Transport planning beyond the default male

Mother with child
Rebecca Fuller

There is little doubt that – consciously or not – our transport networks have traditionally been designed for men, by men. Specifically, men who are white, able-bodied, unencumbered by children or other loads, men who are simply trying to commute into work and back again, otherwise known as the ‘default male’. The needs of women, parents and children – or indeed anyone outside that template – are all too often given scant consideration, if they are considered at all. 

Evidence of the ‘default male’ is everywhere in public transport – the poorly lit route from the railway station; the limited space for buggies and wheelchairs; the impossibility of dropping the children at school and making it to work on time; the lack of space to comfortably stow shopping on the bus; the convoluted and lengthy journeys between suburbs that would be a cinch by car; the narrow pavements; the lack of taxis with infant seats. 

For a long time, as a female user of public transport – and latterly as a parent – I accepted these inconveniences as simply how things were. I had internalised the need to be constantly vigilant, to avoid certain routes, certain people, to keep myself safe. I muttered, embarrassed as my buggy tipped over on the bus, due to the weight of the food shop teetering precariously on the handles, having no other place for it to go. I resigned myself to taking two buses each way to take my children to play dates in other parts of the city. How annoying that this seat is not comfortable for my body, that I can’t reach the overhead luggage rack on the train. 

Things crystalised for me when I came across the work of Caroline Criado-Perez, and her book ‘Invisible Women’. All those inconveniences and compromises formed a pattern. It opened my eyes to the gender bias not just in transport, but all around us, and that it doesn’t have to be this way, we don’t have to put up with it. We can change it – men and women together.  

Perez is keen to point out, that often this male bias is not intentional. It can simply stem from a lack of knowledge, a lack of data, about how other people experience the world and what their needs are. Few would deliberately set out to exclude people. To begin to illuminate these blind spots, we must shine a light on the rich diversity of people’s experiences.  

This is one of the goals of ‘Gender on the Agenda’ a webinar series that we are sponsoring alongside Mott MacDonald. Hosted by Landor LINKS, the series aims to explore gender in relation to transport and planning. It recognises that, as a sector, we have a responsibility to recognise, respond to and overcome the challenges that the current system presents to women (and indeed others who don’t fit the ‘default male’ mould) to create networks that are accessible, safe and attractive for all. 

The fundamental connection between transport and social inclusion has been a key focus for us at the Urban Transport Group over the years. The extent to which transport meets the ‘4 As’ – is it Available? Affordable? Accessible? Acceptable? – is crucial in determining people’s level of access to opportunity. The webinar series is a chance to examine those aspects through the lens of gender. 

Two sessions have been held to date, one on why transport is not gender neutral and one on how technology and innovation can support inclusive mobility. The next, taking place on 23rd November, will explore making streets and public space work for everyone. More will follow in the coming months.  

So far, two themes have come out very strongly – the need for better data, and the need for better representation.  

In respect of the former, it is no secret that the current transport network is set up to support the idea of the male bread winner, commuting into the city and returning home. The work of Ines Sanchez De Madariaga, who spoke at the first Gender on the Agenda event, made it clear that women’s travel patterns are much more complex.  

Women are more likely to trip chain. They are more likely to have primary caring responsibilities for children and other family members, for example, an elderly parent in another suburb. They are more likely to be responsible for the logistics of food shopping, escorting people to medical appointments, to clubs and activities. Madariaga describes this as the ‘mobility of care’ and, taken together, these trips exceed commuting trips. And yet commuting trips are what our transport networks are planned around. We need to get better at making these trips visible, valuing them, and making them count in transport planning terms. We also need to better understand people’s lived experiences.  

These are issues we would like to explore further as UTG, examining, for example, what data we collect as a network, what is valued in appraisal, what gaps exist and what this means for what transport solutions are prioritised and who benefits or misses out as a result. 

The second key theme is representation. Having worked in transport for 13 years, I have seen first-hand that our sector is dominated by white, able-bodied men, particularly at decision making level. Women account for just 21% of the transport workforce. It is an issue that our members are keenly aware of and one which we’re working together on by, for example, sharing good practice and developing practical tools and resources. A more diverse workforce brings different perspectives, new ways of thinking beyond what we and ‘people like us’ have experienced. Ultimately it means we can provide the best possible service for the communities we serve.  

It is worth highlighting that this is not a niche issue – women account for half the population. It is a serious problem if our transport networks don’t work for them, even more so given that women are more likely than men to rely on public transport and walking to get around. We hope that the Gender on the Agenda series will throw a spotlight on women’s experiences and how these can be better represented and accounted for. It’s time to move beyond the default male – will you join us? 

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group