Biking can be cool... unless you're a teen girl

© April Streeter

By eighth grade, these girls might think biking is embarrassing.

As part of the Family Activity Study (FAS) undertaken by Dr. Jennifer Dill and colleagues at Portland State University, researcher Tara Goddard has supported with some data the idea that attitudes toward biking change when girls become teens.

Dill and colleagues wanted to learn through the multi-year, longitudinal study how parents and children get to where they need to go, and how families use active transportation like walking and biking.

The study involved inner-city Portland neighborhoods slated to get neighborhood greenways, those low-speed residential streets that have bike icons painted on them to encourage cars to share the road with bikes, and to drive slower for pedestrians.

The 166 teens surveyed with FAS filled out surveys prior to installation of neighborhood greenways. As Goddard points out in a presentation from last week at Portland State, the survey included a lot of attitude and perception questions. The researchers knew that previous studies have shown that teenage girls' activity levels tend to plummet around eighth grade. The questions were to help determine what teen attitudes contribute to that.

Goddard found that the cool factor, if it can be called that, plays a role in perceptions of bike riding. Girls who reported that they don't like riding a bike were more likely to say that their friends don't think biking is cool, and vice versa: girls who said they like to bike also reported their friends say it is cool to do so.

From this small study Goddard also demonstrated that girls' attitudes seem to shift right around age 14. Twelve-year-old boys and girls seemed to be on par, not very concerned about getting hurt from physical activity. By the time they are 14, girls were far more likely than boys studied to have worries about their competence with exercise, and about embarrassment, and about possible injury.

Goddard said she is hoping to do follow up with FAS girls surveyed to try to figure out a little better why girls develop some of these attitudes. The research group is now studying data from after the bike greenways were put in, including travel data (subjects wore GPS and accelerometer devices to tally what types of transport they took).

Overall, Goddard said skills clinics and social rides might aid teen girls in feeling less worried about injury or embarrassment from biking, but she's also not convinced biking has to be cool. Instead, she's hoping it will one day just be a normal way for teens, including the girls, to travel.

"I phrased my talk about "cool" because we specifically asked that question, and because it makes for a catchy title, but really, I think normalizing bicycling is more important that "cooling" bicycling, maybe even more so for teens than adults." - Tara Goddard

Biking can be cool... unless you're a teen girl
Research from PhD candidate at Portland State University uncovers an anecdotal truth. It ain't cool to walk or bike if you are an adolescent girl. Now to find out why.

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