Recently, Historic Milwaukee was foolish enough to ask me to be a part of a panel discussion about development along Milwaukee’s Lakefront. Much the conversation that night centered around removing some ramps at the end of the Hoan Bridge (don’t get me started) and putting an iconic new building aptly titled “The Couture” in the place of the “Milwaukee County Transit Center” (a misnomer if there ever was one).
I won’t go into the full discussion, you can read all about that in Michael Horne’s column in Urban Milwaukee. As you might expect, I had little to offer compared to my estemed fellow panelists, but I did make a few waves when I said “It’s time we said “no” to more parking. It is already too easy to drive and park in Milwaukee.” That comment drew applause from some and ire from others in the audience. It bothered one woman so much that she made a point of sticking around after to tell me so.
“My 70-year-old mother who lives in Wauwatosa is never going to ride a bike or take the bus,” she said pointedly, politely, but firmly, interrupting another person from the audience who had stopped by to chat with me. Before I got a chance to respond, she marched off in a bit of a huff. If she would have stuck around to let me get a few words out, I was about to ask ”why not?” After all, I see plenty of 70-year-old women riding the bus. I even know a few 70-year-old women who ride bikes. In other countries like Denmark or Germany, it is common for older women to get around on bicycles. That is why the Dutch call their bikes “Omafiets”(Granny Bikes). Given time, I would have also added that given the huge surplus in parking in Milwaukee, if we never built another parking space, he mother would be in no danger of being forced to ride a bike or take the bus because there was no place to park by the museum.
I turned to talk to a much younger female fellow panelist next to me about the comment. I expected her to agree with me, given she is an urbanist architect, but she sort of echoed the thoughts of the woman who stomped off, albeit more politely. “I wish we could wear bike clothes to meetings,” she said to me. Standing in my usual Value Village cyclechic attire, I waved at my outfit and said “You don’t need to change clothes to ride a bike, just change bikes. All you need is an upright city bike with fenders, a basket and chain guard.” I went on to say how women in cosmopolitan cites like Berlin, Milan, Copenhagen and New York ride bikes dressed in Kate Spade and Parda. I offered supporting evidence siting an A list of celebs who ride bikes, from designers like Betsey Johnson and Victoria Bechham to models and movie stars like Elle Macphereson, Naomi Watts, Ewan Mcgregger, etc. “Not this girl,” she replied emphatically, so I let the matter drop.
Now these are just comments from two women, hardly a representative sample of the female population, but as I have noted in previous blog posts, Wisconsin ranks comparatively low in the number of women or ride. So while I can’t make too much of what a couple women who self-selected themselves to comment to me, and perhaps felt threatened by by suggestion we stop building parking lots on Milwaukee’s lakefront, but I fear it does represent a real problem we have in Milwaukee. I know many women who do ride for transportation and look stylish or just ride in spandex and change at work without complaint. I don’t believe this is a crisis we need to address, but I wish that people would stop assuming older women won’t ride bicycles or that women don’t ride because fashion prevents it.
Both those statements are patently untrue, but they do speak to a very real stereotype and bias against cycling. First, let’s work on getting a bunch of protected bike lanes in Milwaukee and see if that helps increase the number of women who ride. Until that happens (and maybe after it does), I will continue to dress a little snazzy when I commute. Clothes have become part of my cycling manifesto and every outfit now has an agenda. And my wife rocks her unique style every day on her way to work on her Omafiets.