What Explains the Gender Gap in Walking?

Around the world, women and girls walk less than men and boys. Graph: Stanford
Around the world, women and girls walk less than men and boys. Graph: Stanford

A recent Stanford study examined walking rates around the globe, finding that in a diverse range of countries, girls and women walk less than boys and men.

What explains the disparity? On International Women’s Day, Tiffany Lam explores the subject at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership.

Planning professionals tend to focus overwhelmingly on infrastructure issues, she writes. While infrastructure matters a great deal, Lam says not enough emphasis has been placed on other types of barriers facing women and girls:

Women and girls have to account for threats and realities of gender-based violence in public—on public transportation, in schools, in workplaces, in parks, on streets — and feel less inclined to walk in certain areas at certain times. As such, improving the safety of women and girls in public space will improve public health, too. UN Women has recognized the link between gender-based harassment and violence and female mobility in public space: Recently it launched a Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces flagship program to prioritize safe streets for women and girls. This program acknowledges that while violence in the private sphere is now largely recognized as a human rights violation, sexual harassment and violence against women and girls in public spaces remains a pressing problem that is mostly unaddressed by lawmakers and policymakers.

Transportation planners predominantly think about safety in terms of safety from road traffic danger, which results in infrastructure-related interventions. While that is certainly important, safety is broader than that and includes safety from crime, racial profiling, and gender-based harassment and violence. A growing body of research focuses on the complex role of safety in active commuting for men and women, boys and girls. People’s perceptions of safety largely determine how, where, and when they get places. Many parents base their decisions about whether their children are allowed to walk or bike to school on how safe they think it is. Without a more holistic view of safety, we simply cannot reduce activity inequality, the gender step gap, and their negative public health outcomes.

Planner Katie Matchett has pointed out that transportation metrics focuses overwhelmingly on commute trips, which tend to be skewed toward men. Trips made by women tend to be shorter, and in many ways, ideal for walking. Planners may need to consider how design elements like street lighting and stroller access can help make cities more walkable for women.

Beyond physical infrastructure, groups like Hollaback! have been drawing attention to the problem of street harassment. But on transit, sexual harassment remains rampant, and there has been little institutional response in the United States. Internationally, some cities, like Guangzhou, China, have women-only cars on subways that are supposed to provide a refuge, though the policy has not been enforced.

One country with almost no walking gender gap is Sweden, reports the Guardian. The country uses a process called “gender-balanced budgeting” to analyze public spending. Among other things, the process led to changes in snow plowing: Local roads and sidewalks, which tend to be used more by women, now get priority over major roads. That change cost no additional money but resulted in big savings for society in the form of reduced injuries, the Swedish government reports.

A similar strategy has been employed to make transit safer for women. The city of Kalmar, Sweden, offers “night-stops” — women can request a special stop at or very near their destination if they don’t feel safe walking. When a night stop is requested, the bus driver doesn’t allow anyone else to exit with the female passenger, for her safety. The concept has since been adopted in other places, including Toronto.

  • Altered Beast ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    that’s why biking is much better for women. The risk of assault on a bicycle is lessened. I’m a guy and when I walk around the city I get harrassed but almost never on a bicycle. In fact, the one time I biked through the rockaways and street toughs were like “gimme yo bike!” I just biked away. the guys were too lazy to run after me.There are so many other times that I biked against gangs of street toughs and they give me menacing glares but don’t do anything about it and if I weren’t on my bike I would probably be assaulted or mugged. Bikes are a form of protection against pedestrian assault.

  • My experience is generally better on my bike too, although not 100% free from harassment. This piece https://bigorangebike.wordpress.com/2018/03/07/metoo-woman-on-a-bike/ speaks powerfully to a lack of feeling safe on a bike as well–in particular the dark side of any “see and be seen” campaigns so popular with behavioral traffic safety efforts.

  • Joe R.

    I agree 100%. I’ve safely biked through neighborhoods I would never think of walking through. The rare times people look like they’re after me, I just go full tilt until I’m far away. Bikes let an average person go as fast as Usain Bolt for brief stretches, or faster than a marathon running continuously. That’s empowering when riding through dangerous areas.

  • Altered Beast ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.
    I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    I have been attacked four times while bicycling by people and at least as many times by dogs.

  • Hugh Shepard

    Funny how China has less activity inequality than Sweeden (check the link to the study), but this article only mentions Sweeden when considering policy solutions to improve activity equality. It seems like everybody is obsessed with Sweeden! From Donald Trump to Streetsblog, everybody loves Sweeden!

    But anyway, I think that this data reflects a few things. Number 1: walkability. Number 2: What percentage of women are housewives? What percentage of women work outside the house? Number 3: Safety of solo female travelers Number 4: How widespread are smartphones in the specific nation of study? Are smartphones rare among certain socioeconomic classes? (This data is only collected by tracking smartphone data). Number 5: How many people own cars? How dense are communities so that errands can be done by foot?

    Also, it’s funny how this article didn’t pick up on the fact that both Northern European nations (Netherlands, Norway Sweeden) and East Asian nations (Mainland China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong) have low gender inequalities in activity.

    So streetsblog, instead of praising Sweeden every time, think more carefully about what the data reflects.

  • Hugh Shepard

    Funny how China has less activity inequality than Sweeden (check the link to the study), but this article only mentions Sweeden when considering policy solutions to improve activity equality. It seems like everybody is obsessed with Sweeden! From Donald Trump to Streetsblog, everybody loves Sweeden!

    But anyway, I think that this data reflects a few things.
    1. Walkability.
    2. What percentage of women are housewives? What percentage of women work outside the house?
    3. Safety of solo female travelers
    4. How widespread are smartphones in the specific nation of study? Are smartphones rare among certain socioeconomic classes? (This data is only collected by tracking smartphone data).
    5. How many people own cars? How dense are communities so that errands can be done by foot?

    Also, it’s funny how this article didn’t pick up on the fact that both Northern European nations (Netherlands, Norway, Sweeden) and East Asian nations (Mainland China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong) have low gender inequalities in activity.

    So Streetsblog, instead of blindly praising Sweeden every time, think more critically about what the data reflects.

  • Shoes.

  • Komanoff

    Important article and subject. But I want to make a plea to *not* publish graphs with y-axes that start way above zero, as did the one from Stanford used here that makes walking’s gender gap appear a lot larger than it is (which is bad enough, shown “realistically”). And also want to make a plug for the NYT’s 15 belated women obits published today, which include recognized giants like Ida B. Wells and lesser known pioneers like Lillias Campbell Davidson, whom the Times credits (85 years after her death) w/ having founded “the first womens cycling organization,” in the UK, in 1892: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/08/obituaries/overlooked-lillias-campbell-davidson.html

  • Jesse

    Right?! I was waiting for this article to mention it but it didn’t seem to be one of the variables they studied. I don’t wear women’s shoes so I can’t say from my own experience but it seems like uncomfortable shoes could account for at least some of the difference.

  • There is no such place as “Sweeden”.

  • david vartanoff

    Sadly, no surprise here. Conversations with female friends over many years have universally returned the same harassment/fear comments. The only exception in my experience was years ago in NYC where many more women walk (at least in Manhattan) as the city is more of a 24 hour place with more pedestrians of all sorts, al hours.

  • thielges

    Right. Society’s double standard with how the genders are expected to dress tend to put women at a disadvantage. Men can get by with comfortable, practical clothes but women who do the same are often judged as looking frumpy or butch.
    Then there’s the expectation that women put all of their valuables in a purse, obviously visible and snatchable. Pockets would be nice but they are not common in fashionable clothes.

  • bettybarcode

    I am pleased to report that Buffalo’s Women’s Wheel & Athletic Club predates the UK’s by four years. Their minutes dating back to 1888 survive in the Buffalo & Erie County (NY) Public Library.
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/36484635

    This might be the first women’s bicycle organization in the US, if not the world.

  • spijim

    The kind of people interested in and who comment on streetsblog come from a relatively small, bourgie circle. I consider myself part of that group but probably had a different upbringing from most. I’m not saying this to lessen the value of what anyone has to say merely to point out perspective:

    Middle and upper-middle class folks of any ethnicity are the least likely to walk anywhere because they have the means to afford multiple cars per household and/or use Uber & Lyft at will and/or and live in places with the best access to transit.

  • Amerisod

    Ask women why they don’t walk and you’ll find out that harassment and violence from men is a very big part of the reason. This isn’t news.

    As for readers of this blog being bourgeois, I’m not even sure what that means.

  • Stephen Simac

    Great to see you are still active in transportation studies. Your article on congestion pricing for “free”ways, started our correspondence if you remember. Sorry I lost touch, but was moving around the country at the time. Congestion pricing seems to finally have made some inroads (pun intended), but is still being debated in the Bay Area of CA.

  • Stephen Simac

    I’ve outridden a couple of teens with a whip, and definitely would rather bike through an unsafe neighborhood than walk. Wearing a helmet definitely was protective when some young kids threw rocks at me. White guy in a black neighborhood. Dogs are a bigger problem for both modes than examined in this article. More dog stories than I care to remember.
    A friend of mine was attacked with a pipe to the back of his head from behind a parked car to steal his bike. Helmet would have been handy, but so would vehicular cycling not riding so close to parked cars.

  • Stephen Simac

    The women in pants movement started with cycling I believe.

  • Stephen Simac

    If walking or bicycling feels uncomfortable, unsafe, unsupported, combined with the ease of driving and parking, fewer people of any gender or income level will choose alternatives if they can afford to drive. Appealing to the benefits of healthy exercise can only go so far, when reality or perceived reality is that most roads are for cars only and walking is for homeless. There’s probably more miles ridden indoors than outdoors now.

  • Back when soda was sold in 16-ounce glass bottles rather than 20-ounce plastic bottles, I had an incident where a dog started chasing me on Rockaway Boulevard. I threw the glass bottle that I was carrying at the dog, and hit it right in the face, stopping its pursuit. The bottle didn’t break when it hit the ground; it just skitted away.

    But I must say that I strongly doubt that the rock throwing was down to your being a white guy in a black neighbourhood. Surely countless black guys have had the same experience. I was once hit square in the chest with a thrown softball in a Latino neighbourhood. But I am often assumed to be Latino. (Not surprising; Italians are the original Latins.) Most likely it was just hostility to bicyclists in both cases.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    Women can also wear the equivalent of a skort and a tank-top to work and still pass for business casual. In many workplaces, a man can’t show his forearms, let alone his ankles. In quite a few work environments, no matter how hot it may be, a man still has to wear a collared shirt and tie around his neck, which I can’t imagine is very comfortable.

    Double standards work in both directions. Women are not exclusively the aggrieved ones (though, these days, they do seem to be doing 95% of the complaining)

  • spijim

    I agree – except for your 2nd to last sentence. I think this really depends on what part of the country you live in and what type of neighborhood you live in. If you live in a large metro area with a decent transit system it’s more common to see people walking – especially if you live in a neighborhood with sidewalks. Anyway, I don’t own a car and cycle and use transit to get most places. I often have small kids in tow so I’m especially attuned to just how dangerous some streets are. But when it comes down to it I can and do avoid the worst of them because I can afford the occasional Lyft ride. Not everyone can.

    If we want to make improvements that get more people walking/out of cars then we need to be working with good data and on a solid set of premises (this is also for Amerisod):

    * the data this article points to doesn’t tell us who is a pedestrian. It tells us who is walking around more while carrying their phone. That may very well be indoors. It could be that men are more likely to walk places. It could also be that men are more likely to work in jobs that cause them to stand/walk more. It could be that in this study there’s really not much of a difference at all and it’s really just in the differences of how men and women carry their phones (back pocket vs bag). I don’t know the answer but the data we’re looking at here doesn’t help us.

    *The streets aren’t less safe for women. They may feel that way and spend less time on the street because of it but, quantitatively, men are far more likely to be the victims of pedestrian (70%) and cyclist (88%) fatalities, assaults, and murders. That may be from targeting, increased exposure, increased risk taking, some other variable, or a combination of them. It’s probably also worth noting that the average age for pedestrians killed is 47 and the average age for those injured is 37 and 25% of fatalities happen at dusk. That might suggest that it’s adults on their way home from work who we could make the most difference for in the shortest amount of time.

    *people with means are less likely to have to walk where it’s dangerous and can generally opt out of walking when they want to. The higher someone’s education the more likely they are to cycle and the more likely they are to walk for discretionary/non-essential trips. Conversely, poor people are more likely to have to walk places and to have to walk in places where it’s not safe to be a pedestrian. Studying people who have phones (adults) with enabled gps and/or accelerometers is probably not a representative sample let alone a good starting point for making walking safer for everyone/encouraging more walking. When you see comments (below) amount women are not walking because of shoe choice or because they’re carrying handbags it’s quite clear who it’s for (not the woman walking to her job at Subway.)

  • spijim

    I explained in the next paragraph why a bougie readership is relevant. If you’re asking for a definition I think “bougie” is a common enough term to do a quick google search on. I’m not referring to the academic definition where people literally own the means of production.

    I wasn’t commenting on womens’ perceptions or experiences. I was talking about who is actually getting killed and injured out there. (see my response to Stephen)

  • Hugh Shepard

    Funny how China has less gender activity inequality than Sweden (check the link to the study), but this article only mentions Sweden when considering policy solutions to improve activity equality. It seems that from Donald Trump to Streetsblog, everybody is obsessed with Sweden!

    But anyway, I think that this data reflects a few things about each of the respective countries that are studied.
    1. The walkability of the community that the average resident lives in.
    2. The role that women play in society in that specific country of study; the work that most women do and the journeys that they need to do to complete that work.
    3. The safety of solo female travelers and female travelers in general in that specific country.
    4. How widespread are smartphones in the specific nation of study? Are smartphones rare among certain socioeconomic classes? (This data is only collected by tracking smartphone data).
    5. How many people own cars? How dense are communities so that errands and commutes can be done by foot?

    Also, it’s funny how this article didn’t pick up on the fact that both Northern European nations (Netherlands, Norway, Sweden) and East Asian nations (Mainland China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong) have low gender inequalities in activity according to the data collected by this study.

    I think that if streetsblog stopped blindly praising Sweden every time and started to think more critically about what the data reflected it would come up with better and more relevant articles.

  • Stephen Simac

    I once threw a padlock at a dog that chased me regularly, hit him hard in the forehead (do dogs have foreheads?). He never chased me again, but my bike got stolen later because it wasn’t locked. Karma or Dogma?
    The kid throwing a rock was only about 6 and this was in the 80’s in Ft. Lauderdale when racial animosity was pretty engrained. This was in the NW quadrant of the city, historically called Colored Town. I was integrated into previously all black junior and senior high schools, in the early 70’s, so can attest to the racial violence. That had changed drastically in the last decade or two, but imagine this last election has stirred it up again.
    The hostility to bicyclists was mainly from motorists. Bottles thrown, honking in the ear, stuff yelled, aggressive passing and sudden stops, which was also mostly reduced over the same time frame, but may be coming back too.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    This is really surprising to me given that transit ridership by women is higher than by men in most city and racial groups.

    https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2012/02/public-transportations-hidden-gender-imbalance/1107/

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