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Wait. Women use public transit differently than men?
Jasmine Reimer

Jasmine Reimer

Paying attention to the different ways women use public transit could make your city better and more livable, for everyone.

You might think public transit is gender neutral. After all - how can something as ordinary as taking the bus be different if you're a man, or a woman?

Well, it is.

Rethinking and redesigning public transit to accommodate for women (and men), is just one part of a growing movement called “gender mainstreaming" or “gender neutral infrastructure".

And, although it brings a new perspective to all aspects of urban planning, it's been proven to make cities function better for everyone, as well as save money.

Trip chain reaction

After WWII most cities were designed by men who had fixed schedules involving paid out-of-home work.

Because they weren't taking part, male designers did not consider the details of unpaid labor like caregiving and domestic responsibilities - activities still mostly carried out by women via frequent short journeys on foot, bike or transit over the course of a day.

This behavior is called “trip chaining" and it's most common among low- and middle-income earners that consistently manage a variety of daily tasks, making them more vulnerable to poor transport design.

In 1990, Urban Designers Eva Kail and Lorna Bauer helped created The Department of Gender Mainstreaming within The City of Vienna.

The first of its kind in Europe.

Since, they've conducted approximately sixty gender-sensitivity projects and assessed another one thousand, all geared towards addressing women's needs in urban environments.

"There are so many questions that need to be asked," Kail explains. "You need to know who is using the space, how many people, and what are their aims..."

In 1999, Vienna city officials asked 9th district locals how often and why they used public transit. Most men reported using either a car, bus or subway to go to work in the morning and come home at night.

"The women had a much more varied pattern of movement," Bauer states. “They were writing things like, 'I take my kids to the doctor some mornings, then bring them to school before I go to work. Later, I help my mother buy groceries and bring my kids home on the metro.'"

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In cities in the global south, a large percentage of women are "transit captives": those with little or no access to private transportation. If the bus or subway isn't safe and efficient, mobility is virtually impossible or causes women to avoid certain routes, reschedule or find a companion.

As a result, Vienna city planners adapted transportation to better meet women's daily routines including:

  • more frequent trains during the day and night
  • increased well-lit shelters at bus and tram stops
  • lifts to elevated and underground platforms
  • more accessible emergency buttons
  • additional and better-situated barrier-free zones for carriages and walking aids
  • distribution of mobile staff and additional security guards after dark

What began as a way to identify how space and services were used differently transformed into a much more sophisticated idea.

Vienna added streetlights to increase pedestrian safety at night, widened sidewalks to make it easier to move with walkers, strollers or wheelchairs and re-designated benches in parks to benefit the aged and homeless. It changed the entire nature of the city. Kail adds:

"For me, it's a political approach to planning. It's about bringing people into spaces where they didn't exist before or felt they had no right to exist."

Breaking new ground

Collecting gendered information about urban systems isn't about making a city just for women or men, but one that works equally well for both. And, by creating a more egalitarian urban experience, contribute to equality on a larger scale.

For an elderly person a well-placed park bench might mean the difference between enjoying the outdoors or remaining at home. For a woman going to work and providing childcare, frequent buses and suburban transit routing could mean access to higher paying jobs, more independence and in some instances, less reliance on social aid.

“I always said we can't have special conditions, it can't be more expensive – we have to prove in the mainstream that we produce higher quality," states Kail.

When city officials acknowledge and consider the needs and situations of all users, they can prevent ineffective solutions and possible misallocation of public funds. Gendered discrimination in social institutions costs up 12 trillion USD for the global economy. Eliminating urban gender disparity could lead to an annual average increase in the world GDP growth rate of 0.03 to 0.6 percentage points by 2030.

Vienna broke new territory in the 90s and now cities around the world are following their lead: Berlin, Barcelona, Stockholm, Paris and Copenhagen amongst others, are participating in an urban gender awareness program called URBACT.

In addition to gender neutral strategies, cities can strengthen everyone's social and economic conditions by ensuring that women are involved in urban design and represented in government at all levels —from planning and development, maintenance and financing, consumption and use, to supply and delivery.

It's possible.

Right now Vienna's public transport office is entirely female-led.

Are you designing transportation for men, women or both? Check out HERE's advanced transit and mapping tools for help.