Gender bias

Rethinking public transit to meet women’s needs

Given that women use public transit more than men, why aren’t transit agencies better catering to them?
Photo: John St John

Aside from the persistent issue of sexual harassment and violence, other factors affect the way women are forced to use public transportation.

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Gendered Innovations is a project focused on the development of practical methods of sex and gender analysis in science. Established by Professor Londa Schiebinger at Stanford University, it has convened scientists, engineers, and gender experts from several countries to bring a gender lens to research.

This is the second article of a series. Read the first, “Public transit is a women’s issue,” here.

In a case study of public transit, Gendered Innovations points out how gender bias can affect planning. When transit agencies analyze the purpose of passenger trips, they tend to classify them in ways that obscure the “caring work, i.e., unpaid labor” carried out by women to support their households. For example, passenger data might be sorted into categories including shopping, personal errands, and visits, all of which might be related to a woman’s caring work for her children and elderly relatives.

“There are many blind spots when it comes to doing something as seemingly simple as creating a bus stop.”

Because women continue to be the primary caregivers in the family, as well as responsible for household chores such as grocery shopping, they make more stops during a trip — what’s called trip-chaining. A woman might make several quick stops, to do a grocery run, pick up a package, get the kids from childcare, and head home. Trip-chaining can be expensive for women reliant on the use of transit tickets in places where a trip is conceptualized as a simple journey from point A to point B.

Overall, women continue to make less money and face more financial hardship than men. Not only do they need to take public transit because they can’t afford a vehicle, but they also can’t necessarily afford to purchase a monthly transit pass, because money tends to be tight at the beginning of a month. In this way, they are further penalized by being unable to benefit from the savings of a monthly pass.

Time-based transfers, such as those in Vancouver that allow passengers to travel for 1.5 hours on a single ticket, make trip-chaining more convenient and less expensive. That’s why some Toronto passengers are asking their transit commission to implement them.

Design for gender?

Olivia Collette is a writer and researcher in Montreal with a focus on urban development.

“What design solutions can the city use to improve safety for women?” she asks. “To make public transit more public, in other words, accessible to the elderly, to those with reduced mobility or to those who need it most? To discourage potential assailants from assaulting victims by reducing those blind spots?”

“I don’t believe the powers that be are asking these sorts of questions, so how can they arrive at the answers themselves?”

Public awareness campaigns are a necessary weapon against silence and ignorance.

According to Gendered Innovations, design changes can accommodate passengers using public transit for caring work. For example, to help women with strollers and bags, ramps can replace stairs, aisles and gates can be widened, and platforms raised to train level. Recognizing the practice of trip-chaining can help designers plan system extensions of transit lines into areas high in care-related sites such as schools and parks.

“From a design perspective, and in a general sense, there are many blind spots when it comes to doing something as seemingly simple as creating a bus stop,” says Collette after pointing out how women can get cornered in a transit shelter.

“Or consider those long, lonely, silent hallways that linger for ages as you try to leave a metro station,” she adds. The Gauchetière exit at Square-Victoria metro is an example that most Montreal women will recognize.

“Why haven’t the cul-de-sac experience or the long hallways been taken into consideration when designing these stops? While stopping assaults starts with culture and conditioning, design decisions also help orient people and make them interact with their surroundings in a specific way. Design can also confirm or validate bad behaviour, or be a continuation of an already held belief.”

Public awareness is key

With both gender-specific transit needs and the imperative of women’s safety, there are a number of solutions at hand. But first transit authorities have to acknowledge there’s a problem.

With regards to sexual harassment, public awareness campaigns are a necessary weapon against silence and ignorance. Women need to feel emboldened and supported in reporting their experiences. A recently launched poster campaign in Edmonton clearly communicates zero tolerance for such behaviour and indicates how women can report harassment immediately and efficiently.

The majority of public transit decision makers and urban planners are men.

Gaps in legislation that prevent harassers from being prosecuted need to be tackled. All transit authorities need to take sexual harassment seriously and understand how it hinders women’s movement in public. Up-to-date statistics on sexual violence need to be compiled. Most transit agencies throw all crime under one vague category, failing to provide proper information for decisions down the road.

Julie Lalonde is a women’s rights advocate and founder of Hollaback Ottawa, the first Canadian chapter of an international organization dedicated to ending street harassment. She has worked for years to address sexual assault and has made harassment on OC Transpo, Ottawa’s public transit system, a key priority.

“I've spent close to four years now, sitting at a table, month after month, years of advocacy, before OC Transpo committed to the issue,” she says. “Thanks to our work, OC Transpo is now leading the way in many ways.”

Lalonde is referring to a recently launched online reporting system, which allows first-hand, anonymous, and third-party reporting of sexual harassment and other safety issues. That’s on top of a public education campaign teaching everyone to respond and learn how to support each other, and an improved website that will give more effective information on customer safety and security, increasing women’s sense of security and reducing opportunities for harassment.

Shortage of women in transit leadership

Public transit is vital. It’s how many women get to their work, school, and childcare, and run their many errands. How it’s managed and whether women are able to use it safely matters, particularly when the majority of transit users are women.

In Montreal, an STM spokesperson said ridership consisted of 43 per cent men and 57 per cent women. In Toronto, TTC ridership is 60 per cent female. Numbers in the United States are similar, with some cities like Philadelphia and Chicago hovering around the 64 and 62 per cent mark.

Transit agencies can also conduct what researchers call “gender audits.”

Given that women use public transit more than men, why aren’t transit agencies better catering to them? One reason is that the majority of public transit decision makers and urban planners are men, oblivious to the particular challenges that affect women.

According to Gendered Innovations, leadership positions on transportation boards are disproportionately filled by men. That needs to change. As The Atlantic’s CityLab notes, “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.’”

Transit agencies can also conduct what researchers call “gender audits” to evaluate the extent to which they’re meeting the transport needs of female riders. Is there bias in the way the transit system is studied and evaluated? Does transit design accommodate the needs and security concerns of women? What kind of financial penalties and barriers do women face when using transit? How can harassment and other kinds of violence be prevented and responded to? It’s quite clear that input from female passengers is very much needed.

It’s time that all transit agencies and levels of government take steps to remedy the many shortcomings in a necessary publicly funded service.

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