Design Vehicle: Woman in her “very high” 70s

A while back I got some flack for discussing older women as “design vehicles” and implying they are generally more timid riders (than younger men for instance).  I suggested that if we planners and engineers build bicycle facilities for that “design vehicle” we will attract more riders who do not enjoy riding in regular bike lanes. This concept came from the idea of designing bicycle facilities attractive and safe for people from age 8 to 80. I accepted some of the criticism as valid, but I still believe the core idea has some merit.

As a concept, designing bicycle facilities for traffic intolerant people (such as children)  remains valid, it is just not easy to pigeon-hole people by typical demographics into those vehicles.  So we may find there are assertive older women who are unafraid of jousting with heavy traffic as there are fixie riding courier-wannabes.

Case in point, yesterday I spoke to a class of hipster artist kids at the Milwaukee School of Art and Design.  If I had bet that most of these kids fit the fearless category of cyclist, I would have lost.  About a third of the class implied they were not comfortable riding bicycles in urban traffic, even with a bike lane. 

Then Sam tipped me to a post on the Team Estrogen blog about Susan Octonos’ experience riding a Gazelle Madelief.  Apparently  Susan is a pretty experienced vehicular cyclist, but normally rides a fast race bike for training, not a slow commuter bike for transportation.  Her experience riding 8 mph on an Omafiet was completely different:

“I realized that I’ve gotten out of touch with what it feels like to be a slower/less confident cyclist. I’ve become so confident in my abilities over the years, that I’ve forgotten how fast and scary suburban high-speed traffic must feel to the transportation cyclist who only rides to get from point A to point B, and oftentimes does so on a bike not capable of moving very quickly.”


My take-away from all this is that while people may not be easy to categorize it is fair to say the majority don’t ride very fast and feel uncomfortable or unsafe riding  a bicycle in traffic.  To attract the most people, a bicycle facility has to be built with a design vehicle in mind that moves about 10mph and needs to be separated from heavy or fast-moving traffic.  

In the video below, Lucette Gilbert provides a great example of someone not easy peg.  I don’t know how to place her in the spectrum of traffic tolerance, but I have learned enough not to try.  But if I can design bike facilities that get folks like Lucette out riding, I am doing something right. Anybody know a local Lucette?  It would be great to do some profiles of people who defy the “typical cyclist” image.

Find My NYC Biking Story: Lucette Gilbert and other great films from Streetfilms on Vimeo. Please consider donating to Streetfilms to support all the great work they do.


About daveschlabowske

Cyclechic advocate from Milwaukee
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5 Responses to Design Vehicle: Woman in her “very high” 70s

  1. Tosa Groupie says:

    Interesting observation–one that I probably wouldn’t have come up with. It makes me look at the puzzled cyclists at 6th and Canal who are clearly questioning how to make the turn with a different eye.

    But, while I can’t help you out with a sterotype-defying cyclist, I have to appreciate your quoting SusanO. She is an amazing woman. She built a business that provides cycling and athletic apparel to women of all sizes and shapes. Her employees are avid bike commuters and have a great bike parking facility. But, more important, she sponsors a women’s cycling forum that is active, welcoming and encouraging to all levels of cyclists. Oh, and she is a randonneur–her ride reports are inspiring.

    And, btw, the original post on the 70 year old cyclist inspired a thread on those forums back in October ( ).

  2. Dave Steele says:

    Back in my non-cycling days, the main thing that kept me from doing it was fear. Fear of getting hit by a car and fear that I couldn’t do it. I was a young male in my 20s, the prime demographic for biking, but I was nearly 30 when I got into riding. I was afraid, plain and simple.

    I try to never forget just how scary urban bike riding can be when you’re not used to it. I have friends and family members who live near bike paths, who have bike commutes I would kill to have. But they don’t ride because they’re afraid of biking in the street next to cars, even if only for a few blocks, and even on relatively wide and low-traffic streets.

    Riding a bike in the city makes you look at the city in a new way. Traffic, cars, stop lights and intersections go from being familiar to being intimidating. Whenever something is new it’s scary on some level. I was scared when I first drove a car on the freeway as a teenager. It was different, but soon became second nature. Same thing with biking.

    Then there’s the fear of looking like a fool. Now that I’m capable of riding hundreds of miles in a week, it seems crazy to me now. But five years ago I could barely make it to work on a bike, only five miles away. I was afraid of looking stupid. I was afraid of trying something new that I thought I wouldn’t be good at.

    No amount of paint on the street or miles of bike path can really address the fear factor. It can encourage people, but ultimately each person has to make the decision to confront their fears.

    I’m not afraid of looking stupid anymore, but I’ve never really lost my fear of biking in the street. I use that fear to stay vigilant and alert. A reasonable amount of fear can be a healthy thing.

  3. I’m 60 and never been a strong cycler. I used to ride a lot when I was in my 20s and I really miss riding a bike. I now live in an area where I’m considering riding again. I would be very hesitant to ride in town, unless I had some nice back roads to use. There are just too many crazy and distracted drivers out on the roads these days.

    • daveschlabowske says:

      Teri, while it is certainly tragic and unfortunate that we have had four of deadly crashes in the last 6 weeks or so, remember that cycling, in the city or on rural roads, remains safer than driving a car, walking, going down stairs, swimming, etc. More than 2.5 million people ride bicycles every year in Wisconsin, yet on average only 10 people die. In that same six weeks in which four people died riding bicycle, about 78 people died driving cars. Statistics don’t like, riding a bike is safe. That said, just because it is safe, does not mean it is pleasant. Many people just don’t enjoy cars whizzing by their elbow and prefer to ride on trails or on roads with wide shoulders and bike lanes. That is perfectly understandable and why the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin is constantly working to make sure all roads in our great state have bicycle accommodations attractive to even the more traffic intolerant cyclist.

      Finally, one other thing that can help is taking an adult cycling class. I took one after riding to work every day for 5 years and I learned a lot. I also became much more comfortable riding a bicycle in traffic. The Bike Fed offers those classes, and if you are interested, contact us about one in your area. Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts.

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