How Our Transport System is Biased Against Women

Photo:  TransitCenter
Photo: TransitCenter

In her book Invisible Women, published earlier this year, Caroline Craido Perez uncovers the way designing essentially everything with the default user being an averaged size man puts women at risk.

One of her most striking examples was crash test dummies. Women are safer drivers on average than men. Yet Perez points out they are 17 percent more likely to be killed in a crash because cars have been designed around the bodies of male crash test dummies. U.S. safety regulators did not start using “female” crash test dummies until 2011.

It’s just one example of many that the world we live in is designed by men — for men.

But there are so many examples of how gender bias plays out in transportation and city building, so we’ve compiled a handy list. (Caveat: Some of the items below apply to any parent or child caregiver, but we included them because childcare still falls primarily on women in the U.S.)

Car seats

In the United States, we put the onus for traffic safety almost entirely on parents. It can be a real burden, and in the U.S. that burden falls primarily on mothers. For example, in many places children can’t play outside unsupervised without fear of being hit by a car driver.

One way we externalize safety for children and make it the parents’ responsibility is with car seats. Parents/caregivers must buy and install them. This is harder than it sounds, and most people do it wrong.

Cars should come equipped with seats that can accommodate children of all ages, says Neil Arason, a Canadian traffic safety expert and author of No Accident. He calls designing car seats to be safe for adults only a “bizarre anachronism,” noting “integrated child seats have been around for 20 years.”

Because they do not come standard in cars, parents must lug around car seats if they have to switch cars, for example, or fly somewhere on vacation. To top it off, we sometimes criminalize parents if they get it wrong (this is just one area where racism overlaps with sexism and women of color can face particular hazards).

Taxis don’t accommodate small kids

This second complaint ties in with the first one. Taxis as well as Uber and Lyft make basically no attempt to accommodate people traveling with small children safely. In some states, parents can only make a limited number of trips by taxi without a car seat.

Outside of major cities, or premium services, Uber and Lyft just don’t offer car seats. This is increasingly problematic as cities and transit agencies increasingly incorporate these services into core transit systems. Still, there is no sustained push for them to change anything to accommodate young children.

Buses don’t accommodate strollers

So women — or men if they are doing the (young) child schlepping — can’t take Uber safely, by and large. They also face barriers to riding the bus. Namely, many agencies require them to break down strollers and stow them, though there might not be anywhere to do that.

One new mother in D.C. told the Washington Post that she stood outside a Metrobus and cried after being denied access without folding her stroller with her 3-month-old following a difficult phase where she had basically been housebound with the infant. Some of the more progressive agencies such as Chicago’s CTA and Seattle’s King County Metro have revised these policies to allow open strollers (provided they do not interfere with accessibility for people with disabilities).

European buses have spaces automatically to accommodate something as common and practical for bus riders as a stroller with special areas near the front.

Transit agencies are blasé about sexual harassment

Sexual harassment on transit is a huge problem for women. A 2019 study by USC  professors found women were half as likely to take advantage of a new light rail line near their house in large part because of concerns about safety.

But a survey by UCLA researchers found just three of 110 transit agencies interviewed in 2006 were doing anything formal to specifically protect women from harassment and assault.

Hyper-macho dangerous trucks

Photo: Angie Schmitt
Photo: Angie Schmitt

Young men cause a hugely disproportionate share of traffic fatalities; the combination of testosterone, youth and big motors can be deadly. Young men are involved in fatal crashes at 2.2 times the rate of young women — even though both are at elevated risk compared to older drivers. Young men do pay much higher insurance premiums to reflect this. On the other hand, in our culture, we’ve done little to rein in some of the more dangerous aspects of macho road culture. Instead, it is mostly celebrated in the media in games, songs and, of course, movie franchises like Fast and Furious.

Lifted pickup trucks with bull bars are a good example. These dangerous modifications in many states go completely unregulated. Meanwhile, Europe has banned bull bars, citing compelling evidence they kill people, especially children. The notion that other people’s safety can be subordinated to the mostly male obsession with big cars reflects, in part, the privileged position men hold socially and politically.

Lack of protected bike infrastructure

The bike world has long bemoaned the “gender gap” in American cycling. Only about a quarter of U.S. cycling trips are made by women.

There’s probably a whole host of social reasons for this, including “bro culture” at bike shops, fashion norms that discriminate against women and, obviously, the way women are treated on the roads.

But the main issue is safety — women say that feeling unsafe keeps them from biking at the same rate as men.

High-quality bike infrastructure helps close the gender gap. In Scandinavian cities known for their bikeways, like Copenhagen, the gender gap has been completely eliminated.

But in the United States, macho critiques of bike infrastructure, from prominent engineers who called themselves vehicular cyclists, held back the production of protected bike lanes known to produce more gender parity.

Too much focus on commuting

Transportation engineers — who by the way are overwhelmingly men — have long held up work commuting as the standard by which to base planning decisions.

But women make many more trips than men daily, and they commute shorter distances on average. According to the American Enterprise Institute, they spend 31 percent less time commuting in the U.S. then men. In addition, they are often responsible for more caregiving and retail trips.

U.S. transport planning has for ages privileged long trips over short. Big highway expansion projects that serve suburban commuters over more small scale projects that facilitate safer, faster short-distance travel.

In some other countries, they have attempted to root out this kind of bias by using a process called gender-balanced budgeting. In Sweden, this framework led to a change in even how snow plowing was prioritized. The policy significantly reduced injuries from falls once the local streets started being cleared first.

Single-family zoning

Rules encouraging single family home development date back to a time in American history where families operated in much more patriarchal form: men go to work, women stay home with the kids. Women’s roles — and family structures — have changed a lot, but single-family zoning remains dominant. Often, even in major cities like Seattle, the vast majority of the land is reserved for single-family housing only.

Single-family housing is more expensive than multi-family housing, potentially putting it out of reach for women without male partners. In addition, this housing style isolates women from other women outside their nuclear family, and can compound domestic responsibilities that still fall disproportionately on women.

‘Feminine’ clothing items limit mobility

Skirts, high heels: This kind of stuff can limit women’s ability to walk or bike comfortably. It can especially be a problem when its a requirement for women to look in a manner that men deem “professional.”

The extra emphasis on women’s appearance can also discourage helmet use.

Vehicle interiors based on male body sizes

For shorter women, straps and hand bars in buses and trains are often out of reach, our readers report. In addition, train and bus styles that put the seats facing toward the center can put women in a position where they have standing men’s crotches in their faces. Not great.

Parking lots are not child friendly

Some retailers — like Target — that cater to women with kids have tried to make some minimal accommodations in parking lots — i.e. short, limited sidewalks. But for the most part, steering young children — who may be invisible at close range to drivers of SUVs — through parking lots is a gauntlet for moms, or whoever is doing the child schlepping (overwhelmingly moms).

Bike share bikes have no child seats

Bike share in most cities operates as a public utility, like a transit system. But if you have a small child you have to transport, that is not going to be possible.

Societal norms, real fears against walking at night

Many women don’t feel comfortable walking at night because of fears of being assaulted. Meanwhile, women who do (raises hand) might face admonishment from adults, teachers, whoever, for doing so, especially when they are younger. They are trained not to walk at night. This is a huge limitation on their freedom and mobility.

In addition, street lighting and other urban design considerations, traditionally, have not adequately accounted for this issue.

So, that’s our best attempt at an exhaustive list. Is there anything you think we overlooked? Let us know in the comments.

36 thoughts on How Our Transport System is Biased Against Women

  1. I am a woman. I also have a disability. The problem with strollers in my local transit authority (MBTA, Boston) buses is that they are designated to use the same space alloted for seats for elderly or otherwise in need of a seat. Those seats fold up and they are not easy to fold down again.Parents are permitted on buses with open strollers/prams and some of them are gigantic. Sometimes there are two at once, and they take up both sides of designated seating space. And I have never (and I ride the bus daily) seen a parent fold the seat down when they leave. The location is not the fault of the user; the design is bad. The area near rear doors should be designated for strollers, with the sideways seats there in fold up mode, leaving the front for wheelchairs and those in need of seats.

  2. “But in the United States, macho critiques of bike infrastructure, from prominent engineers who called themselves vehicular cyclists, held back the production of protected bike lanes known to produce more gender parity.” This is a revisionist history of bicycle activism in the 1970’s and 80’s that I’ve shown to be false. You should thank these “macho bro’s” for preserving cyclists’ rights to use the public roads as slow moving vehicles, instead of being legally required to use separate but unequal paths, lanes and sidewalks. I’ve refuted the white paper by engineers from the Toole Design Group, a company that designs segregated bicycle infrastructure, which started this myth. I’ve quoted from their own paper to show how ill informed they are. Might try reading it before you blame us Share the Roaders for protecting your rights again. (You may have to go to my Facebook page, Velorution2020 March 30,2019 post, because the cut and paste link, https://www.facebook.com/Velorution2020/posts/2139559006122537?__tn__=K-R, doesn’t always connect.

  3. In countries where there is a lot of informal work, this type of work is mostly done by women, a lot of them migrants or in conditions of socio-economic vulnerability. Transport planning is thought of with a mostly 9-5 working schedule focus and therefore informal workers, in addition to those in charge of care-giving responsibilities, are stuck with less frequent public transport service, increasing and difficulting their commute times or forcing them to pay more for taxis, Uber or other similar services

  4. Great details here but re: “Bike share in most cities operates as a public utility”.

    Not really. Exceptions include Los Angeles Metro who contracts out services, and then e.g. the City of Chicago has quite a few regs and requirements for their private bike share operator partner.

    On the other end JUMP (UBER) has few obligations; for example in the Sacramento Region their contract with the regional entity responsible for transportation allows them to use any bike design they see fit, and to have restrictive age and weight limits.

    Cities need to municipalize or robustly tender services, and demand features like a light child option on their bikes, and not permit arbitrary bans based on age (most bike share bikes can be ridden by people a bit under 5 ft, and a good bike can carry 350 lbs. (JUMP has a 18 min and 210 lb. max weight limit, nationwide, as far as I know.)

    With more mobility independence, women and all parents have to use them of their time to move kids around.

  5. It’s just one example of many that the world we live in is designed by men — for men.
    That’s because men are willing to roll up their sleeves. Men BUILT modern civilizations.

  6. Some points here are valid, even if they’re lacking a policy suggestion for how economically reasonable accomodations could be made. Lack of attention to sexual harassment on transit and safety concerns at night, for example.

    Many other points are ..well.. petty and nonsensical

    You want every Uber to be required to provide a car seat? Or every car manufacturer to sacrifice seating flexibility for an integrated, child-only seat in every vehicle?

    Finally my favorite-
    Women’s clothes and shoes are evidence of an anti-female bias in our transit systems? That’s a stretch.

  7. LazyReader says:

    “It’s just one example of many that the world we live in is designed by men — for men.
    That’s because men are willing to roll up their sleeves. Men BUILT modern civilizations.”

    Haha! And that deck wasn’t stacked at all. *wiping away tears of laughter* Oh man! Tell me another one.

  8. As a mother, I agree for sure with the child seat. It’s a major hassle to need to tote around a child seat so we basically just lug our stroller everywhere (or carrier when kids were tiny). Which then means we can’t take the bus… and I do think preference should go to people in wheelchairs, but can buses fit both? THat’d be nice.

    That being said, I agree with previous commenters about the women’s clothes being pretty ridiculous. I never wear heels, of course not while biking. Or if necessary, throw them in my backpack.

    I will say that one MINOR item to add is that active transportation in warm climates may require a shower at one’s destination (true for men and women). However, while (short-haired) men can shower and show up at the office with wet hair, most women need to use a blow drier and that takes longer, and it’s a deterrent.

  9. I’d add the height of seats on transit. The “standard” is 17-18 inches high. I participated in several of BART’s outreach events for the design of their new vehicles and repeatedly commented that the height of the current seats is great: my feet can touch the ground. Unfortunately, the new BART cars have higher seats and my feet dangle. Supposedly the new seat height is so people can put their bags/luggage underneath; but yuck, who is going to do that?

  10. So true about things being designed to fit adult males. It is extremely uncomfortable for short people (including children) to sit on a bus with hard plastic seats when your feet don’t reach the floor.

  11. Something designed correctly is the Mifold booster seat. This is small enough to fit in my 5yo’s backpack… she can then ride to friends/school where parents (invariably) plan to drive. Most bike-friendly car seat I’ve found.

    As for installing car seats correctly: sure, one can really goose it, like forgetting to latch. But my cynical take is that the correct/incorrect notion is really just a legal out. By tightening the definition of “correctly,” a legal window is left to blame the end-user in case of (all too common) failure instead of blaming the designer. Helmet companies take the same approach. Either a helmet works or it doesn’t (often it doesn’t.) Degrees of tilt on the head is not really what’s at issue in mechanism of injury.

    Having spent much of the summer in ND and MT, can’t agree enough about the disease of bull bars. These are jewelry for people who’d like to believe hitting a deer is way more likely than it is… not that hitting a moose is fun. But roll into the city and their reason to be drops to nil– suburbanites pretending to be cattle herders.

    I do disagree about the number of women driving large trucks. Ever been to a school pick-up and seen the flotilla of mom driven SUVs as you peer up from even your man-sized bicycle? Plenty of female obsession with big vehicles, even if of different etiology.

  12. Wow guys!! Walk a few miles in our shoes and with our responsibilities as women and you will feel differently. You really need to work on your perspective taking skills.

  13. Lazy Reader, you would not even have civilization if women hadn’t figured out how to grow crops.

  14. Yet another opinion column that conflates “woman” with “mother.” Newsflash: not all women are mothers. Those women who are mothers are not all mothers of small children. Those women who are mothers of small children will grow out of it.

    It’s far more flexible for the few people who need to cart around car seats and boosters to do so, with the ability to plug them into any LATCH-compliant rear seat, than it is to force all car manufacturers to somehow build-in every size and style of car seat mandated by the laws: rear-facing infant, rear-facing toddler, forward-facing toddler, and various heights of boosters.

  15. Listened to the 99pi podcast about this a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it.

    one note:

    “…commuting in the U.S. THAN men”

  16. Gee, more problems.They are everywhere, real and contrived! I wonder how transgenders feel about the inequities of transportation? Or feral cats? One is pushed to think that toxic males are at the bottom of this diabolical scheme (and every other)? Moral of the story: someone will always find fault with anything at all. Real life considerations: try Somalia, or get a life. The choice is yours.

  17. Comments to the effect of “This is wrong,” “This is dumb,” “Get over it” et al: all by males. Gee, what are the chances?

  18. Difficulty using strollers on transit, not being able to take kids in taxis due to lack of car seats, etc. Totally valid points. Great post!

  19. I’m a furry.

    I’ve found that the majority of transit systems in the country use solid, one-piece chairs, instead of those that separate the back from the behind, with support bars mounted to each. With one-piece chairs, there’s absolutely no place for me to put my tail.

    It’s very uncomfortable, and clearly discriminatory.

  20. Angie, there are some important points here about public accommodations, infrastructure and cultural patterns making their use more uncomfortable, dangerous or unusable by differently sized, aged, ability,sexed, etc… that the trolls are missing. The Age Friendly Community movement is worldwide, promoted by AARP, the WHO and many local governments, that Streetsblog might want to form alliances with. sidewalks and crosswalks that are safe and comfortable for all pedestrians, will accommodate strollers and walkers, wheelchairs and striders. There needs to be longer term testing of “solutions” to ensure they actually help. Just as the original curb cuts made it easier for bicycles to use sidewalks (not necessarily safer), and strollers, but were less than ideal for wheelchair users, the more recent “solutions” for visually impaired curb cuts, ie yellow painted, stippled surfaces have caused many more falls by tripping or slipping.

  21. I appreciate and understand the point of the article, but I noticed discrimination in some of the assumptions made within the article. Why is childcare automatically considered a “woman’s issue”?

  22. Deidre, the reaction to the article by men is not about denying the difficulties that women may experience in transport. It’s the irrational, misogynist-conspiracy-theory mindset that this article perpetuates.
    Gigantic, dangerous SUV’s are at least as popular with women as with men, so characterising them as a male problem is simply wrong.
    And watch any episode of House Hunters and it’s generally the wife who wants a vast walk in closet, a parents retreat, etc. All dependent on huge homes possible only in single family zoning.
    Focus on commuting, lack of safe bike paths, seat dimensions, etc. is not about misogyny but more likely about inertia. Policies like these tend to have been formulated decades ago when they were likely reasonable based on societal norms. Times have changed, they are out of date, and should be revised, but they’re not a reflection of biased/sexism, etc.
    No, car parks aren’t safe for children, because they’re inherently unsafe for everyone. Again, it’s drawing a long bow to make this about sex and ignore the real problem, car dependent cities/communities.
    And, finally, female clothing? Are you serious? Unless some man is laying out your clothes each day or you’re required to wear a uniform, high-heels and skirts are entirely optional. Take some responsibility.
    Not even the valid difficulties / limitations of transport options for parents is about bias, but virtually all of the article is about adolescent, operatic victim-hood. So long as women cleave to this whiny, irrational view of the world, they will receive contemptuous responses such as the above.

  23. I’d much rather see rideshare and bikeshare eliminated entirely. They aren’t utilities, or even assets. Rideshares frequently use bus stops to pick up/drop off people, obstructing critical transit infrastructure. Bike shares, both docked and dockless, tend to coopt pedestrian spaces.

    The public square should not be used for corporatist profit. These and other public mode abusing companies need to be stopped. They never would have existed had public infrastructure been decently invested in and regulated. Had cab services not become subpar and inadequate, some of them never would have existed.

  24. On the other hand, many single women buy houses. I do feel that there should be more multi-family housing options and cities like Seattle need more affordable options. But this affects everyone who is low-income and is increasingly affecting middle income people, not just women.

  25. SFHs “isolate” women “without male partners” but not women living with them? What about women living with women? Ugh. So sexist. Can women not walk, ride and drive like…guys?

    The very fact that women, lots of them, who live on their own or with kids, buy SFHs tells you that they are not a threat to women. They are often near more desirable schools, offer more convenient playmates, etc. That’s real life, urbanist sexists. Life with tradeoffs.

  26. Is it just me, or are you guys sick of women complaining about everything under the sun? Western women are the most coddled, entitled d-bags there are, quit your whining you useless slag

  27. I tried, I really did, to not bust laughing at this insane article. But I only made it through about 3 lines.

    This author is insane.

  28. Streetsblog can, and should, do better than this. Most of the entries are related to raising a child and are not related to anyone’s sex.

  29. Many of these are child raising related and today’s fathering trend involvement is higher than ever. The biggest issue that women/mothers see over men/fathers is nursing accessibility. Nursing stations and rooms aren’t always available or if they are, they aren’t always comfortable or clean. They tend to lack being well marked. They need to include sinks for sanitization and electrical plugs for plugging in pumps. Many places rely on women using bathroom stalls – which is inappropriate or unsanitary.

  30. Anyone else notice the author assumed the men would be standing and the women sitting on public transit when saying the women would be eye level with men’s genitals?
    It’s not a problem the other way around? I don’t want to be eye level with anyone’s genitals, regardless of sex or attractiveness.

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