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Sexism on the Sidewalk: How Poor Street Design Keeps Women from Walking

This is a guest post by Katie Matchett. Katie is an urban planner and active transportation advocate in San Diego, California. She walks and bikes most days with her two young children, and sometimes even manages to find time to blog at Where the Sidewalk Starts.

www.pedbikeimages.org / Dan Burden.

“Can we walk there?” my daughter asked.

I was facing down a long afternoon with four kids under eight. A trip to the local coffee shop was in order, and since it was less than a mile away, I did what any good walkability advocate would do: I tossed all the kids in the mini-van and drove there.

My choice, like so many of women’s travel choices, was based primarily on safety. I was confident the kids could walk that far, and I knew it would be the healthier and more interesting choice for all of us–but without good walkability, I wasn’t sure that I could keep them all safe.

All across the country women, in particular mothers, make similar choices every day. Poor street design, disparate land use, time constraints, lack of personal safety—all of these conspire to force women off their feet and into cars. We have built a transportation system that discounts women’s travel needs, and women—and our communities—are suffering for it.

www.pedbikeimages.org / Dan Burden

To understand what we should be doing better, it’s important to understand how women’s travel is different from men’s travel. 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.

http://activityinequality.stanford.edu/

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.

The study found that the activity inequality measurement is an accurate predictor of overall obesity levels within a country—countries that have high activity inequality have significantly more obesity than countries with more equal activity levels.

Why do some countries have higher activity inequality than others? In large part, because of differences in physical activity between genders. In countries with high activity inequality, women are much less physically active than men. The built environment helps explain this disparity. The study showed that women are more physically active in walkable places. Moreover, it found that in cities with better walkability, activity inequality is lower and the gender gap between physical activity starts to disappear. In other words, if we build cities that allow women to walk safely, they will choose active travel—and overall health will improve.

How can we do that? Here are a few ways:

  • Study women’s travel

Designing transportation systems that encourage women to walk requires understanding how women travel, and what drives those travel patterns. Without more research into gender and transportation, we risk designing cities that ignore the needs of half their population.

When the predominant voices in transportation planning are men, it’s easier to ignore women’s travel needs. Some ways that we can encourage more women to participate in transportation planning are by meeting at the locations women already visit regularly (e.g., schools), welcoming children into meeting spaces or providing childcare during meetings, and ensuring women participate as leaders and decision-makers in the transportation industry.

  • Design walkable neighborhoods

Women will walk if they live in neighborhoods where they feel it is safe and comfortable to do so. Places with sidewalks that are wide enough for strollers, curb ramps, short street crossings, buffers along busy streets, and land uses that are close together can all promote active travel by women. At the same time, it’s important to address issues of personal safety and street harassment that are often specific to women. Public spaces shouldn’t make women feel vulnerable. Good lighting and visibility, more eyes on the street, and multiple paths in and out of areas can help with this.

Taking these steps might not solve all the challenges of inequality, but they’re a start. And they might just mean that next time, I’ll walk with all those kids to the coffee shop.

Further Reading: