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The gender gap in U.S. transportation has been stubbornly persistent.

Women have traditionally spent less time than men commuting (that sounds like a good thing, until you realize that it reflects fewer job opportunities) and more time traveling for household errands. With gender norms fading in the home and at work, you might expect these gaps in travel habits to narrow as well. That’s been true to some extent in Europe, but not so much in the U.S.—where the differences endure today, according to new research.

The work was published in the journal Transportation by public policy scholar Yingling Fan of the University of Minnesota. “I think it’s very convincing that the gender gap still exists,” she tells CityLab. “And it’s important that policymakers pay specific attention to women’s travel needs.” Let’s take a closer look.

What she did

Most studies of the gender travel gap in the U.S. are badly out of date, the most recent of these relying on data collected in 2000 or 2001. To update the line of research, Fan focused on a nationally representative U.S. travel survey spanning 2003 to 2010. Her final sample included nearly 17,800 adult workers in U.S. metro areas—classified by spouse status, parenthood, and whether the household had one or two breadwinners.

What she found

Clearly the gender gap remains strong. Women spend less time traveling to work than men do, and more time traveling for household-related errands, nearly across the board. Here’s the commuting chart:

Transportation

The commute gender gap is relatively narrow for single workers, whether or not they have children. But the gap grows a bit for couples, especially those with children. Among all households with kids and one breadwinner, women tend to commute 13 minutes less than men do, and the largest gender difference for work travel occurs in households with children and two breadwinners: 16 minutes.

Even controlling for other variables, women living with a spouse and children had shorter work travel times than men—33 percent shorter in double breadwinner homes. The gap may be a sign that a woman’s job opportunities are limited in these households for family-related reasons. “It’s not necessarily that women choose to have a shorter commute travel,” says Fan. “It’s about the roles they play.”

Indeed, the numbers for household-related travel show women shouldering more of the load:

Transportation

Here the biggest gap occurs among single mothers, with an average of 13 minutes more household-related travel time than single fathers. But the gap is nearly as large among couples with kids, even when both spouses are breadwinners: 11 minutes. When controlling for other variables, women in households with two breadwinners and children spent 66 percent more time on travel related to household needs than men did.

Meantime, the gap narrows when kids aren’t involved, suggesting that once the household forms a family, the errand burden falls harder on women.

What it means

Fan considered several possible explanations for her findings. One is that the travel habits might reflect financially driven gender inequalities—such as the wage gap. If a woman is going to be paid less for the same job, after all, a household might be more inclined to prioritize a man’s job opportunities, resulting in the more traditional division of transportation found in these figures.

Fan believes her data point more to the presence of socially driven gender norms. The conventional idea that a woman should be the primary caretaker of a child, for instance, could explain why women still do more travel for household errands even when both parents are breadwinners. “It’s really about our culture,” she says.

In other words, as studies of gender gaps in public transit use also suggest, the U.S. still has a ways to go when it comes to travel equity. Fan concludes her paper:

The results help to answer the earlier question of why gender differences in travel remain in spite of the recent transformative changes in US women’s employment, education, and family lives. Although traditional family constructs (including spouse/partner presence and parenthood) are found to play complex and interactive roles in shaping gender differences in travel behavior, they are still relevant factors in explaining gender differences in the modern-day US.

Top image: BlueOrange Studio / Shutterstock.com

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