Activism | Pilsen

When a Woman Bikes in the City

A Pilsen organization fights the gender gap in cycling

Lauren Scott

On Saturday, April 18, a woman rolled a black Trek bike decked out with lights and saddle bags into the activities room at the recreation center at Dvorak Park for Women Bike Chicago’s Third Annual Day of Dialogue and Demonstration. “That’s a beautiful bike!” a woman sitting in one of the assembled folding chairs exclaimed. The other women in the audience laughed. “It’s a useful bike,” the first woman responded.

The Day of Dialogue and Demonstration is one of Women Bike Chicago’s efforts to encourage more women to recognize the utility and joy of biking in the city of Chicago. Attendance at the event has grown from only forty women at the first event in 2013, to nearly one hundred. This year’s event featured a bike zoo where women could try out different kinds of bikes, as well as presentations on topics ranging from the basics of bike maintenance to biking as a commuter to how to put a bike on a CTA bus. Representatives from Divvy, the City of Chicago Bicycling Ambassadors, Po Campo Bike Bags, and Slow Roll Chicago provided participants with more information about their roles in the Chicago biking scene, and the day concluded with a practice group bike ride through Pilsen.

“This is clearly designed not to be for super experienced bikers,” said Jane Healy, one of the founders of Women Bike.  “It’s to try to encourage people who are considering maybe riding their bikes more, people who are enjoying biking and would like to make it more a part of their life, people who don’t have a car and need to get around.”

The event also provided riders with a chance to network with other riders and form mentorships to help inexperienced riders get used to biking in the city. The organizers of Women Bike Chicago believe that when more women bike, biking is safer for everybody.

“If there are women out there biking you know that it’s a safe community, because women have a much lower tolerance for risk,” said one of the event’s many organizers, Susan Levin. In addition to the annual event, Women Bike Chicago organizes group rides and smaller pop-up workshops, social events, and happy hours.

Women Bike Chicago was founded three years ago, when a group of women that biked together  attended a panel hosted by the Active Transportation Alliance about biking in the city and noticed that there was only one woman on a panel of seven people. James said that the founders of Women Bike Chicago felt that the majority of people fighting for bike advocacy were men between ages twenty-eight and thirty-five who fondly recalled the days when they worked as bike messengers. The US Department of Transportation’s 2009 National Household Travel Survey confirms that only twenty-four percent of cyclists in the United States were women.

“So, what we thought about was, when we look at what’s happening with cycling advocacy in the city, one woman is never enough on a panel,” recalled another Women Bike founder, Jennifer James. “We were like, the future of cycling is not bike messenger-hood. It’s women with their families, it’s weaker riders having good infrastructure, old people riding.”

“It’s just an all-in-one empowerment device,” Healy said. Bicycling has long been linked with women’s rights, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony famously declaring that “woman is riding to suffrage on a bicycle.” Now, Healy believes, biking has become a way for women to navigate their neighborhoods while getting exercise. But the joy of biking is also an important driver in Women Bike Chicago’s work. As a woman zoomed by on one of the test bikes, James pointed her out. “Do you see her? Smiling?”

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