Public Transportation's Hidden Gender Imbalance

A new Stanford study says women ride transit more often than men. How can we better accommodate their needs?

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Reuters

If we bothered to anthropomorphize the problems of public transit, we'd probably consider them equal-opportunity haters. Cars crowd, fares rise, service dwindles for one and all.

But it turns out our public transportation services might harbor a bit of a gender bias against women. That's the argument put forth by Gendered Innovations, a Stanford University project devoted to gender analysis, in a new line of study called "Transportation: Reconceptualizing Data Collection."

By reexamining transportation data, the researchers at Gendered Innovations believe they've uncovered evidence that women ride transit systems much more often than typical numbers suggest. The researchers contend that regular transit surveys obscure the number of trips caregivers (particularly parents or, more likely, mothers) take; that serial trips, which women make more often than men, aren't sufficiently defined; and that aggregated ridership figures, particularly by race, create incomplete pictures of the riding public.

These true numbers, the researchers conclude, should encourage metro transit systems to redesign facilities to accommodate the transport needs of women.

First the hidden "mobility of care." The gender gap may be closing when it comes to performing domestic or "care" work, but there's still enough space to park an SUV in there. Recent time-use surveys in Europe have found that women spend much more time than men do on tasks related to child care each day. The situation is roughly the same in the United States.

Of course a lot of this type of work is done outside the home: taking a child to soccer practice, running household errands, and what-not. But traditional public transportation surveys don't do a great job of offering "care work" as a primary ridership category. As a result, the researchers contend, estimates of transit use fail to properly represent the significance of women riders who bear the bulk of the "care" load. If data were reorganized to emphasize this "mobility of care," a different picture would emerge, they argue:

The innovative concept, "mobility of care," captures significant travel patterns, and can be used to render public transportation more equitable and responsive to users’ needs.

Take, for instance, a recent transportation data set from Spain. "Care" tasks don't appear at all in the original figures. But when the researchers treated "care" as a distinct category on par with "work," they found that a significant share of transit activity was related to these trips alone. With these adjusted figures, "care" accounted for 25 percent of all trips — second only to work, at 30 percent, and well ahead of the next highest category:

It's not just general categorization that obscures gender-related transit data. The mere definition of a "trip" as a single journey also does the trick. A good bit of transportation data has found that people often travel in a cluster of trips that might also be called a "trip-chain" — stopping at a day care center on the way to work, for instance.

In the United States women "chain-trip" much more than men do, according to Gendered Innovations. They make more side trips than men during their commute, for instance, often for the purpose of family errands. When both partners in a marriage work, women are twice as likely as men to trip-chain a child care task during their commute, and when the couple has a child under age 5, the amount of trip-chaining — and thus the transport burden on women — increases:

Other gender-relevant transit data is concealed by racial aggregations. In the United States, race has a stronger correlation to public transit use than gender does, but intra-racial data show a clear ridership disparity between men and women. As this disaggregated chart of 1997 travel data shows, women use transit more than men do, whatever the race:

The discoveries made by Gendered Innovations have a relevance beyond the abstract reorganization of numbers. Once a transit system knows that "care" trips make up a sizable proportion of daily travel, it can improve its facilities to accommodate these users — replacing stairs with ramps, widening aisles or gates, and raising platforms to train level, for instance, to aid women with strollers and bags. A recognition of the practice of trip-chaining can help designers plan system extensions of transit lines into areas high in care-related sites, like schools and parks. Systems can also conduct what the researchers call "gender audits" to evaluate their ability to meet the transport needs of female riders.

A good place to start implementing such changes is in the leadership of transportation boards — positions that tend to be held by men, Gendered Innovation reports. That unbalanced hierarchy can perpetuate gender disparities in transport policy and practice. In response to this problem, Sweden recently adopted a goal of "a gender-equal road transport system ... designed to fulfill the transport needs of both women and men." Because everyone should have the right to get frustrated with public transit on equal grounds.

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