilary Revee of Bike Walk Twin Cities. In its 2012 count of bicyclists taken between 4 and 6 p.m. at scores of locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the number of female cyclists was highest where bicycle traffic was greatest, and often surpassed the local and national averages.
Women are also more likely to avoid major thoroughfares and ride where there are bike lanes, bike boulevards and areas separated from traffic.
Barriers to biking
They also face both practical and impractical barriers.
Because many women are responsible for child care and domestic responsibilities, they run multiple errands at places such as the dry cleaner, library or grocery store on the way to and from work. As a result, women view biking to work as unfeasible, said Claire Stoscheck executive director of the St. Paul nonprofit Cycles for Change.
A lack of shower facilities or places to freshen up at work also keeps them from riding, she said.
Stoscheck also said society’s view of the bicycle needs to change.
“Cars are still the symbol of success in America,” she said. “Bikes are seen as toys, for sports for adults or the aggressive young male messenger running red lights. We need to make [women] love the bike and believe that they can do this for transportation and not just for fun and games.”
The League of American Bicyclists in Washington, D.C., has embarked on a national campaign to get women to ride bikes at the same rate as American men for transportation, recreation and fitness by 2050. As a result of its efforts, offshoot groups such as Women on Bikes St. Paul have sprung up across the country.
“We won’t see a change in those local or national stats overnight, but we’re definitely laying the foundation to close the gender gap,” said Carolyn Szczepanski, communications director for Women Bike.
Nelms, the St. Paul bike commuter, logs an average of 3,500 miles a year biking. Along with saving gas and getting a daily workout, Nelms says there are intangible benefits.
“I feel involved with my neighborhood,” she said. “I sometimes stop and talk to people out walking their dog. If I see something, I will stop and ask about it. I like the feeling of being part of the city. When you are in a car, you are insulated from the world. On a bike, you are part of what is around you.”