To Get Women to Bike More, Build Better Bike Lanes

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Biking is a great way to stay healthy and get around town without paying for gas, but not everyone bikes in equal numbers. There’s a gender gap in bike commuting, one that’s easily illustrated by bike-share numbers. Several years after its launch, the membership of New York’s Citi Bike program was less than a third female, and it isn’t a problem that’s unique to New York or bike-sharing in general.

A good way to get more women cycling, though, is to install more bike lanes, as researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado concluded in a recent study in the Journal of Transport and Land Use. It sounds intuitive and, indeed, studies have shown that adding bike infrastructure leads to more people biking in general.

But it’s particularly important to talk about how to get women on bikes because the gender gap in cycling is so large in the U.S., even though the approximately equal shares of women and men biking in Europe tell us that riding a bike isn’t a uniquely male activity.

The latest study examined cycling demographics by neighborhood in Montreal and Vancouver, two cities that both have a diverse selection of bike infrastructure ranging from painted lanes to cycleways separated from the street. The researchers found that if a neighborhood had access to some kind of bike infrastructure within about half a mile (1 kilometer), that area saw four times as many people cycling as neighborhoods without bike lanes. But the difference between cycling on the road with cars and cycling in a dedicated lane of some sort had an even more significant impact for women specifically.

Though women make up half the commuters in Montreal and Vancouver, they were much less likely than men to ride bikes to and from work if there wasn’t any bike infrastructure. In some neighborhoods without infrastructure, only a tenth of the cycling commuters were women, while in one with better access to bike lanes, women made up almost half of the cyclists. When more bike commuters were hitting the road in a neighborhood, the percentage of men and women was about equal, perhaps because of the “safety in numbers” phenomenon.

Shaded maps of Montreal and Vancouver show the percentages of commuters bike.
The percentage of commuters in each neighborhood who get to work by bicycle, with darker colors indicating a greater share.
Teschke et al., Journal of Transport and Land Use, 2017

“To give women an equal opportunity to bike to work, municipalities need to build a great quality cycling network,” Kay Teschke, a professor of public health at the University of British Columbia and the study’s lead author, said in a Q&A with UBC’s news team.

The new study data, taken from 2011 Census results, may paint a slightly different picture than you might find in those cities now, six years later, when there might be new bike lanes or more bike commuters. Not to mention the fact that bike lanes aren’t necessarily spread evenly throughout a city, so other factors may be influencing this data, as the researchers admit. For instance, wealthier neighborhoods tend to have better bike infrastructure, which is why bike lanes have become a symbol of gentrification. But the results do track with previous research on the subject. A study in 2013 found that women cared more about cycling near bike paths or trails than men did, and several studies have found that women are more concerned about the safety issues associated with riding a bike than male riders.

Whether for men or women, though, the study makes it clear that cities could do a lot more to encourage cycling. People were more likely to bike if their neighborhood had an interconnected web of bike lanes, not just a few scattered paths. “The pattern of results suggested that the network formed by other bikeway types may have been more important than the specific bikeway characteristics,” the researchers write.

“Even though biking is faster and easier, more people walked to work than biked to work in both cities,” Teschke noted in her Q&A. She suggests that one reason could be that sidewalks are ubiquitous, but bicycle lanes are not—and whether men or women, people are apt to choose a mode of transport that makes them feel safe over one that’s a little more convenient but makes them think they’re about to get run over at any minute.

And while it might not seem that important to get women on bikes, cycling has major benefits that, ideally, the whole population should enjoy. Surveys find that people who cycle to work are happier than other types of commuters, and a 2016 study found that cyclists in the Netherlands outlive non-cyclists.

How the Hubble Space Telescope Helped the Fight Against Breast Cancer

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

The beauty of scientific research is that scientists never really know where a particular development might lead. Research on Gila monster venom has led to the invention of medication that helps manage type 2 diabetes, and enzymes discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park are now widely used for DNA replication, a technique used by forensic scientists to analyze crime scenes.

The same rule of thumb applies to NASA scientists, whose work has found dozens of applications outside of space exploration—especially in medicine.

Take the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, the Hubble has graced us with stunning, intimate photographs of our solar system. But it wasn't always that way—when the telescope was launched, the first images beamed back to earth were awfully fuzzy. The image processing techniques NASA created to solve this problem not only sharpened Hubble's photos, but also had an unexpected benefit: Making mammograms more accurate.

As NASA reports, "When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble's initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment."

That's because the Hubble Space Telescope contains a technology called Charge-Coupled Devices, or CCDs, which are basically electron-trapping gizmos capable of digitizing beams of light. Today, CCDs allow "doctors to analyze the tissue by stereotactic biopsy, which requires a needle rather than surgery," NASA says [PDF]. Back in 1994, NASA predicted that this advancement could reduce national health care costs by approximately $1 billion every year.

And that's just one of the tools NASA has developed that's now being used to fight breast cancer. When cancer researcher Dr. Susan Love was having trouble studying breast ducts—where breast cancer often originates—she turned to research coming out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As Rosalie Chan reports for the Daily Beast, the Jet Propulsion Lab has dedicated vast resources to avoiding the spread of earthly contaminants in space, and its research has included the development of a genomic sequencing technology that is "clean and able to analyze microscopic levels of biomass." As Dr. Love discovered, the same technology is a fantastic way to test for cancer-linked microorganisms in breast duct tissue.

A second technology developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the Quantum Well Infrared Photodetector, or QWIP—enables humans to see invisible infrared light in a spectrum of colors, helping scientists discover caves on Mars and study volcanic emissions here on Earth. But it's also useful at the doctor's office: A QWIP medical sensor can detect tiny changes in the breast's blood flow—a sign of cancer—extremely early.

And as any doctor will tell you, that's huge: The earlier cancer is detected, the greater a person's chance of survival.

A Nursing Home in China Offers Recent Grads Cheap Rent in Return for Spending Time With Seniors

iStock.com/PamelaJoeMcFarlane
iStock.com/PamelaJoeMcFarlane

One of the most overlooked problems people face as they age is isolation. Loneliness touches one-third to one-half of the elderly population, and it can have tangible effects on their physical and mental wellbeing. One retirement home in China is combating this issue by inviting young adults to keep residents company in exchange for discounted rent rates, Sixth Tone reports.

Sunshine Home, a privately run, state-funded senior living center in Hangzhou, China, welcomed about a dozen 20-somethings into the facility this past July. Costing just 300 yuan, or about $44, a month, the home is an affordable option for many recent college graduates looking to start their careers in the city. As part of the deal, they're asked to spend at least 20 hours a month with the elderly tenants, either by reading to them, chatting, showing them how to use their smartphones, or leading classes.

The arrangement is a win-win for both age groups: Young residents get an inexpensive place to live and the seniors get companionship they may not have had otherwise. Sunshine Home, which was built last year, still needs to fill about 1400 of its 2000 beds.

Most senior living facilities don't share this problem with Sunshine Home. Elderly populations are booming around the world, including in China, and many nursing home are struggling to make room for the influx of new residents. Whether the model is able to succeed on a wider scale is still to be determined, but Sunshine Home's project has received mostly positive feedback from participants so far.

Young people don't necessarily need to share a home with lonely seniors to offer them companionship. Teenagers volunteering through the California-based nonprofit Forget Me Not keep older adults company by chatting with them on the phone.

[h/t Sixth Tone]

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