Monday, April 30, 2012

Are Bike and Pedestrian Committees Boys' Clubs?

Photo courtesy of

A new study from the Mineta Transportation Institute, An Examination of Women's Representation and Participation in Bicycle Advisory Committees in California, paints a disappointing picture of the role women play--or don't play--in the development of bicycle and pedestrian policy in our state. In a review of 42 government-formed bicycle and bicycle/pedestrian advisory committees throughout California, authors Hilary Nixon and Cathy DeLuca found that women made up only about 19 percent of members on all bicycle advisory committees and 24 percent of members on all bicycle/pedestrian committees. Further, women were the majority on only three committees.

This matters, because women's travel is different than men's. Women do more "trip-chaining" (linking a trip to work with a trip to school with a trip to the grocery store), take more shopping trips, and carry more associated baggage--and children--when they travel than men. Issues surrounding safety and security play a different role in the travel of women than men. Where a man might think nothing of walking down a dimly-lit street or an empty alley, a woman might change her route to avoid them--or choose not to walk at all. This isn't to say men never face danger on the street, but they're less likely to change their travel patterns because of it.

When women's voices aren't part of the dialogue about bicycle and pedestrian policy, the particular challenges that female cyclists and walkers face might never come up. This can lead to transportation systems that don't "work" for the women who rely on them.

In interviews with committee members, the authors attempted to understand the cause of the gender disparity on bike and pedestrian committees. Many of the interviewees cited the "male-dominated nature" of the committees as part of the problem. Not only did it discourage women from joining committees, it made them hesitant to voice their opinions or engage fully in policy discussions.

"When the other members of the committee laughed at bicyclists who were afraid of riding on [a certain road], in an area that terrifies me, I was sure I didn’t belong there."
And there were other things that kept women from coming to the table. According to the study, the top five barriers to committee involvement named by the women were:
  1. Time (60%)
  2. Lack of qualifications (25%)
  3. Lack of specific information about the committee (18%)
  4. Family and household responsibilities (16%)
  5. Lack of interest in politics (12%)
The demands on women's time are well known, particularly those who have young children. In fact, the authors found that women who did participate on advisory committees were disproportionately women without young children. That can make a real difference in how transportation priorities are set. The study found that female committee members were more likely to bring up travel concerns related to children.

"The real advocate for Safe Routes to School was [a woman] … Perhaps her being a mother could have been an impetus "
The study offers a number of different solutions to the problem of women's underrepresentation in advisory committees. Some of their suggestions:
  •  Governments and agencies can expand their outreach efforts to women’s organizations (women’s clubs, mother’s clubs) and to organizations in which women are very active
  • Individual committee members can be asked to encourage women they know to apply
  • The chair and/or staff support person(s) should facilitate the meetings in a manner that gives all members an opportunity to speak and that prevents dominant members from monopolizing. A formal turn-taking process could be instituted as part of this effort
  • The government or agency could institute term limits. This is especially important on committees with a longstanding male majority.
 I would also add that taking advantage of today's technology (webinars and web sharing sites, conference calls) can also allow the participation of busy women who might want to take part in policy discussions, but perhaps (ahem) don't have the time between commuting to another county and caring for a small baby to drive yet somewhere else for a committee meeting. (Kudos to our local Safe Routes to School Partnership for offering that option).

As disheartening as it is for me, a woman who is theoretically of the "post-feminist" generation, to still be writing about how to bring women to the policy table, Nixon and DeLuca's study provides valuable insight into the specific problems women face as they jostle for a seat. I hope we can pay attention to them as we set the bicycle and pedestrian agenda for the next generation.


  1. I notice that the study doesn't look at any pedestrian-only committees. I bet the results would be quite different. Women, often older women, take a much bigger lead in pedestrian advocacy. In my experience in Toronto with a pedestrian-only advisory committee, it was formed by women and they constituted at least 50% of the members.

    One recommendation might be to form pedestrian-only advisory committees (my experience is also when bikes and pedestrians share an organization, the cyclists dominate).

    Dylan Reid

  2. Dylan -- good comment. The study was actually intended to focus solely on bicycle advisory committees. However, in California, many of these are combined bike/ped committees so it didn't make sense to exclude them. Since our emphasis was on the issue of women's rate of bicycling, interviewing pedestrian-only committees wouldn't have provided us the insight we were seeking.

    Hilary Nixon, Ph.D.

  3. I thought about that also, Dylan. My experience with a pedestrian advocacy group in San Diego was similar, and it looks like the new group here in LA is being spearheaded primarily by women.

    But I think you make an interesting point about the bike/ped committee dynamic, one that I've often wondered about. My theory is that when cyclists and pedestrians share a committee, the committee tends to focus more on cycling issues--but that's based entirely on conjecture, not experience. Hilary, I wonder if you got a sense of whether or not that was the case for the committees you looked at in your research?

  4. Great post Katie - thanks for shining light on this.

  5. Dylan and Katie,

    A number of leaders in the national movement have noted the same dynamic between bicycle and pedestrian advocates. I think it has to do with the fact that while more people walk than bike, more people self-identify as bicyclists than as pedestrians. People don't tend to get involved in issues if they aren't personally invested. The solution seems to be to harness the energy from the bike advocates into a comprehensive "active transportation" agenda that incorporates pedestrian issues. In LA County, the bicycle coalition is the fiscal sponsor for the newly revamped LA Walks group and there is overlap between the two groups' board and staff. As long as cars continue to dominate our transportation landscape, bicyclists and pedestrians will have more in common than in conflict and should work together for the needed paradigm shift.

  6. Hi Eric--
    Yes, I think there's pretty wide recognition of the "lack of self-identification" issue. Interesting point about the active transportation agenda. I would be curious to see how things compare in groups that take that approach. But at the end of the day yes, I agree there's more to be gained from pedestrians and cyclists working together than the alternative...