Addressing Gender Disparities in Transportation
By Ania McDonnell | July 24, 2019
The 6th International Conference on Women’s Issues in Transportation (WIT) is taking place this September, 2019 in Irvine, California. The WIT conferences bring together professionals in the field to share research on the topic of gender and transportation. Conference discussions and panels aim to help planners, public officials, and communities implement solutions that will address transit problems for all users, and for women in particular.
But what are the gendered aspects of transportation policy, and what disparities do women face when they access transportation infrastructure? Further, how can officials and professionals in the field of transportation implement effective solutions in their communities?
Feminist geographers point out that while public spaces are gendered as male, private spaces are most often coded as female. The assumption that women work primarily inside the home and men should work primarily outside the home has contributed to the discrimination and harassment that women face in public spaces. This discrimination further creates a society in which women feel unsafe and may be blamed for their victimization on public transportation.
As transportation policy receives increased academic and industry attention, there are increased opportunities for pioneering policies aimed at marginalized users of public transportation.
Lack of Safety Using Public Transportation
In the field of public transportation, safety concerns disproportionately affect women without access to a vehicle, and often women who work low income and hourly jobs. Women report that they often feel unsafe while waiting at platforms for a bus or a train, and they say that they also feel unsafe walking home from a bus or train. Individuals who work late shifts, like nurses and servers, may not have a well-lit route home and are less likely to have other transportation options available to them.
In the field of public transportation, safety concerns disproportionately affect women without access to a vehicle, and often women who work low income and hourly jobs.
To better serve these populations, public transportation service providers need to host and facilitate discussions with diverse users to help continuously improve riders’ experiences and to ensure that women are not forced to find more costly or inefficient ways to reach their destinations safely.
A 2006 survey of US transit agencies found that “of the 131 [transit] operators that responded to the survey, only three said they had any safety efforts that were specifically tailored toward women, although two-thirds of respondents expressed the opinion that women had special vulnerability when riding transit.” Once transportation providers have a better understanding of the needs of groups that face safety concerns, harassment, and violence, they must continue to take steps toward implementing policies that will address those needs.
A study conducted in Mexico City in 2008 found that 90 percent of women had experienced sexual violence while using the city’s public transportation. 43.8 percent of women reported that they had suffered four or more violent situations. Motivated by these findings, the government worked with a group called Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres (INMUJERES), a public campaign that provides buses and taxis for women only. The city also displayed images of empowered women on subway cars and buses to reinforce women in the public space and added better mechanisms for women to report the violent harassment that they faced daily.
Lack of Access (and Economic Opportunity)
In order to be economically successful, women need built environments and transportation infrastructure that supports their unique needs and circumstances.
One of those unique circumstances is that the majority of home maintenance and care-taking tasks (such as grocery shopping and chauffeuring children to school) falls on women. Particularly when care work is left disproportionately to one partner, these tasks accumulate and ultimately occupy a significant portion of women’s day. When women are burdened with care work, they have less time to take care of themselves, less time to work more hours (and make more money) at their jobs, and less time to spend with their families.
The car-dominated society in the United States exacerbates this problem by making it more difficult to complete errands by public transportation in a short amount of time. More generally, when a woman has inefficient transportation options but must accomplish multiple errands such as chauffeuring children to school, going to the store, and going home, she has less time, less money, less mobility, and less overall access.
More generally, when a woman has inefficient transportation options but must accomplish multiple errands such as chauffeuring children to school, going to the store, and going home, she has less time, less money, less mobility, and less overall access.
Similar to care work, time poverty results from shortened time due to familial obligations.
The phenomenon of time poverty causes women to take more part-time jobs closer to home in order to make up for the time lost. This further reduces the earning potential for women and limits them to fewer jobs that are within a small proximity.
Time poverty is a key issue in transportation policy because, especially for low-income individuals who are paid hourly, each hour of commute time and care mobility time add to an already difficult schedule and ultimately widen the gender pay gap. And due to transportation and many other factors, the gender pay gap is even worse for Hispanic women, African American women, and other racial minorities.
The goal for transportation access is for individual users to have safe, affordable, and efficient transportation options available to them, regardless of their profession or neighborhood. This explains why vehicle ownership has been shown to be the number one factor in alleviating poverty for women, especially in rural areas. Indeed, this single criterion improves unemployment scores for women even more than an increase in educational attainment. However, innovative transportation policy is necessary to provide similar benefits to women who are not car owners.
Lack of Diverse Data
Many local transportation agencies do not collect adequate data on safety complaints from women using public transportation, the gendered gaps in transportation use, the reasons for transportation disparities, and other barriers to transportation access by gender and race.
This data is key to ensure that transportation systems are designed and built for all people—not only male users who are traditionally imagined to work outside the home. When engineers and policy-makers have one lens that is male, economically secure, and able-bodied, accessible and equitable solutions will never be baked into existing systems.
I propose that local transportation agencies begin collecting data on the disparities between men and women using public transportation. User surveys through in person contact and online surveys could begin to identify the needs of the women riders in a local area. Easier reporting mechanisms for violence and harassment on transportation would further allow for a better response to these incidents, and would encourage women to report.
Reducing sexual harassment and assault in public transportation systems should be a top priority, since it impacts each of the issues I have outlined above. Not only is harassment and assault a significant safety concern for women riders, it also further exacerbates time poverty: for example, women often avoid harassment and violence by stepping off a train car or bus after being harassed and wait for the next one.
Not only is harassment and assault a significant safety concern for women riders, it also further exacerbates time poverty: for example, women often avoid harassment and violence by stepping off a train car or bus after being harassed and wait for the next one.
A bill was introduced in 2018 by US Congressman Peter DeFazio called Stop Sexual Assault and Harassment in Transportation Act. This bill would require all local transportation agencies that receive federal funds to develop protocol to allow passengers and employees to report cases of sexual harassment and assault. This bill would train the staff to respond to complaints by transportation riders, and provide for the US DOT to collect data and publish reports on this problem. This legislation would represent a first step toward closing the gender disparities I have discussed.
Safety concerns, women’s economic opportunity, and lack of data collection compound transportation-related gender disparities. The solutions must be tailored to the unique problems faced by women users; it is therefore important to thoroughly understand existing disparities. Then, by baking solutions into the structure of agencies and the design of built environments, we can begin to address these issues directly.
Gender Mainstreaming is one way to make women’s experiences central to the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of policies and programs. Gender mainstreaming allows women receive equal consideration in political, economic, and societal contexts, contributing to future gender equality.
To implement gender mainstreaming in the context of transportation policy, I suggest that hiring gender consultants on local transportation projects is key to determine how the project will impact the community, and how users will respond. If a portion of the population does not have access or does not feel safe under current plans, the route is only working for a (privileged) portion of the population.
As the 6th International Conference on Women’s Issues in Transportation gets underway this fall, policy professionals, planners, and public officials should be engaged with this topic. And as this conversation continues, I plan to partner with organizations, innovators, planners, and policy makers to advocate for equal access to women riders. In order to truly combat these disparities faced by women, it will require all these stakeholders to engage on and commit to gender equity in our transportation systems.
Ania McDonnell is a policy communications fellow at Hennepin County and a Masters candidate in public policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. McDonnell’s research focuses on gender policy, transportation policy, and urban and regional planning.
Featured Image by Thomas Hawk, licensed under Creative Commons.