Biking by Numbers #1: Where are the women?

This is the first in a series of more wonky posts that take a closer look at bicycle use in Milwaukee during bike to work week.  I will try to focus each post on one particular question raised by the statistics. I hope this question will start a discussion in the comments section of each post.

By all accounts more people are biking to work in Milwaukee more often.  This is a national trend, and I will delve into the growth in cycling in Milwaukee in another post tomorrow.  Today I am looking more closely at the numbers to see if they reveal any interesting differences between Milwaukee and other cities.

The main source of statistics today is the American Community Survey conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau. The ACS asks only one question about bicycle use and here it is:

This is the journey to work question as it appears on the American Community Survey

Note that the question does not ask how a person gets to work most of the time, during nice weather, etc.  So if a person taking the survey typically bikes, but didn’t due to bad weather they don’t count.  Or if the person biked to work 2 of 5 days, they are not counted as a bike commuter.  Despite the obvious limits of this question, it is the best thing we have to compare one city to another.  So what are the numbers in Milwaukee?  I have drilled down to pull out just the journey to work data since 2006.

The rows highlighted in yellow show our total bicycle “mode share” or mode split.  These are simply the number and percentage of the total of all commuters who checked “Bicycle” in question 25.  As you can see, Milwaukee is only at a little over 1%, while Portland leads large cities at about 6% and Minneapolis leads cold weather large cities at a bit above 4%. As I wrote above, I will look more closely at these general numbers tomorrow, but today I want to talk about something that immediately jumped out at me when I pulled this info together.

What I find most interesting in these statistics is that Milwaukee has far fewer women biking as a percentage than other cities.  These are the figures in pink.  Milwaukee women only make up about 13% of the total number of bike commuters, but they make up 38% to 25% in all the other cities.  That is a significant statistical difference.  Even Chicago, which has a very similar mode share to Milwaukee, women make up 25% of the bicycle commuters.

I would love to hear from  readers with ideas why women in Milwaukee bike to work less than women in other large cities.  There are lots of more general reasons I can think of why women bike in fewer numbers than men.  But I would like to look at what is so different about the biking culture in Milwaukee than other cities. Ideas?

No matter what, I think this points to a need to do more to promote utilitarian bicycle use among women in Milwaukee.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

28 thoughts on “Biking by Numbers #1: Where are the women?

  1. Dave, I biked today to work or the first time in 3 years. I used to bike a lot when I worked closer to home. I don’t bike more often for many reasons even though I should. First, I hate helmet hair! Vain reason, I know. Second, arriving at work sweaty is not as acceptable for women. Third, we have more “stuff” to carry. Even with basket and backpack (laptop) I was fully loaded. Fourth, we do more carpooling and transporting of kids (and when you have more than one, it gets busier!).

    I would be interested in you or Bike Fed surveying some women more broadly to find out why. When I was in Amsterdam this summer it seemed that women outnumbered men on bikes. Some even pulled 3 kids on their work bikes–WITH Groceries!

    Thanks for your post. Enjoy the Mayor’s ride tomorrow. 😉

  2. I have a feeling that as ridership in the city grows, we’ll see that percentage increase. I think one of the biggest reasons many women(my wife as an example) don’t ride into work is because of lack of amenities, with a locker room and shower being a big factor. So, as bicycle commuting continues to grow, we’ll see more and more companies adding these for their employees. Many men(myself included) don’t feel the need to shower and fix up their hair when they arrive, so additional growth in ridership after adding these will be weighted more heavily towards females.

  3. I’m so glad to see you giving this issue some attention. I agree with Dave and Tonieh that it would be great to study the issue more and develop a plan to make bike commuting an enticing and viable option for more women. I love riding my bike and just took a job 10 miles from my home. I feel some concerns about safety along the route. I choose commercial streets that are striped with bike lanes, even though in some cases that adds time to the commute. I think I’ll have to invest in bigger/smarter panniers and better lights, which can be expensive. I know that seeing more bikes, especially with women riders, along my route would make me feel a lot better.

  4. This question has been asked repeatedly for about a year, but with no definitive answer. Nobody has taken up the reigns to put out a broad survey and talk to female cyclists/commuters about why they do ride their bikes and why they don’t. I might recommend you talk to the Bike Fed and see if they have a plan of action developing around this; if they don’t, you might consider developing a plan yourself.

    As a volunteer for the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective ( it would be great to have an official questionnaire to survey the women who pay us a visit.

    At any rate small amount of research I have done regarding the lack of female cyclists is:
    a) Lack of infrastructure. Our roads are perceived as too dangerous; I don’t blame them, considering bike lanes are only placed on the busiest roads and they often disappear just as quickly as they started. Main roads like Locust Street shift between one lane, two lanes, mixed use lanes, and bike lanes no fewer than 6 times within the span of a mile.

    Infrastructure is more important and more effective than helmet safety. If you improve infrastructure you reduce the need for a helmet and therefore reduce helmet hair. If you reduce the need for a helmet you increase the fashion factor which will get more women into the idea. More women brings in more men and ultimately more cyclists. More cyclists makes the city a safer place to ride and the circle continues to improve.

    b) Elitism, competition and misogyny. Making these comparisons may be an act of misogyny itself, but guys wanna go fast and girls don’t;that difference causes distress to both parties. Guys obsess about technical aspects of bicycle machinery–frame brand, gruppo, weight, etc.–and girls just want to have fun on them. Guys don’t care about sweat and grease, girls do.

    c) Cycling in this city is not a social affair. Riding greater than single file elicits honks from angry drivers. Sitting in a car means you can enjoy the company of another person. Riding a bike means you’re talking to their rear and deciphering sentences filtered through wind. More off-street bike paths (infrastructure again) will encourage more socializing. Look at the Oak Leaf Trail on a sunny weekend day and you’ll see a much higher rate of women.

    But again, this is information from a very small sample of people, so a larger survey for a better answer is definitely appropriate.

    • For me, the biggest reason I don’t ride my bike to work is the safety factor on busy roads.

      I agree with many of the points made by “Little Tiny Fish”. The bike lanes are on the busiest roads. MOrning and after work traffic is crazy and scary when riding a bike. Too many Drivers of vehicles in Milwaukee and surrounding counties are either oblivious to cyclists and safety or rude/hostile. I really dislike cycling on the streets. The cycling paths are great, too bad much of the Oak Leaf is on roads or parkways that are in terrible disrepair, for example, the Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa and Hansen Parkway.

      There is also the hassle factor of having to change clothes at work, haul a laptop and other gear.

      What can we do to educate drivers to share the road with bicyclists??

      • Gisela,
        Safety and comfort are two different things. By many acturarial statistics, it is safer to ride a bike than to drive a car. So if safety is the concern, more people should ride bikes than drive cars. But if people don’t enjoy biking mixed with heavy traffic, that is a very different thing. There are classes you can take to get more comforatable riding in traffic, but I think it is a legitimate to ask for more pleasant bike facilities. The newly updated City of Milwaukee bicycle master plan has a number of proposals to attract people interested in riding bikes who don’t enjoy bike lanes, however safe they may be.

  5. Wow, a lot of great comments and ideas. I will try to respond to some of them here.

    Tonieh – Great you are back on the bike. If it helps you ride more for those short trips and keeps you looking fabulous, follow your Amsterdam inclinations: skip the helmet, ride more slowly, follow the laws and be careful at intersections, and remember bicycling is safer than driving.

    JG – Yup, get bigger baskets and panniers like those Dutch and Danish do. We need a bike shop that sells more of that stuff. Chicago has four shops dedicated to selling Dutch and Danish bicycles and accessories. Milwaukee should have at least one. Investors out there I could be convinced to quit my job ;v)

    Casey – I hope we see female ridership grow as a percentage, but I noted that Chicago has a similar mode share and twice our share of female riders. Is there something in the water here???

    Little Tiny Fish – Should we make a survey? I would help. We could work with Jessica from the BFW and we could use paper and survey monkey or some other free/cheap online method. Just a survey of women’s opinions. Email me if you are in: daveschlabowske at

  6. I’m female and I bike most of the year, but not every day. I work about 10 miles from my home. I used to work downtown and biked more often. I’ve been bicycle commuting since I was 18. I’m now in my 40’s. I’ve lived in other parts of the country. I wear a helmet and I change my clothes when I get to work. I have a big side pannier for all my lady-stuff. I luckily don’t sweat much. At work people are in awe that I ride my bike. They tell me that it’s so dangerous (particularly women). Men say they’d like to ride, but they get too sweaty or they live in places where the roads are not bicycle friendly. Probably the main reason that I don’t bicycle everyday is weather and time. I have to have my act together to get to work on time. I also take the bus in the winter and it takes a whole lot longer than driving. I do have rain gear and I’m starting to bicycle more in the winter with studded tires (but not yet to work). I wish that people would see bicycling to work as a normal activity and not freakish. Bicycle commuting keeps me sane (and in shape).

  7. I talked to Jessica, she is into this survey idea. I also looked at the APBP survey answered by 13,000 women, but that did not ask the questions we want answered in Milwaukee. So I will create a survey monkey to do this and publicize it on this blog and a few other listservs, bike clubs, etc. We need the questions though. Here are a few ideas, please offer your suggestions for other questions or how better to phrase mine:

    1. Age
    2. Race
    3. Income
    4. Employment type: (ie professional, government, non-profit, retail, etc.)
    5. Neighborhood (East Side, Riverwest, Concodia, etc)
    6. How often do you ride a bike in a month?
    7. How often for transportation when you do ride?
    8. do you ride all year?
    9. Do you ride to work?
    10. If you don’t ride to work rank reasons why: (list: Traffic Safety, Personal Safety, No facilities to change clothes/shower at work, schedule issues with childcare/home life, distance, not interested)

    What do you think?

  8. Dave, on the survey it would be great to include an open question too. Something like: “What would encourage you to ride your bike more often?” The answers to that question could start to set an agenda. For question #10, you should include “discouragement from others” as an option. AH is right: too many people think bike commuters are freaks.

  9. Dave, I feel like your questions, while good for census reports, don’t actually drill down to the root of the problem. Only the last question begins to pierce the surface of WHY women don’t ride their bikes. You can leave the answer at “personal safety” but that doesn’t let us know in what ways people are afraid for their own safety. Is it lack of bike lanes? Bad neighborhoods? Too many potholes? Too many bad drivers?

    Maybe I’m getting too wordy (I suppose I have that tendency), but I think there are a lot of factors to consider that could be improved or at least addressed.

    Dave, I’ll send these to the e-mail you listed as well, but I thought I might post them here for the public to see and comment on as well.

    What do you like most about your bike?
    What do you like least about your bike?
    How comfortable do you feel on your bike?

    When you walk into a bike shop how do you feel?
    When you leave do you feel any differently?

    How often do you ride your bike?
    What are your favorite places to ride? Least favorite?
    What do you like most about riding? Least about riding?

    Do you feel safe riding in bike lanes?
    Do you feel safe riding on unmarked higher traffic thoroughfares?
    Do you feel safe riding on unmarked neighborhood roads?
    What is the most unpleasant experience you’ve had on your bike?
    How familiar are you with the rules of the road and how they apply to cycling?

    Do you participate in any cycling related events? (Events can include charity rides, races, bike-in movies, group picnics, pub crawls, etc.).
    How many of your friends ride bikes? How many of them are female?

    What is the length of your commute to work?
    How many children do you have?
    Do you have a spouse, boyfriend, significant other, partner who rides?

    What encouragement from family, friends, work, businesses, or the city would get you to ride more?

  10. OK, I got some comments off blog/list that I am not asking enough questions that really get at the root of the problem. Here are a few other questions that were suggested:
    10: If you don’t ride to work rank reasons why: worried about traffic safety, worried about crime/personal safety, Dress code/personal style, Stigma that biking to work is weird, Because no other women at my workplace bike to work, my workplace does not encourage people to bike to work, No facilities to change clothes/shower at work, schedule issues with childcare/home life, distance, not interested, other______)
    11. What is the distance of your commute?
    12. Do you have a spouse/partner who bikes?
    13. Does your spouse/partner bike to work?
    14. How many friends bike to work?
    15. Are you taken seriously when you go into a bike store?
    16. In general, do you feel encouraged to bike to work by friends/family (Y/N)
    17. Do you know other women who sometimes bike to work?
    18. Do you live in the City of Milwaukee? If yes to 18, what neighborhood?
    19. Explain in a paragraph why you do or don’t bike to work
    20. Explain in a paragraph what would get you to bike to work more?

    Further suggestions?

  11. I live downtown, and my commute is barely a mile. Last summer, I rode my bike to work on most dry days, and loved it. I have an upright Schwinn Southport that my daughter gave to me for Christmas. I wear my work clothes to ride – it helps that it is downhill most of the way to work, so I barely have to pedal. I don’t wear a helmet, and I’ll be honest – I ride on the sidewalk at least part of the way. (But I’m very non-threatening to pedestrians.) When I took my bike to Crankdaddy’s last year to get it tightened up, they were really nice and respectful about it, even though it came from Target.

    • Awesome Jane, I’m glad you are out there rolling. I’m also glad you had a good experience at Crank Daddy’s. That is a super shop.

      So that is all good on you, but I would be remiss if I did not ask you to remember, riding on a sidewalk is often more dangerous than riding in the street. Crashes happen at intersections and every driveway, alley and corner is an intersection. There are more many more conflict points on the sidewalk than in the street. Also, motorist do not look for cyclists on the sidewalk. For those reasons, it is illegal to ride on the sidewalk in Milwaukee, so beware and be careful. But I understand why people find it more pleasant to avoid busy streets sometimes, even if it is more dangerous. Either way, I would rather see you out there biking than not.

      You might consider taking an adult cycling class from the Bicycle Federation of WI. I took one and learned a lot, even though I was a pretty experienced commuter cyclist. Or maybe going on some of the Pedal Pusher Society rides to get experience that will make you more comfortable riding in the street.

  12. The most often cited reason to me is that it’s too difficult to get ready for work at the end of the ride.

  13. Hi – I have been biking to work for the past three years. I don’t do it every day due to the weather, my schedule, or not enough time~I ride anywhere from 2-4 days per week and my commute is about 8 miles each way. There are quite a few reasons that I could see that women might not ride. Many of them have been mentioned ~ too many items, not enough time because of children, etc. Luckily my children are teenagers, so they don’t require a lot of assistance in the morning, however, when they are in sports or have something going on at school, I find it hard to bike and make these functions. Some of the reasons I find it hard to bike to and from work are the drivers that don’t pay attention, being alone at early hours in the morning, and being concerned that something might happen to my bike while riding and being alone and trying to fix it. It isn’t the fact that I can’t fix it, but it is that I am alone. I take the Hank Aaron trail and for the most part I feel safe. Also, the other problem is the glass on the roads. Not only are they on the trail, but I find when going through downtown, there is a lot of broken glass on the roads. One other thing I would like to mention is that this year I have seen a huge increase in the drivers that are not paying attention. When coming home last week, I counted 7 women drivers that weren’t paying attention and pulled out in front of me. Regardless of the issues, I love riding my bike as much as I can and make the best of it!

    • Mindy,

      I ride the Hank Aaron most days too, just because it is so pleasant (though construction will make it less so in the next month).

      I think it is awesome that you manage it as often as you do.

      If you are worried about changing flat tires, I have two suggestions:
      1. You can take a short mechanics class at Wheel and Sprocket and learn how to change flats in no time. One night in the class should do it.

      2. Just swap out whatever tires you are running now for Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires. Those are virtually flat proof. I have not had a flat in three years of riding every day, all year. Did I just jinx myself?

  14. I only recently became employed at a company that gives me the opportunity to commute to work. My previous job required me to travel so I was not able to commute. I really enjoy the days that I do commute. I try to ride in as often as possible and if I can get 3 rides in a week I feel good. 4 of course is better. My commute is 19.75 round trip so it makes for a great before and after work workout :). I am lucky as my workplace has onsite showers available. I normally can start riding in April and continue through September.
    The main things that keep me from commuting are;
    -temperature (needs to be above 45 degrees)
    -raining (not a fan of riding in the rain)
    -daylight (I start early so I need to have some light to ensure my safety on the road)
    What I find frustrating is the lack of patience of people in cars. At intersections they will not be courteous, nor are they patient if you are on a 2 lane road. I always have to be on the alert. I wish more roads would have bike lanes. Also if our bike trails were all paved and inter-connected it would make for a long, safe and great rides (as well as more of us would use the trails vs. the roads and that would make the drivers happier).

    • Jodi,

      20 miles is a pretty serious commute. I congratulate you for making it work as often as you do. Don’t feel pressured to ride more, but do ride as often as you want to. I think the enjoyment you get will provide greater motivation to ride more often than some external pressure to do so.

      I understand your frustration with motorists, but remember they get just as frustrated with other people in cars. I used to get all pissed off at people who cut me off, passed too close, honked horns, etc. I often got to work just as mad as the cars honking at me. Then I realized I was letting other people ruin my ride. So I tried to get Zen about it and not let others wreck something I enjoy. Now I accept that other people are angry, but I don’t let them get me angry.

      As far as the whole shower at work thing goes, you are fortunate that your workplace has those facilities. That is awesome and from what I hear, more and more employers are providing those facilities. But this blog takes the “Euro” angle on things, and people over in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark just ride their bikes in the clothes they wear to work or to go out. Stiletto heals and suits and ties are considered “bike clothes” in Copenhagen. That is how I dress (OK, just the suit and tie) when I bike to work, but my commute is only 7 or 8 miles, mostly down hill in the morning.

      I hope more people will try biking in regular clothes and that will make more people bike more often.

  15. My travel to work one way is 10 miles. I do have access to a locker room and shower but have to pack more and invest in more anti wrinkle clothes so I take advantage of the bus’ that have the bike racks (2) on them. I have been finding the racks harder to bring down (sticking) and picking my bike up and having to bend at the waist instead of using my legs to put the bike on the rack has caused some stains. The route I take is along (KK) which is under construction and very busy and dangerous, if a bridge were built over the river coming out of downtown bypassing the city streets I would probably bike to and from work.

  16. Hey, I just opened the Bella Donna email that led me to the survey thing that led me to this site. So, maybe it’s too late but I moved to Milwaukee about a year ago and picked an apartment in part based on allowing an easy bike commute to work. I don’t know the distance but it takes about 20 minutes and can be faster than driving given the hunt for parking. for the past year, I did not bike to work about a half dozen times due to weather. And, I do get some flak at work but also “good for you” type stuff. my worst experience was biking during a winter (so it was dark) rush hour on a chewed up downtown street that popped off my bike light. I watched several cars smash the poor thing to bits, and the replacement light I bought just died. but I usually feel pretty safe- certainly safer than walking at night- and the traffic is nothing compared to Boston. glad to see there’s interest in all of this!

  17. Welcome to Milwaukee Alex, even if it is a bit late. Sure fill out the survey if you didn’t do so yet. I’m going to leave it up for a while. What do you think about my idea that fewer women bike to work hear than other cities, even with similar overall bike mode shares, because it is just so easy and cheap to drive? I think that would hold true comparing Milwaukee to Boston.

    BTW, I am a big fan of the Bellas. Say hey to Jillian and Stef for me if you see them. I think teams like the Bellas play a vital role helping to bring more women into cycling. I don’t do the race thing any more, but I recognize how important it is.

    • Thanks Dave,

      glad to see all of this interest. Also, I have to admit it’s easier for me to bike commute because I only have a few hours a week when I have to be at work and dressed properly (I teach). Otherwise, I work from home or can work with messed up hair, etc. The driving/parking thing makes a lot of sense- MKE is so empty in terms of car traffic – in Boston or Ann Arbor, MI it’s easier to say that biking can be faster than driving. Also, um, Milwaukee seems a little more conservative — meaning a lot of people grew up here and so the social norms are probably stay more stable than in cities with more transplants. So, if there was little bike culture 5, 10, 15, etc. years ago, that has a bigger impact on biking culture now than if the population were more fluid ( and lots of bike commuters moved to MKE each year).

      another bit — I was first bike commuting in California where bikes are more typical and so it’s less intimidating because there are established norms and rules both for cars & bikes in terms of safety and who has the right of way, etc. (unfortunately, this includes getting tickets for rolling through stop signs)… so, maybe it’s all just a matter of time as critical mass builds (?) addressing the stuff that holds people back (such as lack of bike parking downtown) can also push the norm towards more biking…

  18. Pingback: Women’s Cycling Newsletter | Over the Bars in Milwaukee

  19. bike shortcuts interconnect existing secondary roads via connections cars cannot use such as paths on property lines pedestrian bridges etc. they are better than bike lanes as they are cheaper to build, faster as they r shorcuts & do not parallel the arterials & safer as they take people to the secondary roads. many of these sc’s exist & are not mapped or can be built. i have mentiond his to mr schlabowski, dot, bfdi but no one seems interested

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