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Q&A: Women Bike rolls out in DC

Carolyn Szczepanski, founder of Women Bike


Participants at the first national Women's Cycling Forum

You may have noticed the emergence of bike lanes and bike shares popping up over the past few years, and soon, women like Carolyn Szczepanski, director of communications at the League of American Bicyclists, will ensure that women are not only taking advantage, but taking the lead in conversations regarding cycling in the city.
 
Here's what she has to say about getting more women to the pedals through The League's "Women Bike" program:
 
How did you get involved in cycling?
Five-ish years ago, there was a bike-to-work challenge that a friend of mine turned me on to. There was a week where you would go online and log how many trips you can do on your bike instead of in your car, so I decided to give that a try.
 
And literally in the span of a week, I realized I actually could do my job [as a reporter] really easily on a bike, and it was actually much faster for me to get from my office to city hall to cover city council meetings because I didn't have to worry about figuring out where to park and all the hassle of having a car. So I kind of adopted bicycling as my main form of transportation fairly quickly thereafter.
 
What prompted you to start Women Bike?
When I first came to D.C., I was working for an organization called the Alliance for Biking and Walking. One day at their leadership retreat, one of the advocates from Los Angeles stood up and basically said, I'd love to have a gathering of the women who are here – kind of a women's caucus, if you will. 
 
We had noticed, even in the course of just those few days, that a large majority of people making the presentations were men and a lot of the board members for cycling organizations were men.
 
So we kind of had this moment of clarity of — oh, there are conversations here about gender in the bike movement that aren't really happening. We had just an hour of time at that first meeting. And the only real takeaway was that we needed to keep having these discussions — that this needs to be a conversation that's ongoing.
 
It took a couple of years for anything to get rolling in a tangible way. And I kind of picked up the baton about this time last year and put together the first national women's cycling forum. We had a two-hour discussion; it was fairly short. We brought together six different women who represented different aspects of the bike movement.
 
Honestly, I was expecting to get maybe 100 people there, and lo and behold, nearly 300 people showed up. So we realized pretty quickly that this is a key discussion that people are really interested in having. That turned into a full day's event in September that the League put on and we launched Women Bike as an ongoing, free-standing program in January.
 
Why do you think it's important for women to bike? How would it change our city if more women started cycling?
It's important to engage women's expertise and experience. We see that places in the city where there are protected bike lanes or traffic-calmed streets, that's where more of the women are riding — and that's where more people are riding. So when you make the streets accessible for a mom with her three-year-old kid in the back, you make the street more accessible for all users who would be biking.
 
What are the top three barriers to getting more women in D.C. riding?
It's really hard to pinpoint, because the life circumstances of women are just as diverse as any other group, but there are some key things that come up a lot. One of which is safety — women tend to be more risk averse than men. They're more leery of riding in the street with the automobile traffic. So when you see places like L St., or 15th St. or Pennsylvania Avenue that have the bike lanes that are separated from traffic, those tend to be pretty effective to getting more women riding.
 
One of the other barriers is that women tend to have more of the household and childcare responsibilities. They have more of the shuttling child A to point B and child B to point C and there's a lot trip chaining that has to happen. So there's a lot of potential barriers that women face that aren't necessarily there for men.
 
Another barrier is that women feel there's not a lot of other women doing it. So the more we have programs like WABA's Women and Bicycles, the more bike shops become more welcoming and inviting to women, the more rides that are geared towards women or feel more accessible to women, the more we build a bike culture that is led and representative of women — I think that will bring down a barrier, as well.
 
Do you have any tangible goals about increasing women cyclists in D.C. for the year?
We're looking to build the foundation of the program since it's our first year. We do want to have a successful event at our national women's bicycle forum on March 4th with 300-plus people.
 
We're going to have a number of webinars and reports that come out in 2013 that will share ideas and experiences and best practices and we really want to build a community online as much as we can to build that camaraderie to get more women engaged.
 
This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read more articles by Christina Sturdivant.

Christina is a Washington, D.C. native who is enthusiastically involved in the city's non-profit sector, creating programs and volunteering for organizations that provide resources to increase the living qualities of marginalized individuals. She enjoys writing about art, food, entertainment and all things progressive in the city. 
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