Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Voting against transit might save some people tax dollars, but it hurts women of color the most.
In a jam-packed subway car, riders were singing protest songs. A woman passed around sacks of peanut M&M’s to settle fidgeting children. Pink knitted “pussy” hats spurred laughter between passengers who kept bumping heads.
Despite backed-up trains and hour-long waits, a sense of solidarity and purpose filled the D.C. Metro the morning of the Women’s March on Washington. A remarkable number of people did, too: By 11 a.m., the system registered 275,000 riders, eight times busier than a normal Saturday. By the end of the day, ridership surged past 1 million, just shy of an all-time record set at Obama’s 2009 inauguration (and roughly double the count on Friday, President Trump’s inauguration).
The essential function the system served that day was not remarkable, however. Like transit systems around the country that helped shuttle attendees to the hundreds of local sister marches, the Metro had mobilized women en masse—just as transit systems do every single day. On an average day, about 60 percent of the people riding trains and buses in D.C. are women. This is not unusual: New York and Boston have similar splits. In Chicago, 62 percent of riders are women; in Philadelphia, it’s 64 percent. Nationwide, 50.5 percent of the people who commute via public transportation are women, despite the fact that women only form 47 percent of the workforce.
These statistics should matter to anyone who cares about women’s rights. Larger female populations in cities don’t explain the divide. Women form a disproportionate share of low-wage and hourly workers in the U.S., and across most industries, they earn less on the dollar than men. Those lower wages make many women “captive” transit users, unable to afford a personal vehicle. In single-vehicle households, women are frequently the ones giving up car access and allowing their partners to drive to higher-earning jobs.
Not only do women represent greater shares of transit riders, but they also take more transit trips: As the primary caretakers in most households with children nationwide, women tag on extra stops to their commutes for shopping, picking kids up from day care or school, or taking them to the doctor.
Transit is even more critical for women of color, for whom the gender pay gap is even deeper. Compared with white women, they are also more likely to live in poverty—and are more likely to serve as their household’s primary breadwinner. A research project by Stanford University charted these numbers: As a percentage of all the trips (across modes) made in U.S. metro areas, roughly 7.2 percent of public transit trips are made by black women, compared to 5.8 for black men. Asian women make up 4.4 percent of all urban transit trips, versus 1.9 by Asian men. Latino women make up 3.8 percent, compared to 2.7 for Latino men.
Yet hundreds of thousands of no-car households live outside of transit’s reach—and millions of people who do live near bus stops and train stations still struggle to connect to well-paying jobs. This is especially true in the South, which is home to the nation’s highest share of women of color. Likewise, women of color disproportionately live in communities that lack access to critical health care—including reproductive health care. The schools that their kids attend often get less investment than those in whiter neighborhoods. They are also especially prone to the effects of a warming climate. The marches that brought millions to the streets called attention to all of these areas of vulnerability.
To close these gaps, high-quality, affordable buses and trains are a critical part of the equation. Mass transit connects women to better-paying jobs, educational opportunities, and health care; it reduces harmful emissions in neighborhoods already hard-hit by road and industrial pollution (areas that are disproportionately neighborhoods of color). Using public transportation requires no license or identification and the price of admission is lower than any other form of transportation, especially when you add infrastructure for walking and biking into the mix.
Spending public dollars on these forms of connection pays off, for women and for everyone: The American Public Transportation Association estimates that every $1 invested in public transportation generates $4 in economic returns, and that every $1 billion invested bolsters and creates more than 50,000 jobs.
The benefits and liberation that transit offers many women are accompanied by a certain uneasiness. Gender- and race-based harassment is egregiously common on buses and trains. Undocumented women and Muslim women in particular are facing heightened stigma, scorn, and bodily risk in public settings, apparently as a result of President Trump’s racist campaign rhetoric. Shared spaces of any kind—including those contained by a moving car—must be entered with extra caution.
Yet very few transit agencies in the U.S. have tailored service to the specific needs of women, be they safety measures, route considerations, or even special seats for breastfeeding. And although voters in a few major cities voted to expand mass transit networks in November, the national trend in funding has been one of decline. The recession forced systems around the U.S. to eliminate routes, cut service hours, and ramp up fares. The insolvent Highway Trust Fund has already made federal transit subsidies increasingly scarce.
This is likely to get worse before it gets better. If President Trump’s first budget follows a Heritage Foundation roadmap for federal spending cuts, as the Hill reports it will, dramatic sums of annual federal support for transit could disappear—including $2.2 billion for major transit expansions, $510 million for community-centered transportation grants, and $153 million for the Washington, D.C., Metro, which is already grappling with a profound and dangerous budget crisis. We don’t know what Trump’s designated Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, will make of the DOT’s budget, but she worked with the Heritage Foundation for years. And the Trump campaign’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan—if it ever sees the light of day in Congress—would barely boost transit investments, let alone in communities that need them most.
Like the economy, climate change, immigration, and health care, public transportation is an issue that affects and belongs to women as much as (if not more than) anyone else. And it is ripe for a groundswell of intersectional feminist support: the kind of feminism that recognizes the divergent experiences of women of color—and queer women, trans women, Muslim women, women with disabilities, immigrant women—and fights for all, even when the stakes are lower for some.
After all, women may be over-represented in transit statistics, but most American women, and especially white women, still drive cars to get around. Thinking and voting selfishly when it comes to public transportation might save them some tax dollars, but it does an injustice to their neighbors. And it hurts everyone in the end, by worsening congestion, stifling economic growth, and stunting public health.
Failing to support public transportation will also hurt the next time 600,000 souls flood the National Mall to resist a president voted into office by denigrating women and threatening their rights. How many protest songs and peanut M&M’s will marchers need as they wait for a subway that’s virtually unfunded? And how many women of color will be shaking their heads?