A gender equal and sustainable public transport system

2011-09-27 Setting national targets for gender equality and sustainability is one thing. Putting these into practice at a regional and local level is something completely different. The decision of the Swedish city of Malmö to introduce gender mainstreaming in the development of a new public transport plan resulted in visits both to the hospital and the police.

Car journeys account for a significant part of all CO2 emissions. Many traffic planners aim to encourage travellers to take those journeys by means of public transport, walking or cycling instead. There are however, other aspects of the system which also have to be taken into consideration. Targets pertaining to economic and regional competitiveness are often crucial, too. And in recent years, gender equality has also emerged as an issue to be taken into account in the politics of transport. The objectives of the Swedish transport policy of 2010 demand that the transport system should be gender equal, that is, respond equally to the needs of both women and men.

So called ‘travel habit surveys’, based on questionnaires in which people answer questions about how they travel over a specific period of time, usually one day, have provided useful information on the travelling patterns of men and women. Within both groups, car journeys make up approximately half of all travel. An important difference is that men sit in the driver’s seat to a greater extent than women, who are more often passengers. Cycling and walking are the second most common ways of travelling. Together, they account for roughly one third of our means of travel. Just over one tenth of all travel happens on public transport. For women, this share is somewhat larger than for men. These statistics might make it seem that there are not particularly large differences between the travelling habits of men and women.

Travel habits and needs

Ana Gil Sola, researcher into commuting to work from a gender and mobility perspective at the School of Business, Economics and Law in Gothenburg, has explored the statistics in more detail. She says that men commute, on an average, 40 per cent longer distances than women do, but they spend almost the same amount of time travelling to and from work. The statistics for 1994/1995 and 2005/2006 show more or less the same trends between men and women, although both groups have increased their travelling both in time and length. In a purely technical sense, this means that women move at a slower pace and that women have access to a smaller area of space (the area increases with the square).

“However, travel habit surveys have their limitations. They show how men and women travel today, but do not show what their travel needs actually are,” Ana Gil Sola explains.

One example of the gap between what is needed and what actually happens is illustrated by the experiences of single mothers who are over-represented in the group that does not have access toa car. It is hard to believe that their need for easy travel to supermarkets and day care would be smaller than that of other families. Introducing a means-tested car allowance or other ways of improving their financial ability to get a car could be one method of responding to their assumed need, if gender equality was the only concern.

Traditional consultations

However, for means of transportation to be both gender equal and sustainable, better ideas are required. Possible practical solutions which take this aim into account have been studied by Lena Levin, researcher at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI), as part of a project on sustainable gender equality in the planning of future public transport in Malmö. Together with her research colleague Charlotta Faith-Ell, she has previously studied the consultation process in connection with larger road building projects. Hardly surprisingly, these consultations followed a highly traditional pattern: a notice in the newspapers, a meeting at the village hall or similar venue, a PowerPoint presentation, followed by questions. At these meetings, 80 per cent of the participants were men and the average age was over 60 years.

“We presented some suggestions for improvements. But basically there was very little understanding among the staff of the Road Administration that consultations could be done in any other way,” says Lena Levin.

Some years later she was contacted by the city of Malmö and asked to help them in developing gender mainstreaming as the city compiled a new plan for its public transport. Malmö experienced a similar over-representation of older men among the participants of consultation meetings, but the city was open to trying new methods. They actively sought groups that they knew little about. Dialogue meetings were carried out with high school pupils, shop employees and representatives of hobby activities. The agenda also included a dialogue meeting with a female dominated working place, and the one chosen for this was the hospital. After Lena Levin had suggested that it might also be interesting to visit a male dominated working place as counterbalance, the police station was included in the survey.

Unsafe to use public transport

For transportation to be both gender equal and sustainable, better ideas are required.

Safety was an issue raised by female high school students, hospital staff and the police. The high school students and hospital staff felt it was unsafe to use public transport at night. The police partly talked about professional experiences and partly about their worries concerning family members. Lena Levin says that she thinks that the male high school students are also afraid, but that the focus groups were single gendered and that it is not socially acceptable to talk about one’s fear in front of other young men. This is a shortcoming in the method that should be adjusted, she thinks.

Many municipalities have addressed safety issues. Shrubs around bus stops have been cut down and alternative routes have replaced badly lit subways. The city of Kalmar has introduced night stops for the night busses, meaning that the bus also stops between ordinary stops so that a passenger can ensure that he or she gets off alone.

The project also included focus group discussions with administrators and politicians about their views on gender and public transport. These showed that there was a marked focus on men as a group. This included partly the “problematic” older men, who are the most difficult to convince that their driving harms the environment, and partly the “quality-conscious” men, who could be convinced to become users – as long as the system is adjusted to meet their demands. Public transport is to be made more attractive for the latter group.

Men as a potential group

Focussing on men as a potential group to increase the use of public transport is a method familiar also to Ana Gil Sola. From an environmental perspective this might be a positive method, but not necessarily from a gender equality perspective. Various types of public transport initiatives benefit different groups, for which routes, ticket prices, reliability, frequency and comfort are of varying importance.

One significant issue for current planning work is a process called region enlargement. This means that the labour market regions grow as more people commute over longer distances and cross municipality borders. Since a positive connection has been observed between the population size of a labour market region and the average income, the aim is to make it easier for people to travel further to work by various infrastructure investments.

“But it has also been observed that a larger labour market region increases the opportunities for a higher salary for men to a greater extent than for women,” Ana Gil Sola points out.

This can depend on many factors, such as men working within sectors with a larger salary spread, but also on them having better opportunities to seek jobs across the whole region. In the classic nuclear family, the usual pattern is that the woman works close to home.

“Think of the snow chaos this last winter. A commuter distance which normally takes just over an hour suddenly took five hours. This system is based on the assumption that there is somebody else to take care of the home,” says Lena Levin.

Financial equality complicated question

And it is precisely questions of financial equality and distribution of the unpaid household and caring work which have proven the most difficult for the planners in Malmö to integrate during the project.

“These are more complicated questions than influence and safety. There is great potential here for continued strategic work,” Lena Levin notes.

This is work, which will, in fact, start this autumn. Lena Levin will be participating then when the city of Malmö starts to develop a new working model for more sustainable travel, where gender equality is one of the aspects to be integrated into the scheme.

By: Kajsa Lindquist is freelance journalist specialising in gender and environment
Illustration by Anne Aagaard

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