The majority of people who use public transit in the United States are women, yet transportation planners and engineers are predominantly men. The underrepresentation of women in planning has created cities in which women’s needs are not met. This begs the question, what would public spaces and transportation look like if women had a greater role in designing them?
Underrepresentation of Women in Transportation Planning
While the number of women in America’s workforce has grown rapidly in the last half century, representation of women within transportation engineering and planning is still notoriously low. Based on a 2019 study from the Mineta Transportation Institute, women only make up 15 percent of the transportation workforce in the United States. Furthermore, based on a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) directory of state officials, only 22 percent of state transportation directors and commissioners are women.
Although these figures are low, they are significantly higher than recent decades. For example, only 0.6 percent of civil engineers were women in 1972; by 2008 that figure rose to 10.4 percent (source: FHWA). It should go without saying that women are not the only underrepresented group, as these statistics are also emblematic of other minorities within the broader planning industry. For example, a 2013 study found that only 16 percent of American Planning Association members identified as a racial minority (source: Next City).
The Result? A World Designed for Men
It seems clear that men have been predominantly responsible for designing and building cities. Because of this, women’s needs have often been disregarded in planning and policymaking. In my opinion, this was not always done in a malicious way to exclude women, but rather, it was a failure of those planning cities and its transport to fully understand women’s needs and address them accordingly.
And this makes sense. For much of our history, the home was viewed as a women’s domain, and public space was primarily enjoyed by men. Because women were traditionally viewed as “homemakers”, and in many ways still are, they were not expected to be the primary occupants of public space. Planners have designed cities and transportation based on past experience of who has dominated public space — in short, men.
Planners can no longer turn a blind eye to girls and women, as it has been well-documented that women face immense travel demands and have unique travel needs. Compared to men, women typically have a greater diversity of travel needs. They tend to make shorter, more frequent trips dispersed throughout the day, when compared to men. Since women make more frequent trips, they often group more of them together, a pattern often referred to as “trip-chaining”.
In comparison to men, women are also more likely to walk or take public transit, as well as carry heavier loads, and travel with dependents. According to a 2017 study, women make up 55% of transit riders in the United States. There are many reasons for this. Some studies have shown in cases where a family shares one car, the man often has priority to use it. The decision to walk or take transit is clearly dependent upon many other factors like income and preference, but gender is also an important factor, although it is rarely discussed.
Women’s travel is more impacted by safety concerns than it is for men. There are relatively few studies on the prevalence of sexual harassment within public spaces, and many studies have found drastically different results:
- A 2015 government study of 600 women transit riders in France found that 100 percent of respondents had been sexually harassed at some point while riding public transit.
- A 2018 report by Plan International found that sexual harassment in public spaces is the number one safety risk facing girls and young women across the world.
- A 2019 study by Stop Sexual Harassment of 2,220 respondents found that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men in the United States had experienced some form of sexual harassment (in both private and public spaces).
Despite women’s unique travel demands, transportation has continually been designed to meet men’s needs, focused on efficient travel to and from work. To date, transportation planning in the United States, and throughout the world, has done little to accommodate women’s needs, particularly the needs of women who rely upon transit and walking as their main travel modes.
Clearly, both men and women are impacted when safe pedestrian infrastructure is inaccessible or transit is inefficient or unaffordable. However, for women who must also travel with children, while pregnant, while carrying heavy loads, or for women whose errands require multiple trips in different neighborhoods, the task of walking or using public transit can be made even more challenging. These challenges apply to some men, but again, women are still disproportionately responsible for child care and family errands.
Even less has been done to address concerns of sexual harassment and assaults on public transit. In a 2008 study of 131 operators in the United States, only three operators said they had any safety features specifically designed for women. In contrast, transit agencies surveyed in some European countries, as well as Australia, Canada, and Japan reported that they had assessed women’s safety concerns via audits and surveys, and have launched programs specifically targeted at improving women’s safety.
Clearly, the way in which we address women’s safety concerns is highly contextual. The 2018 report by Plan International that surveyed policy experts across the world found that in 14 of the 22 surveyed cities, more than half of the experts said that young women were either “never” or “hardly ever” given the ability to participate in the decision-making about safety measures in their city. However, these results varied widely across cities.
To cope with safety, accessibility, and affordability challenges, some women restrict their travel to certain times or places, or choose a pricier travel mode. When women restrict their travel, they not only limit access to the best services and amenities for themselves, but in some cases, for their entire families. Because of this, women often decide to travel despite the risks and challenges.
This seems to be part of a vicious cycle — that when only a very select group of people are put into power, they make decisions for people whose needs they don’t adequately understand. When people’s needs are not met, they have less power. It distorts the world, particularly in the urban realm.
Creating Egalitarian Cities
It doesn’t need to be this way. As we elevate women of different ethnicities and social economic classes to leadership roles in transportation planning, new priorities can be championed. It’s also important that we emphasize collecting input from girls and women during the planning phases of projects. By doing so, we have the opportunity to reconfigure our public spaces and transit to more adequately reflect the people who are using these spaces and amenities.
Many cities are taking these important steps, such as Vienna, who in the 1990s adopted “gender-mainstreaming” policies into its administration of education, health care, and urban planning. For all development projects within Vienna’s built environment, women-specific challenges must be assessed, and addressed in the projects’ design.
The Twin Cities is also taking steps to make improvements which will benefit all travelers, especially women. For example, The Metropolitan Council 2040 Transportation Policy Plan and the Minneapolis Comprehensive 2040 Plan include progressive policies to improve walking facilities, access to efficient transit, the overall quality of the public realm, and access to parks and green space.
However, unlike Vienna, the Twin Cities’ plans and policies fail at explicitly stating women’s mobility challenges as an issue. The 648-page 2040 Transportation Policy Plan only mentions women twice in regards to their increasing role in the workforce. The 1,250-page Minneapolis Comprehensive 2040 Plan only mentions women seven times in regards to prioritizing their input for housing policies and connecting women to business capital. The plan never discusses women’s unique travel needs, mobility challenges, or lack of input and leadership in transportation planning.
I believe before we can rectify any issue, we must name the problem.
I plan to write future posts about places where women are leading, and actions that should be implemented in the Twin Cities, and beyond, to harness our rising generation of girls and women in planning and policy making.
As we look towards the future, it’s important that we start dreaming about what egalitarian cities, with more women leaders in transportation and planning, might look like: Would there be women’s bathrooms and lighting at transit stops? Would there be spaces for children to play? Would girls and women feel safe loitering on sidewalks and in parks? Would they travel with their children to new places? Would they no longer experience fear walking home at night?
What are your ideas to improve transportation and public spaces for girls and women? How can these ideas be incorporated into future planning efforts in the Twin Cities?
Interested in learning more about gender and mobility? I’ve recently published a book about this topic in urban India – Perseverance Flooded the Streets. Learn more by clicking here!