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As bike-sharing programs spread across North America, something has gone badly wrong. Women aren't very interested. Male riders outnumber female riders by three or four to one.

The gender gap in urban cycling has perplexed and dismayed bike-share advocates, who are searching for ways to break down the barriers. In New York, according to The New York Times, Citi Bike is trying to make cycling seem more stylish by hosting community events for women, featuring its bicycles in the windows of Bloomingdale's, and reminding people that cycling is a symbol of women's liberation. As Citi Bike's website declares, for the suffragettes "bicycles symbolized mobility, independence and freedom."

Personally, I believe this is a lost cause. I know why women don't cycle to work. It's not just the fear that they'll be wiped out at any moment by car doors and streetcar tracks. It's the sweat. How, exactly, are you supposed to arrive at your job fresh-smelling and well-groomed after a hot ride in July? It's not possible. Presumably the answer is to stuff your work clothes in your backpack, towel yourself down in the ladies' room, and reapply your makeup before that 9 a.m. meeting. Which still doesn't address the problem of helmet head.

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Hygiene was the main (but not the only) reason I gave up biking to work 30 years ago. Perhaps we shouldn't care so much about hygiene. But we do.

Why does gender equity matter? Well, the awkward fact about bike sharing – which has been relentlessly peddled as a sustainable, green, healthy, cheap form of urban transit – is that the vast majority of the users are affluent white males. This is embarrassing, because the subtext of bike sharing – which tends to be heavily subsidized by public money – is social equity. Enthusiasts believe that bike sharing will promote a more egalitarian and just society. If only we all cycled to work, then New York and Toronto would be more like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

But poor people and minorities don't care for bike sharing, either. Unlike rich people, poor people ride bikes by necessity, not choice. Washington, D.C., is trying to fix this problem by expanding its program to poorer neighbourhoods. Chicago is trying to fix it by cutting the annual fee to $5 for lower-income people. Will this work? I'm doubtful.

Places such as Toronto – whose bike-sharing operation has 1,000 bikes and 4,000 active users – love these programs because they boost the city's green image. Sadly, a lot of them lose money. Toronto had to take over its bike-sharing program after the original operator, Bixi, defaulted on a $3.9-million city loan and later filed for bankruptcy protection. Now, Bike Share Toronto is set to expand, thanks to a $4.9-million grant from the province's ever-so-green Liberal government.

Bike-sharing programs aren't cheap. According to a report from the Mineta Transportation Institute, it costs $5,900 (U.S.) for each bike added to the system. In Paris, each bicycle costs taxpayers a whopping €4,000 a year, according to Le Monde. User fees cover only a small fraction of the cost. New York's Citi Bike program is largely funded by Citigroup, which paid $41-million (U.S.) to be its lead sponsor for six years.

It's difficult to see how bike-sharing programs will ever become a material part of our urban transportation networks. Active users are only a minute fraction of the commuting public. A lot of folks use bike sharing for recreation, not regular commuting. Which is fine, so long as other people don't have to subsidize it. As for attracting women, maybe they should try pink streamers.

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