Why Transit Policy Should Consider Riders’ Gender
By Yingling Fan | February 28, 2018
Federal infrastructure spending is generally popular across the political spectrum – but with research-informed policy-making, that infrastructure spending could be more effective in achieving multiple policy objectives, including greater gender equity. A large part of President Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan is slated for improvements to our transportation system. With significant public and private partnerships envisioned, policy choices at all levels of government and within private sector organizations are important for achieving a more gender equitable public transportation system.
Public transportation—including bike share, city buses, and rail transit—expands mobility options and improves access to education, employment, and everything else a person may need to survive and thrive.
Transportation research has long documented that women, in particular, have lower access to private transport (with lower driver’s license attainment and rates of vehicle ownership than men).
We also know that communities of color make up a majority of public transportation riders (60%). So it makes sense to consider whether and how public transit options are reaching and moving their female customers, particularly women of color. Do public mobility resources make up for gendered transit deficiencies? Do women have equitable access and safe experiences using public transit? Increasingly, world-class cities are taking notice.
Motivated by the proliferation of bike sharing systems in China, I recently worked on a study there examining demographic differences in the use of public bicycles. Recent European studies have shown consistent evidence that women make fewer public bicycle trips than men.
Sure enough, with my coauthors, I found that female commuters in China are less likely to use public bicycles to access rail transit than there are male counterparts.
This gender gap may be due to the inconvenience of cycling for women accomplishing household tasks such as grocery shopping and chauffeuring children: public bicycles in Chinese cities are inexpensive, one-speed bicycles without any rear seating or carrying capacity. Further, women may have additional safety concerns when it comes to walking to and using bicycle docking stations.
When it came to commuter transit, such as city buses and trains, we surveyed 800 transit riders about their waiting and transfer experiences in the Twin Cities region of the United States. Our data showed that gender interactively affects individuals’ perceptions of the time they wait and the safety of their transit environment. That is, when the environment is perceived as “unsafe,” female transit users report that a 15-minute wait feels like 24 minutes—dramatically longer than male users’ wait time perceptions in the same environments. Still, even in unsafe waiting areas, shorter waits reveal smaller gaps in the perception of wait time by gender.
As we contemplate and debate new, significant transportation investments at multiple levels, policy efforts informed by such research and a desire to broaden the scope, safety, and utility of public transit options may begin to close these gender gaps.
With respect to public bicycle sharing, companies and cities might consider adding carrying capacity to shared bicycles and improving safety around docking stations, where women’s attention may be divided (as they interact with the computer interface to unlock or return a bicycle) or where additional lighting might be installed. And for those efforts aimed at bus and train transit, though the conventional wisdom has been to improve waiting experiences overall by adding amenities to high-use stations, the longer wait times observed in less-frequently used stations indicate attention to security improvements would best be applied there. That is, at stations served with less frequent services and where women riders have long waits, safety improvements will pay bigger dividends in rider satisfaction, likely increasing women’s use of public transit.