Do you want to go on a bike ride?
A simple question with what might seem like a simple answer, especially as spring weather begins to waft across the country.
Dig a little deeper, and it gets more complicated. Your decision to ride a bike is likely informed not just by the temperature and your energy level – but also by your gender, and the influence of a burgeoning movement that’s transforming streets across America.
It’s a movement led in large part by an emerging community of female transportation planners – many of whom have marshaled research that illuminates realities like the biking gender gap (there’s one woman for every three men riding a bike in the U.S.) and America’s dangerous roads to make the case for a radical change in how we think about getting from here to there.
For decades, planners designed streets, and our transportation systems, in ways that inadvertently sacrificed safety to focus on driver freedom. They focused on how to reduce congestion for commuters, often neglecting to think about the population outside of the 9-to-five workforce. The results of this strategy: infrastructure built less for peoples’ holistic needs, and more for vehicles.
“In the past five to ten years, there’s been a big shift in the way we think about designing communities and neighborhoods for bicycling and walking,” said Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation at New America’s annual conference. “When you look at the leadership in the traffic safety movement, there are lots of women doing transformative things because they may see transportation from a different angle or lens.”
In many ways, Reynolds said, women are “changing the rulebook for how we design streets, and how we entice more women and families out to use them in a different way.”
Many of these rulebook changes originate with New York City’s Janette Sadik-Khan, the commissioner of the Department of Transportation from 2007-2013. She pioneered a street design plan that focused on the city’s most vulnerable travelers – and is known as a visionary in the transportation planning industry, even if she wasn’t always a popular one.
Around that time, groundbreaking research came out showing that women and casual bicyclists prefer quieter, slower streets and more separated paths. That research combined with the success of Sadik-Khan’s reforms inspired the construction of hundreds of bike lanes across the U.S. “What Janette did was to create kind of environment where women, children and older adults would feel more comfortable getting on a bike and would feel measurably safer walking,” Reynolds explained.
The push to focus on women and vulnerable populations extends beyond the streets to the Department of Transportation’s Job Access Reverse Commute Program (JARC), which is committed to strengthening transit connections in nontraditional commuting routes and times, typically traveled by women and lower-income communities trying to get to jobs or child care centers that are often located outside of conventional routes. The idea is to make sure that people who work a late shift, or do the reverse commute from city to suburbs, have reliable, affordable transit. In theory, a great program. In practice, says – Robin Hutcheson, the director of the Transportation Planning Division of Salt Lake City, JARC funding can be difficult to come by and “doesn’t always help us as a city do what we need to do.”
Both Reynolds and Hutcheson believe there may be a new role for government to play in increasing access for low-income communities as transportation and commuting shifts to a service-based model – in other words, people ditching their cars to rely more on driverless vehicles, Uber, Lyft, Bridge or car share to get around. Bike sharing and car sharing are not used as much in lower-income neighborhoods, she explained, due to both financial and cultural barriers. To Reynolds, the government could help encourage the shift away from individual car ownership towards a more sustainable model by subsidizing these services for lower-income populations.
Philadelphia’s new bike sharing program, which has focused on bringing the service to low-income neighborhoods, is one new example of how to get lower-income Americans on bikes. The program removes financial barriers by allowing patrons to pay with cash in addition to credit cards.
But the push for more bike-friendly communities hasn’t always been a walk – or a ride – in the park. For instance, in order to boost numbers of female bike riders, transportation planners have learned that it’s important to create a more substantial separation between bikers and traffic. “When there is nothing between you and moving traffic except a four-inch white stripe, you’re not going to put your kid on a bike, nor are you going to go out on a bike,” Reynolds said. But if you build a physical curb, or even flip flop parked cars with bike lanes on the road, more women will pedal.
But “to give space to something, you have to take it from something else,” Reynolds said, acknowledging that we’re no longer in the business of widening our roads. Another example of these tradeoffs: Vision Zero – a traffic safety project with the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries. It began in Sweden and has spread globally, with leadership efforts from both men and women. To reduce traffic deaths under Vision Zero, “I have to get everyone to slow down…and people across any discipline don’t do well when it comes to change,” Reynolds said, explaining that speed is a key indicator in how destructive a traffic incident will be. In other words, “saving lives comes at a cost.”
And then there’s the matter of culture change – teaching people to both approach and talk about driving in a different way. One critical pathway to this kind of change, Reynolds noted at the conference, is starting to talk about safety outcomes not as “accidents,” as if they couldn’t have been prevented, but “crashes,” where someone was responsible, and should be accountable for the consequences.
The idea that we all need to slow down is something that parents who witness near-crashes every day near their kids’ schools understand intuitively. But in many cases, that macro-level understanding hasn’t translated into micro-level behavioral change.
Not yet, at least. “When I was growing up, you didn’t wear seatbelts,” she recalled. Today, we may be buckling up more, but in the traffic safety space, there’s still “a real fundamental culture change we have to get to.” Reynolds, however, is optimistic: “I don’t think it’s out of our reach.”
Culture change, however, often requires leadership change. And diversifying the transportation C-Suite may be one of the biggest remaining challenges – as it is for other male-dominated industries.
“It’s one of my biggest frustrations, that I feel like more women are coming into transportation and are succeeding at the low level management and mid-level management, but then the doors still seem closed,” said Swaim-Staley. “We have fewer female DOT secretaries now than we had a few years ago. I see a glass ceiling more than I did when I started out.”
That may be more true in state government than in city government, Hutcheson pointed out. Salt Lake City, she noted, has more than a dozen women in leadership positions. And Hutcheson herself is an example of how even one woman in a leadership role can have a multiplier effect; Janette Sadik-Khan was an inspiration to Hutcheson as she rose into transportation industry leadership.
“Janette showed me – and many of us – what was possible,” Hutcheson said.
Elizabeth Weingarten is the Deputy Director of New America’s Breadwinning & Caregiving Program, and of the Global Gender Parity Initiative. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.