“Women cyclists, indicators of a healthy bike network.”

As Portland aims for platinum status as a cycling city, it can use the
gender gap to make rides safer. You don’t have to be a cyclist to guess the scariest places to ride a bike in Portland. Danger zones include the controlled chaos of downtown, the high speeds of the outer Eastside and the winding uncertainty of the West Hills — all places where drivers and cyclists mix with unease.

There’s a way to measure bike safety beyond guessing, however. Watch for women. As the city’s bike planners have found, there’s a direct correlation between the safety of a particular area and the number of women cyclists. The city can use this information as it maps out a new master plan for biking, reduces the danger spots and strives to spin its “gold” rating from the League of American Bicyclists into platinum.

Women cyclists,” the city’s transportation office asserts, “are the
indicators of a healthy bikeway network.” Women cyclists are more safety-conscious than men, according to Portland surveys and ridership data. They’re far more likely to wear helmets and less likely to ride on sketchy routes with questionable sections. They’re
also more likely to cite their reluctance to ride near traffic as a reason for staying off their bikes.

The city’s proportion of women cyclists increased as Portland improved its bike network and made cycling safer for everyone. Women now make up one-third of the city’s cyclists, up from about 20 percent in 1992 — even as the city’s total ridership exploded. Today, the city ranks first in the nation for bike commuting and earns regular accolades as the nation’s most bike-friendly city.

Even still, Portland has its danger zones. They’re places with lower ridership. They’re also places where the majority of women think riding isn’t worth the risk. Outer East Portland, for example, is known for pedestrian accidents and speeding cars. Only 13 percent of its cyclists are women. By contrast, inner Southeast Portland gets kudos for its leafy bike boulevards and comparatively safe routes. Fully 45 percent of its cyclists are women.

Portland’s bike planners want to improve cycling conditions citywide, with a special emphasis on areas such as the outer Eastside. Their goal is to make bicycling more attractive to the scores of Portland residents who would ride more often if the streets were just a little safer and the hazards less daunting.

They know it’s possible to erase cycling’s gender gap, as bike-friendlycountries such as Denmark and the Netherlands have done. It’s equally possible to reduce the culture clash between Portland’s bicyclists and drivers. It starts by transforming, one by one, those high-risk blocks and intersections that are tolerable to thrill-seeking male bicyclists and almost no one else.

~ Oregonian, June 2007

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