How Dangerous Walking Conditions Disadvantage Women

Photo: Dan Burden
Photo: Dan Burden

San Diego resident Katie Matchett recently found herself in a position that American women will recognize all too well. She wanted to make a short trip — less than a mile — with four children. But thanks to a lack of safe sidewalk and street crossings, she reluctantly opted to drive instead.

At her blog Where the Sidewalk Starts, Matchett says women’s travel behavior is different than men’s in a number of ways. Women have more reasons to walk or bike, but the hostile street environment we’ve created shifts those trips to cars:

Women make more trips than men, but travel shorter distances. They travel more with children, and their trips are more likely to be household-serving (e.g., shopping, daycare, errands), rather than for work or leisure. Women are also more likely to trip-chain (stop at multiple locations along the way during one trip). In particular for women with young children who haven’t started school, gender drives travel patterns.

In theory, the trips women take the most are ideally suited for walking. Short trips to the school, grocery store, or similar locations should be simple to complete on foot–and in the most walkable neighborhoods, women do walk a lot. However, more often we’ve built walkablility out of our neighborhoods. Our streets lack sidewalks where kids can walking hand-in-hand or be pushed in a stroller. We fail to provide safe, regular crossing points along key routes. We create neighborhoods where stores, schools, and (critically) childcare are too far apart to be accessed on a single walking trip. We fail to consider the design elements (lighting, lack of hidden spaces, etc.) that can deter crime and make women feel safe while walking.

These challenges have a real impact on women’s health. One recent study investigated the physical activity patterns of over 700,000 people in 111 different countries. Using travel data from cell phone records, the researchers developed a measure of activity inequality that quantified the difference between the most physically active and least physically active portions of the population. Not surprisingly, the US appears near the head of the list of least equal countries, topped only by Egypt, Canada, Australia, and Saudi Arabia.

More recommended reading today: America Walks shares yesterday’s webinar about how racial bias in the criminal justice system intersects with walking and biking advocacy. And the Urbanist says Washington state’s plans for a “single-point urban interchange” in Seattle highlights the agency’s low regard for pedestrians and cyclists.

20 thoughts on How Dangerous Walking Conditions Disadvantage Women

  1. Fascinating – I don’t follow San Diego, but huge implications anywhere. SF, wake up. SFMTA won’t do this until their feet are held to the fire

  2. is there any basis for these assumptions? I wonder if this article is based upon sex stereotypes or something more tangible.

  3. Uh…the article is about why women wind up not walking.

    Also, men are known to make riskier decisions regarding physical safety than women.

  4. Seriously? What a farce. You play the gender card because of course, women are perceived to be victims of everything. What would the response be if you put up a headline that roads are more dangerous to men because they tend to take more trips by car?

  5. Stop. Just stop with this stuff. Who goes grocery shopping for a family on foot? How many bags of groceries can you carry or push, especially if you are also wrangling young children? How do you trip chain on foot unless you live in a very dense city (e.g. Manhattan)? As a dad this is also patently offensive; my wife and I split most of those trips noted, and the accompanying photo is quite ironic; it shows two women walking for what appears to be recreation which doesn’t match with the story’s narrative. And this kind of story, perpetuating identity politics and victimhood is precisely why we are seeing such division and backlash. Stories like this just come across as endless, shrill screeching. There are plenty of substantive issues to cover without resorting to this nonsense.

  6. I’m more bothered by both genders inability to walk safely after snow storms when roads get cleared quickly by sidewalks usually remained unshovelled, or worse, that’s where snow from roads and/or parking lots gets piled up fro a long time. “Complete street” advocates rarely seem to think about enforcement of laws such as those requiring clearing sidewalks.
    There may be differences with regard to walking trips between men and women but I can’t say this article was persuasive. I have read that there is data that the perception of personal safety around transit systems is important to a higher % of women than men which makes sense as women are usually physically more vulnerable (and mayne more risk-averse?)

  7. Once again, Angie Schmitt delivers “Meteor Destroys Earth; Women, Minorities, Hardest Hit.” Safe streets are too important to us all to get bogged down in garbage identity politics like this.

  8. Q1: My wife and I. My wife a bit more.
    Q2: with the stroller, about 40 pounds
    Q3: You don’t, you knock them off one at a time.


    Coming down on the author for pointing out relevant information and bringing new perspective is a bad look for you. Add your tone and it’s a catastrophe.

    The photo absolutely fits the narrative and my own personal experience: My wife stuck to the multi-use trail to nowhere on her morning stroll with the kid, then got in the car to grab coffee with the other mothers in the other direction. Why? Coffee was all but inaccessible on foot.

    Talk about ‘victimhood’….. Do you desire an apology from Ms Schmitt?

  9. No frank, I’m just tired of these contrived articles screaming victim. Back up these claims with actual statistics, not hypotheticals that make gross assumptions as to comparative risk.

    And no, you can’t do substantive shopping with a stroller unless it is devoid of kids. Your arguments are weak.

  10. I’m amazed by all the outrage at well-established demographic travel patterns. None of this is revolutionary, but that doesn’t mean it’s pointless to be reminded of something that doesn’t get a lot of attention.

  11. Is it because you think white males are automatically wrong? Or is it because you think we shouldn’t point out divisive stupidity because someone’s feelings might get hurt?

  12. I desire a walkable neighborhood. You like the status quo – well, probably more the reality twenty years ago before those kids started causing all this trouble – and that is fine. If Ms. Schmitt and others, including myself, can’t currently achieve this goal, it doesn’t make us victims. You said that. So yes, stop with the victimhood indeed!

    We obviously have differing lifestyles. That is also fine.

  13. For me, it’s because you seem to have a problem with streets being designed with all people in mind, instead of just what many consider to be the default person.

  14. I used to do plenty of grocery shopping with a stroller, on a regular basis. How substantive does it need to be before you deem it to be valid shopping? No one said people need to lug as much on foot or with a stroller as they could get in the trunk of a car for the trip to be a valid shopping trip. Also, you might not know this, but people who go grocery shopping on foot, tend to make a few more trips per week. That’s OK. It’s even healthy. They will have fresher food.

    Pedestrian infrastructure can be improved easily in ways that will make it a lot easier for women with strollers (why aren’t there more men with strollers?) to move around and run errands. This would also benefit men, so I’m not sure why men are complaining so much. That means healthier people and less car trips.

    Also, why are we so sure those women in the photo aren’t running an errand? Is our country really so horribly designed that if we see two women walk down a path with strollers we can only think they must be on a recreational “path to nowhere” because we never see paths like this that lead to town centers or shopping districts?

  15. I, too, want streets designed with all people in mind (why else would I be hanging out on Streetsblog?). I want streets made not just for people with cars, but for people who use transit, for people who ride bicycles, and for people who walk. I want intersections that are safe for me to cross and that are also safe for my arthritic, 76 year-old mother to cross, too. What I don’t see is why anyone would want to gin up some fake gender war to try to achieve these goals. It makes all of us here look bad and alienates plenty of moderate voters who would be much easier to persuade without the incessant SJW drum-beat.

  16. Thank you for stepping up and calling out this malarkey like you see it. I’m beyond sick of the neo-Victorian attitude that women are frail things prone to being “uniquely disadvantaged”. Women are just as capable of making decisions as men, and the more we’re deprived of this sense of volition, the more society is going to think us incapable of stepping up to the plate when needed–thereby making us unconvincing leaders or managers. Angie Schmitt here seems to want it both ways: women are strong and affirming, yet constantly diminished and persecuted. I’m not buying it.

    And there’s absolutely no evidence that you played the victim. I see no self-pity and no invocation of your own troubles or hardship. You merely called the article out–and your naysayers–on their bogus narrative, and they couldn’t come up with a valid defense.

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