March/April 1994, p.6-7

Auto-Dependence: A Driving Force for Gender Inequality

While a "women's place" is no longer restricted to the home, the transportation system does little to help women get anywhere else they may want to go.

To many people, including most feminists, travel and transportation may not seem to present any gender-based problems. Cars, trains, and buses offer the same destinations to men and women. If the system breaks down, everyone suffers. And if there any societal inequities, they are geographically based, so that poorer neighborhoods bear the brunt of bad service and heavy traffic.

In fact the U.S. transportation system consistently fails to serve the needs of women, particularly women who enter the workforce while still retaining their traditional domestic duties. As a group, women's travel patterns are different than men's. Women tend to work closer to home, yet their commuting times are often longer because they do not travel in a direct line between work and home. Trips to school, the daycare center, the grocery store, and a host of other domestic chore trips divert women from the standard home-work-home commuting pattern enjoyed by men. Increasingly, the automobile is viewed as the tool that allows women to fulfill their many obligations. Rather than the great liberator, however, the automobile is an accomplice of a system which burdens women with more responsibilities than men.

A transportation system should move people and goods from one place to another in the most efficient convenient, and environmentally benign way as possible. Unfortunately, women's needs in the transportation planning process are usually overlooked by male transportation bureaucracies, and a mindset that does not recognize transportation as a social issue.

Much of transportation planning is based on assumptions that do not reflect the reality of many households and their true travel behavior. Generally, it is assumed that a) the head of the household is male, b) his travel behavior is representative of the whole family, and c) the home to work trip is the most important These assumptions consequently place a much higher value on men's travel and translate into action which supports the commute from home to work. This is done at the expense of women, children, and the elderly whose needs are secondary and/or neglected.

Transportation bureaucracies assume that the transportation network is meant to promote economic development and, therefore, that allocating public monies for the traditionally male labor force is socially appropriate.

However, over the years these bureaucracies have demonstrated an inability to adjust to the needs of a labor force that increasingly involves women, particularly young mothers. They fail to recognize that aside from the work commute, women are responsible for domestic tasks like chauffeuring children and the elderly, running errands and shopping for the household, and being on call for family emergencies.

Most commuter-rail systems use a hub-and-spokes model, ideally suited for trips to and from a central business district Lacking, however, are incentives to bicycle, and flexible van or bus service that links the nonwork destinations. More importantly, the entire land-use planning process fails to address the transportation needs of women. Locating daycare and schools near train stations could significantly reduce the need for many trips. Indeed, a general reduction in sprawl, so that development is clustered around easily reachable locations, would reduce the burden shouldered by too many women.

18% of the United States' GNP is dependent on the automotive industry. This accounts for the powerful lobbies in Washington, D.C. that obtain monies for a transportation network heavily dependent upon the car. This, in turn, adversely affects the viability of alternative modes of travel such as buses, subways, cycling and walking. Because women receive 70% of the income earned by men for comparable work, and are concentrated in the lowest paid occupations, they must pay a proportionately higher amount of their income for travel. Low density land?use patterns create jobs and services that are far apart and hard to get to without a car. Inadequate facilities for children and seniors generate more trips. limited housing and work options increase travel distances and income disparities.

Crime or the fear of crime, are cited by many women as reasons to drive. Ironically, mass transit is and explains the shift among women from public transportation to driving automobiles. Ironically, it is far safer to use transit than travel by automobile. Indeed, desolate parking garages are more dangerous than the more well traveled transit stops.

Public transportation is unquestionably safer when one considers the deaths and injuries caused by automobile mishaps (over 40,000 auto-related deaths yearly).

Interestingly, traffic safety data reveals that it is overwhelmingly men who are out of control when driving. In NYC, of the 15,609 pedestrians injured and the 282 pedestrians killed by drivers in 1992, 83% and 85% respectively were the victims of male drivers. The national organization, MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) offers an example of women organizing around the safety issue. While their work is not based on a gender analysis, it does effectively question the rights of those who are primarily male to pose a menace to society. Possibly, the safety agenda could be a rallying point to energize women to more general transportation issues.

The transportation system must be changed to meet the needs of women. Unfortunately, there is no clear feminist transportation agenda. The Women for Environment and Development Organization came out with a list of 10 priority issues for 1994, none of which involved transportation. Without a position there is no voice, and without a voice there will be no action.

Creating a women's transportation agenda will require great energy. Advocacy organizations and transportation planners must be pushed and prodded into integrating women's transportation concerns into their efforts. But most of all, women themselves must realize that the car is not the answer to their transportation problems.

This article is based, in part, on information presented at the Activity Analysis and Gender Issues in Transport Panel, held during the 73rd Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board, January 9-13, 1994, Washington, D.C.

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