Want Equitable Cities? We’ll Need More Women in Transportation Planning

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.

Br Vlt Passengers Rio Mariana Gil Wri Cidades Flickr

Photo Credit: WRI Brasil Cidades Sustentáveis/Flickr.

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.
  • 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.

Womens Safety Graph

Credit: 2018 Plan International Report, “Girls’ Safety in Cities Across the World”

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

Screen Shot 2020 04 16 At 1.20.03 Pm

Aspern Seestadt, a byproduct of Vienna’s gender mainstreaming policies, is one of Europe’s largest urban development projects. It emphasizes women’s needs and included family-oriented design. (Photo credit: Daniel Hawelka for Seestadt).

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!

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12 Responses to Want Equitable Cities? We’ll Need More Women in Transportation Planning

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke April 27, 2020 at 10:25 am #

    Great column Abbey. How much of our transportation system is designed for the Mad Men-era “businessman” commute instead of more local trips? It’s still frustrating that the mode share numbers are based simply on commuting to work rather than the half-dozen other trips one might make in a given day.

  2. Abbey Seitz
    Abbey Seitz April 27, 2020 at 11:12 am #

    Thanks Bill! Great question. The research group Gendered Innovations surveyed this trend a few years back and found that “care-related” mobility, i.e. trips made related unpaid labor by adults for children or other dependents, was widely unaccounted for in most travel surveys. In a 2007 travel survey in Spain, researchers reconfigured the trip purpose categories and found that care-related trips accounted for 25% of all trips made by respondents. The prevalence of care related trips were only slightly lower than employment trips (30%). I haven’t been able to find this type of trip segregated data in the Twin Cities.

    Source: http://genderedinnovations.stanford.edu/case-studies/transportation.html#tabs-2

  3. Lia M April 27, 2020 at 11:27 am #

    Thanks for this very interesting article! It sounds like you’re planning to write more, so maybe you already have some discussion of other cities’ efforts in the works—for example, what specific actions did Vienna take to make transit more egalitarian?

    One thought that occurs to me is that, in Minneapolis, many bus lines do not run very frequently (where I live it’s every half hour most of the day), which probably has more impact on people who are going out to run multiple errands and thus might need to make multiple connections. Having to wait 15+ minutes for each one is going to increase travel time quite a bit. It also increases the chance of harassment when you’re standing on the street for longer. As a woman I generally feel fairly safe on the bus, but not as much at some bus stops.

    • Abbey Seitz
      Abbey Seitz April 27, 2020 at 11:48 am #

      Thanks for your input Lia! I am definitely planning to write more about ongoing projects that are considering women’s mobility challenges. Vienna has been somewhat of the shining leader on this front, but there are also great examples in cities a little closer to home, such as Toronto and Los Angeles.

      Great point you bring up about the issues for women needing to make multiple connections and having to wait for long periods at transit stops. I have done some research regarding this in Bangalore, India, and found that many girls and women plan their trips solely around not “being stuck” in public space, especially at night. I’m sure this impacts women differently depending on the city or neighborhood they are in, but I think to a certain extent this likely impacts all women who are using public transit. I’d love to explore this more in future posts.

    • Micah Davison April 28, 2020 at 3:06 pm #

      On the tradeoff between frequency and directness, the transit planner Jarret Walker provides much illumination, best summed up in this post: https://humantransit.org/2009/04/why-transferring-is-good-for-you-and-good-for-your-city.html. Relevant to Abbey’s points about women more often using transit for multi-point trips, a sparser network of higher-frequency transit routes serves that travel pattern better than a network with more routes with low frequency, because it reduces overall travel times.It also means that, while people will be more likely to need to make a transfer for any given trip, those transfer times will be much shorter.

      I am not familiar enough with the Twin Cities’ overall transit network to speak with much authority, but my limited experience as a user indicates that some routes follow a “gotta catch ’em all” philosophy of ridership. That is, they are too close to other routes, presumably out of a desire to keep walking distances short. If Metro Transit more fully embraced having a transfer-centric network, I suspect some could be bundled together, the frequency would be vastly increased, and all riders would benefit from significantly shorter transfer/overall travel times. However, those who benefit most would be riders with unpredictable schedules and multi-stop trips – many of whom are women.

      • Brian April 29, 2020 at 7:33 pm #

        I hate waiting with a passion. My bus commute has at least a 10 minute wait for a transfer in the morning. 10 minutes may not seem like a lot, but in winter it can be really bad. I have been near frostbite a few times by the time the bus came.

        My first bus often ran late enough that I would miss my transfer about once a week so I would walk instead which took up to 30 minutes. It was a 30 minute wait for the next bus.

        I’ve considered going back to driving simply because of that darn transfer. I know a lot of riders who hate transfers.

  4. Madeleine April 28, 2020 at 10:24 am #

    Great article! This is something I think about a lot, as a young woman who commutes using public transit. I do worry about safety, and I have to plan to avoid carrying big packages on the bus because there is not much storage space. I also think a lot about women’s representation in the design phase, since as an engineer, I’m often the only woman in the room. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

    • Abbey Seitz
      Abbey Seitz April 29, 2020 at 9:42 am #

      Thanks Madeline! Great point you bring up about women being included in the design phase of projects. It appears that women are better represented in the ‘urban planning’ industry as a whole, when compared to engineering fields, and even architecture. But as you mentioned, civil engineers are typically driving projects’ design, so it’s important to think about how we can bring more women into this process.

  5. Charles J. April 29, 2020 at 9:44 am #

    I question the accuracy of the numbers presented. While I can’t speak to the Mineta study, relying on APA stats is worthless. I used to be an APA/AICP member but left the organization because they were virtually useless (while also very expensive to maintain membership), especially in the transportation realm. They have since improved, but the point is that their membership and responses are not representative of the profession. In fact, because they were so weak in transportation planning, there are probably many like myself that aren’t reflected in their membership. APA/AICP has historically tilted significantly towards the typical “planning” disciplines related to zoning, land use, community development, etc.

    Among my colleagues (past and present) in state, local, and federal govt, transit, as well as our engineering and planning consultants, women are much more represented than in the numbers presented. In fact, we have a number of minority and female engineers and supporting staff, and many of our consultants have women in staff and leadership positions. I have a hard time believing we are somehow that anomalous. Further, a deeper dive would likely reveal a significant shift among the younger cohorts. Certainly there are still plenty of “old white men” in this particular workforce, many of whom are in leadership positions since they’re at the tail end of their careers and came from a time when very few women were in engineering and planning.

    • Abbey Seitz
      Abbey Seitz May 1, 2020 at 1:30 pm #

      Hi Charles – I appreciate your input on this topic. I agree that APA / AICP may not be the best data source for demographic representation in planning, but as a note, I never cited APA for women’s underrepresentation in transportation planning. I solely used that data to show that racial minorities have a relatively low representation in planning.

      In regards to women, I referred to the Mineta Study and FHWA. Both of these sources use large sample sizes that are representative of communities across America. The Mineta Study indicates women only make up 15% of the transportation workforce. There could be a lot of arguing on how valid this data is. But I think it’s important to take a step back. If these studies had found that women actually make up 20 or 30% of the industry, would these stats paint really paint that much of a better picture? Women are half of the population, and in most cities, use public transit and walk more than men. Given the important role transportation engineering and planning plays in our communities, as well as our individual lives, I believe we should be worried about any misrepresentation of women (as well as other historically disadvantaged groups).

      I am glad to hear you work with a lot of women. The last planning consulting firm I worked for also had a strong representation of women. It’s wonderful to hear that more women are taking leadership roles in this area. But if we are trying to understand what the nation-wide trends are, we can’t use our anecdotal experiences to base our knowledge and future actions on. While the data on representation may not be perfect, surely it points to a nation where there is still much work to be done to empower women in the workforce — especially within engineering and planning.

  6. Gloria April 30, 2020 at 2:10 pm #

    Abbey, I would encourage you to look at the work of the Transportation Research Board Committee on Women’s Transportation Issues. There research has included several international conferences, extensive research studies and practices implemented by transportation agencies. The trb website is http://www.trb.org The Transportation Research Board is part of the National Academies of Science.

    • Abbey Seitz
      Abbey Seitz May 1, 2020 at 1:31 pm #

      Thanks Gloria! This is very helpful. I will check out the TRB website for future research.

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