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What Women Want (in Sustainable Transit)

Studies have shown that women use public transport differently than men, and therefore have specific needs. However, the largely male-dominated field of transit planning have not fully addressed this issue. How to fix this? Engage more women in the process.

A woman uses a cycle lane in Ahmedabad, India. Meena Kadri.

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This piece originally appeared on The City Fix.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, dedicated to the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. Women have made much progress in society, but there are still many injustices and inequalities to tackle, especially in the realm of transportation.

In 2007, for example, the Manhattan Borough President’s Office found that 86 percent of public transportation riders who said they had been sexually assaulted did not report it to the police. Granted, women are not exclusively the victims of sexual assault, but women do comprise the majority of this group.

There is also a gap between what women need to be safe on public transportation and what policy and practice are willing to do. For example, a nationwide survey of transit agencies in the U.S., led by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and supported by the Mineta Transportation Institute, found that while two-thirds of respondents believed that women travelers have some specific needs, only one-third felt that transit agencies should really do something about it. But even worse was that only 3 percent of the agencies had any programs directed at women. (Just to note, the survey targeted general managers and the heads of security, and 75 percent of the respondents were men.)

The reason women have different needs while using public transportation has everything to do with the way they use these systems. For example, a 2011 study by Stanford University shows that in 15 European countries, a greater number of women than men make multiple stops when traveling by public transportation between their home and workplace. Women also make shorter stops than men on the way to and from work in order to perform household-sustaining activities, like grocery shopping and running family errands.

Having a child under the age of 5 also had an influence on whether or not women make multiple stops while using public transportation. This very fact increased the likelihood of someone making multiple stops while using public transportation. The study also found that working women in two-worker families were twice as likely as men to pick up and drop off school-age children during their commute.

To address the unique needs of women while using public transportation, Loukaitou-Sideris recommends including them in the decision-making process. “Transportation planners really need to look at women’s fears in transportation settings and know that there are things that they can do to if not completely eliminate but reduce these fears,” Loukaitou-Sideris explains. “These solutions involve policy, design, policing, and outreach and education.”

Empowering women to contribute to sustainable transportation greatly elevates justice, which is why the Chilean feminist group Macleta is offering its seventh series of classes aimed at teaching women how to ride bikes to help them conquer their fears and move around the city with a sense of ownership. Besides teaching women how to ride a bike, the organization uses data and information about women, their fears and their motivations, to design teaching methodologies and strategies that successfully encourage women to overcome their fears.

“We believe that a bicycle, more than an end in itself, becomes a means,” said Sofía López, coordinator of Macleta. “A woman who starts to ride around on a bicycle is happier, she is more aware of the public space around her, she wants to occupy it, interact with other people… it promotes a kind of empowerment.”

Click here for links to more articles about women’s role in improving urban space and transportation.

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Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationpublic safety

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