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How Bay Area bike groups are putting more women on two wheels

Lezak Shallat
New cyclist Emily Wheeler, Oakland.


The number of urban cyclists has skyrocketed in the Bay Area in recent years. In San Francisco, ridership increased 96 percent from 2006 to 2013. But women make up just one-third of bike riders in the city.

Chris Hwang, president of the advocacy group Walk Oakland, Bike Oakland (WOBO), lists some of the top concerns shehears from women who are reluctant to bike:

“‘It's dangerous.’ ‘I don't want to be sweaty when I get to my destination.’ ‘I can't find a bike that feels right.’ “It takes too much time.’‘I need to do this, this, this, and that all in two hours. How am I going to get that done by bike?’”

Hwang is a cyclist herself, with her own concerns. 

“Convenience is a really big deal for me,” she explains. “So bicycling isn't just for me a recreational activity. It's how many bags I can attach to the bike and still feel comfortable bicycling.”

These are concerns that anyone – man or woman – might have about biking. But then there are the catcalls.

“I hate it,” says Hwang. “I think people don't realize it happens often as it does.”

Hwang says WOBO has started hosting events female bikers to address these concerns. At its “Bike Like A Girl” workshop earlier this year, women got tips on how to pick a bike that fit them, how to ride safely, and how to feel confident going into a bike shop.

On the other side of the Bay, there’s a coffee meetup for female cyclists in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. It happens on the first Friday of the month.

“The more we see people around us who look like us and feel the way we do, the easier it is to say: ‘I'm going to try that!’ or just know who to ask,” says Jen Fox, a volunteer board member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “A breakfast like this helps people to meet each other.”

The Women Bike SF branch of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition was launched just over a year ago to get more women to ride and to hear how other women have solved tricky bike logistics.

“One of the things I think about is what I’m going to wear when I get to work,” says Fox.  “A lot of women haven’t realized how they can just fold their fold clothes to fit into a pannier and take them to work.”

Melina Cortell moved to San Francisco last November.

“I was really intimidated about the thought of getting spandex,” she explains. “Taking it more seriously was a culture I didn't want to be a part of. I’d go on longer rides with men and receive some patronizing comments.”


Cortell started seeking out other female cyclists – spandex optional. That’s what brought her here.

“Finding other women out there who tell you, ‘Yes, it's safe enough,’ or ‘we need to band together,’ or ‘this is fun and empowering’ gave me such a sense of mobility.’ I think a lot of women come to it from that sense of freedom and independence.”

Back in Oakland, Emily Wheeler is also embracing that mobility and freedom. But it’s been a long journey.

“One thing that kept me from biking is just plain fear of getting hit by a car,” she says. “Because it's scary out there and you feel really vulnerable.”

Nonetheless, Wheeler tackled some pretty steep Oakland hills to bike to this interview. She’s back in the saddle after a 50-year hiatus. She says no one biked to school in the suburbs of her childhood, and then she started driving.

“My bike is pretty new and I'm pretty new to bicycling,” she explains. “It’s only been couple of months and it’s still something of a big production to get on my bike. I have to put on my helmet and my vest. It’s called Screaming Green and I really feel much safer wearing it – I never leave home without it.”

Wheeler, 61, now cycles for fun and errands. She got her routine down thanks to the WOBO workshop. And she’s confident riding alongside cars.

“I love it, love it, love it when I make eye contact with the motorists and I get a smile back,” she explains, “a smile that says: ‘You know, I’m sharing the road. I don't mind sharing the road.”

Emily Wheeler is one success story. And WOBO’s Chris Hwang and San Francisco Bike Coalition’s Jen Fox want to see more women like her.