Transportation is not gender-blind

woman in black shirt and white pants sits in front of graffiti wallA few months ago, I had an interesting conversation with a former professor from graduate school. I had expressed my annoyance with the many people who write off biking as a viable transportation option, even when safe bicycle infrastructure exists. I postulated a few reasons. Maybe some folks don’t think they’re in shape enough to bike. Maybe there are barriers to entry; doing anything for the first time in itself takes a lot of will, and if someone has never biked in a city, I could understand why they might be afraid to try.

My former urban planning professor said something that stuck with me. She lives in Washington, DC, where safe bike infrastructure is pretty expansive (well… it’s up for debate what “safe” really means here, but let’s leave it at that). DC also has the third largest bikeshare program in the country, Capital Bikeshare. Most short DC-area trips can be taken using the Capital Bikeshare network, and Capital Bikeshare is cheaper than using Metro. But my professor—who is an avid pedestrian and bicyclist advocate—does not bike. She does not own a bike and does not like using Capital Bikeshare. Why? Because the Capital Bikeshare bikes don’t fit the shape of her body. This makes using them not only an uncomfortable experience, but also an unsafe one. And that got me thinking: who are these bikeshare systems designed for? What kinds of body types? Why?

group of 5 cyclists standing behind their bikes in safety attireThe answer to this question is men. And it’s not just bikeshare systems; all of our transportation systems are designed for men as the default. Without fully reiterating a superb article from Streetsblog USA, here are a few ways transportation systems leave out considerations for women:

  • Many buses, metro cars, and light rail cars have those overhead handles for people who stand. Those can be difficult for average-sized women to reach, putting women disproportionately at risk for injury on transit.
  • A study came out in 2019 that found the odds of serious injury or death in car crashes are 73% higher in females than males; this is attributed to safety design elements in cars being designed around men’s bodies.
  • Women tend to be more safety conscious than men; this drives many women away from biking, particularly when the gold-standard for bicycle infrastructure (protected lanes) isn’t in place. This is only one of the reasons that women only make up 20-25% of bike commuters.
  • Other reasons for the low bike commuting rates among women relate to the lack of mobility built into standard female professional clothes (biking in heels! helmet hair!). If these concerns seem vain, consider this: women in white collar jobs face increased pressure to look polished because their appearance influences the perception of their abilities at work.
  • Most transit networks are designed to accommodate the 9-to-5 commutes of the population they serve. Transit systems are far less accommodating of short trips at non-peak hours, which is when trips related to childcare and errands are made. This is a women’s issue because the onus of childcare and errands still disproportionately falls on women.

In the transportation planning and engineering world, we design systems around trip demand. One could argue that we don’t design around the specific concerns of women because they aren’t the primary users of our systems. But I think what planners and engineers often don’t realize is that demand is not created in a vacuum. The systems that we build are the mechanisms that create demand, by inclusion (and exclusion) of specific populations.

By assuming a one-size-fits-all user, we perpetuate inequities in trip demand, and we put those who don’t fit the mold at risk. It is imperative that we think very intentionally about the users of the systems we design: who they are, the way they interact with the world, the way the world interacts with them, and the things they have to do every day to take care of themselves and their families. Not just during Women’s History Month (or Black History Month) but every day.

Shayna Rose

About the Author

Shayna Rose is a transportation planner serving the mid-Atlantic region. She strives to provide ethical, innovative, and sustainable solutions that benefit clients and elevate the communities they serve. When not at work, you can find Shayna running, rock climbing, or cursing at her cat, who likes to hunt her as she plays piano. Shayna is also a board member of her neighborhood association and volunteers for Jews United For Justice.

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