On Wednesday morning, the city’s Department of Transportation tweeted a series of sunlit photos showing smiling women riding down the 6th Avenue bike lane. The well-meaning photo-op kicked off a partnership with Citi Bike to highlight New York’s cycling gender gap: Only 23% of cyclists here are women.
Under the banner of #feminism, Citi Bike is encouraging its members to recruit their bikeless lady-friends with free one-day passes for a promotion the company is calling Women’s Bike Month. Also encouraged: hashtagging your ride photos, sharing your bike knowledge, and never mentioning that being swerved at intentionally or harassed by a police officer are just two of the wonderful perks that come along with cycling in New York.
Research has shown that women consider safety their top concern about urban riding, and that enhanced bike infrastructure is the way to address it. So yesterday’s event centered around a DOT press conference heralding the re-opening of 6th Avenue’s protected bike lane and its two-foot-wide strip of paint separating the women from speeding traffic.
“I want women to know that Citi Bike is a safe, affordable, and healthy transit option,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg told the crowd. “With such a big gender gap among cyclists, we believe that bike-share and over 1,000 miles of bike lanes around the city will be among the keys to getting more women to ride.”
When the DOT focuses on simply adding more women to streetscapes, it elides the reason women aren’t there already: They know they won’t be safe.
Bike infrastructure is only as good as the government that enforces it. What New York needs to even out its cycling demographics is streets where cyclists aren’t routinely maimed or killed. This depends on a police department that prioritizes Vision Zero instead of parking in bike lanes or punishing cyclists, not drivers, for hit-and-run deaths.
And the DOT needs to back up women cyclists every day, too, not just for half a month at the behest of a company that wants new customers.
Cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, which prize separated bike infrastructure, have even gender breakdowns for cycling. Focusing on that evidence is how a city can encourage women to cycle without wading into gender essentialism. Themed months, no matter the cause, imply that as soon as the calendar page turns we’ll be back to the status quo. That’s bad for any movement. For this one, it’s deadly.