What’s driving you?

2009-09-29 Men are more likely than women to drive a car, and women are more likely than men to use public transport. But will women take over the masculine mobility pattern? Or is it possible to encourage both men and women to use public transport?

What’s driving you?Transport is a major factor in the emission of greenhouse gases. It is estimated that about 19 per cent of all global energy is spent on transport. In recent decades, polluting and energy-consuming transportation has increased, while the share of energy-conserving transportation has not increased to the same extent (Oldrup & Hvidt Breengaard 2009). Predictions show that energy-consuming forms of transport such as automobility and air traffic will continue to increase at the expense of public transport, and it creates challenges in relation to the goal of a sustainable society.

Transport is therefore an important focus area in climate discussions and policies and it is also a field where the gender differences are visible. Individual use of transport is connected to behaviour and different groups have different behaviour. By looking at transport patterns from a gender perspective it becomes clear that women and men are using different means of transport, that their travel itineraries vary and that the lengths of their trips are different. Studies on gender and transport have shown the following differences:

• Men generally travel longer distances than women, where women take trips that are shorter.

• Men are more likely than women to drive a car, and women are more likely than men to use public transport.

• Men’s travel patterns are characterized by travel from home to work. Women are more likely to travel to various destinations, for example, from home to day-care to work to shops, and back to day-care and home.

• Men have greater access to cars as a result of their greater economic power and their driver’s licenses.

• This seems to be changing as women are increasingly participating in the labour market, and young women now have driver’s licenses and can afford a car, compared with older women (The Coordination for Gender Studies 2007)

It also becomes clear that gender alone is not enough to explain differences within travel patterns, and that an intersectional approach is needed to fully understand how and why people travel as they tend to do.

There have been no studies on the different ecological footprints of women and men in terms of transportation choices, but their different transportation behaviours and patterns obviously have an impact on the climate. It is possible to say that, through their different use of transportation, women and men strain the environment differently. A Swedish report concludes that since women travel less than men, they may also cause less transportation-related carbon emissions than men (Johnsson-Latham 2007). This information points to the need to tailor prevention strategies by taking into account women’s and men’s different travel patterns. This may include strategies that focus more on changing people’s behaviour than on assigning guilt.

Structural explanations

Research on gendered transport patterns points to a variety of explanations for the different travel behaviours. One type of explanation focuses on the structural conditions of women and men in terms of work and home. Size of income and labour market position can help explain their different travel patterns.

Studies show that people are likely to travel farther when they occupy a higher position in the labour market, and in this way women’s shorter travel distances reflect the segregation of the labour market. But this inequality is changing as more women enter the labour market and as women are occupying higher positions. Thus, well-educated women travel farther than women with lower levels of education, which means that it is necessary to include education as a differentiating variable. Moreover younger women more often have a driver’s license and a car at their disposal – a factor which is putting age on the agenda.

Young and highly educated women nevertheless still travel less than men, but they do use a car more frequently than older women. Men’s and women’s different ways of using the transport system are also connected to the social division of labour between women and men. Role differences in the home are significant for women’s preference to live closer to work. Women still bear more of the responsibility for house-hold duties than men, and it is this responsibility that affects their choice of workplaces that are close to home and results in women taking more numerous local trips, compared with men.

Spatial explanations

Another explanation is spatial and has to do with the location of workplaces, residential areas, and free-time activities and the kinds of transport patterns that their location requires. Studies show that in terms of locations, the labour market is divided by gender, with workplaces that employ mostly men (for example, the financial/white-collar sector) usually situated in city centres, whereas workplaces with predominantly female occupations (schools, kindergartens) are spread throughout suburban areas. This, too, contributes to the different travel patterns of women and men.

A third explanation concerns cultural conditions. Cultural conceptions of cars are linked to a gendered universe, where control of technology and fascination with speed is associated with masculine competence, while women’s relationship with cars arises from use value, safety, and responsibility.

As the explanations show, choice of method of transportation is determined by gender, but also by other variables such as age, education, labour market position and urbanity. Studies on transport and travel behaviours must therefore include intersecting factors to be able to understand the complex picture of how travel patterns are formed.

When looking at transportation usage it becomes clear that women and men have different travel patterns. This means that we need information about the differences in their travel behaviours in order to target our efforts most effectively to meet existing needs and to utilize data to help design a sustainable transportation system.

As stated above, it seems that women – at least highly educated and economically better-off women – increasingly imitate the same travel patterns as men, i.e. they are inclined to take the car instead of the bike, go by foot or by public transport. This has implications for the challenges of creating a sustainable transport sector and for reaching the goal of a fossil-fuel free society.

Danish and Norwegian transport researchers have developed two scenarios for the future. The first points to a transport development with men’s travel habits as a standard. That is, where women take over the masculine mobility patterns and where the design of traffic organisation will mainly be based on the growth of private transport. The second scenario adds women as the norm and encourages both men and women to make shorter trips, use public transport, take the bike or walk more. This also means a prioritization of a close-city structure rather than a spread.

By integrating the gender perspective in transport planning questions are rising about whether women’s travel patterns still increasingly must assimilate to men’s? Or if it would be more visionary if women’s travel patterns were translated into a model for more environmental friendly transport development?


Gendercc: www.gendercc.net

Desk study om køn, ligestilling og klima forandinger (Desk study on gender, gender equality and climate change). Helene Hjorth Oldrup and Michala Hvidt Breengaard for the Nordic Council of Ministers, January 2008.

The Coordination for Gender Studies, University of Copenhagen (2007): TRANSGEN. Gender Mainstreaming European Transport Research and Policies. The European Union Sixth Framework programme, 2007. (http://koensforskning.soc.ku.dk/projekter/transgen/)

Johnsson-Latham, Gerd (2007): A study on gender equality as a prerequisite for sustainable development. What we know about the extent to which women globally live in a more sustainable way than men, leave a smaller ecological footprint and cause less climate change. Report to the Environment Advisory Council, Sweden 2007:2, Stockholm.

Michala Hvidt Breengaard is Research Assistant at the Coordination for Gender Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Helene Oldrup is researcher at SFI – The Danish National Centre for Social Research.

By Michala Hvidt Breengaard and Helene Oldrup

This article has been published in NIKK magasin 2 2009 © NIKK

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