Friday, March 23, 2018

Moms and Mobility: Who is our transportation system designed for?

Close your eyes and picture the last minivan commercial you saw. You may remember seeing a cleancut, youngish, but not too hip woman, handling life with ease behind the wheel. And that’s because our societal culture (and mainstream marketing) assumes, encourages, and expects women to be the primary members of the household that are running errands (trunk space!), managing kids’ travel needs (safety!), and making more trips because of it (mileage!).

And more often than not, this is true.

Of the few data points available for how women in the U.S. and Los Angeles travel, we know this: Women travel in similar modes than men, but travel shorter distances and make more trips. Women, particularly low-wage and shift workers, are also more likely to travel during off-peak hours (outside of the morning and evening “rush hour” periods). And minivan commercials aside, women are also more likely to use public transportation.

So why isn’t our transportation system better designed for half the population, who are making more trips?


Transportation is a Women’s Issue

Three panelists discussed these very issues at a March 7 panel, “Transportation is a Women’s Issue,” hosted by UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) General Manager Seleta Reynolds, Metro Deputy Executive Officer Stephanie Wiggins, and UCLA Luskin urban planning professor Dr. Evelyn Blumenberg are all transportation leaders in their fields of public agencies and academia.


Just having an all-female panel on transportation planning is exciting. Transportation planning and engineering is a traditionally male-dominated field and, like most fields, implementation tends to reflect the perspectives of those in the position of making decisions. Even within transportation advocacy, particularly bicycle advocacy, the dominant perspectives have traditionally been from white men.


“Planning has always been gender-neutral, but what isn’t measured gets lost.” – Stephanie Wiggins


Panelists discussed three primary challenges to shifting this application: lack of comprehensive data (and lack of using available data) that reflects travel patterns outside of the 9a-5p two-way weekday commute; industry-wide funding and performance measures focused on the travel “peak” (morning and evening weekday rush hours); and, especially in Los Angeles, the types of trips that women tend to take are still best served by car.


“If what you are solving for is the peak, the peak, the peak, then you’re never going to have a system that has reliable, frequent, comfortable service at the times of day when women need it the most.” – Seleta Reynolds


We also see anecdotally and in limited data available, that parenthood impacts women’s professional and travel patterns more significantly than men. While we increasingly see women in the workforce, we still see traditional gender splits in different-sex parental households. Women tend to remain the primary caregivers, both inside the home and for outside travel such as school/child care, appointments, activities, and household errands.


“The share of women in the labor market has dramatically increased, but women are also still responsible for much of the unpaid labor associated with household tasks – and it’s difficult to accomplish both with transit” – Dr. Evelyn Blumenberg


Panelists also discussed the need to address safety, both actual and perceived, when designing transportation systems that serve women. Sexual harassment, system and physical design, and off-peak transit service were discussed as important lenses through which to update how we look at our transportation systems.  

To view video of the whole panel, please click here.


A Better System for All

So where does this leave our minivan-driving moms? And more importantly, what about our many moms who are getting to work, school, doctors, and soccer games without a car?

We can start with our goals.

If we continue to prioritize our transportation system improvements based on commute patterns, we are missing the needs of a majority of our system users. Dr. Blumenberg reported that only 16 percent of total trips are work commutes. Let’s think about shifting our transportation goals from solely reducing peak hour congestion to equitable outcomes for all system users. Not only will this serve our drivers, riders, rollers, and walkers who need it most, but will also create a more effective and efficient system that can potentially improve regional economies and public health by easing the burdens of travel that are disproportionately shouldered by women.


Then let’s get the data that informs these goals. What are the travel patterns we see in women and female parents? What are the needs? Who is asking women what they (really) want? During the UCLA panel, Stephanie Wiggins talked about Metro’s upcoming NextGen redesign of the Countywide bus network–and how the team was originally all male. She changed that.


It is important to support women leaders in transportation planning, just as it is important to listen to women consumers of our transportation systems. There exists both quantitative and qualitative evidence for a new way of planning and investing in our transportation systems. Investing in Place continues to work with our grassroots partners to amplify these qualitative perspectives through storytelling videos. We look forward to sharing these stories in the coming months.


Are you interested in supporting advocacy, data collection and analysis, and/or uplifting women’s stories in an effort to improve our transportation system for all users? We’d love to hear your ideas. Reach out to to keep this conversation going.

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