Forum Institutional

Women move differently - what everyone working in mobility should know

A woman rides a scooter past the people waiting on bus stops at Gare du Nord station during a strike by all unions of the Paris transport network (RATP) and French SNCF workers in Paris as part of a second day of national strike and protests in France, December 10, 2019.

Women's mobility experiences and needs can be profoundly different to men's Image: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Frieda Bellmann
Diana Polack
City designer, City of Berlin
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Mobility is not gender neutral, and may have a male bias.
  • Women have different needs and behaviours when it comes to transportation.
  • Understanding their perspective could improve mobility for everyone.

As multiple studies have shown, women have different patterns, needs and behaviours. Female mobility is characterized by trip-chaining and time poverty. The main reasons for this are that women do 75% of the world’s unpaid care work, the gender pay gap, and women’s physical condition. Women have a smaller range when traveling the same amount of time. Women carry luggage and accompany people, more often on public transport and by foot. The car is less often the default solution.

These facts were largely confirmed in a workshop with 40 female mobility professionals in Berlin, Germany, in the summer of 2019. We jointly studied three use cases: traveling alone at night, combining family care with a paid job and moving between business meetings downtown.

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Use case I: Traveling alone at night

“We’ve come to accept the normal state of feeling unsafe at night, and learnt to work around it.”

Apart from socially constructed roles, women are more vulnerable due to their physical condition. This affects which routes or means of transportation many women choose; for instance, trying to be safe when out alone at night. Women are also more careful when in traffic, exercising a more cautious approach and exhibiting less need for speed. Women are said to be more careful and cautious when navigating traffic. We know that most fatal car accidents are caused by men — which supports the impression that women drive more safely.

Our female interviewees unraveled the detailed planning women often undertake before a night out. The questions they ask themselves are: How do I get there and back? How safe is the location and the surroundings? Is it possible to get home from there? With which means of transport do I feel safe on the route at night? Will I go home with others later, or will I be alone? How much money do I want to spend on my transportation? Is the last mile of the night reasonable and the road illuminated? How can I defend myself in case of an attack?

Many women tell us that the last mile is the most challenging. Streets may be poorly lit and empty. Some women take a detour to walk on busier and wider streets, and to avoid parks. Others rustle with their bunch of keys so that the potential attacker thinks they live in that area and the neighbours are watching out. In the subway, women tend to look for safe islands. They try to avoid waiting too long in the subway station downstairs, and if they have to, they like to join groups that look trustworthy.

Use case 2: Combining family care and a paid job

“We handle toddlers, strollers, bags, and all we want is to arrive on-time and be kind.”

Many women combine unpaid care work with their paid job, especially with children. Being under time pressure is natural. Time pressure is felt not only in the morning, when dropping off the kids at school to go to work, but also when returning home.

For a lot of mothers, trip-chaining is second nature. There is a lot of room for improvement when stopping along the way. This is regardless of which mode is chosen — micro mobility or car, shared, private or public, and especially for autonomous modes in the future. Shared services are considered a solid option for optimizing logistics, but we were told that these are too expensive for everyday use. Cost structures for parking a vehicle while running an errand are unclear. Without a vehicle, and with a bag of groceries and a laptop, in the light of trip-chaining, this may result in being late to pick up the kids.

We found an overarching mindset: if on the road, taking care of children and the elderly, or organizing the care work, we want to arrive on-time and be kind: kind to our loved ones who travel with us, and kind to other people who form part of the traffic. A system that is reliable is crucial in this perspective. With all their obligations, women are still entitled to arrive on time; no matter what, the show must go on.

Sound familiar?
Sound familiar? Image: Ypma, Polack, Bellmann
Use case 3: Moving between business meetings downtown

“We want to be efficient and green getting from A to B – and look good at the same time.”

In another use case, we examined a scenario in which several meetings are distributed in unknown areas across the city. Various factors influence the choice of the right means of transport for women, but also men. Where are the venues located? What is the fastest and most comfortable connection? What will the weather look like? Can I park there? How far is the walk from the parking lot to the venue?

We must consider the pros and cons of open vs closed vehicles, small vs large vehicles, and of private vs public vehicles. Riding a bicycle involves the risk of ruining your business dress, arriving sweaty or destroying your hairstyle. Style is a purchase driver that makes an entire marketing industry go round. Do I dress adequately for riding my bike, or for business? Do I need rain protection? Where can I store it upon arrival?

Some women in business experience a tension between status and impact. Their appearance is crucial, yet they also care for their impact on the environment. Hence, a shared e-scooter might create a young and urban appearance, and riding a bike might appear sporty and agile. Females who are under high time-pressure use their journey to business meetings as preparation time: an advantage of traveling by subway is that our participants can work or organize their private life. Commute time in a car is often used for phone calls.

In conclusion, these are the main tensions when attending several business meetings downtown: style vs safety, environmental impact vs status, and being prepared - even if this means choosing the slower or less comfortable mode and reliability of on-time arrival.

The female mobility experience: a summary
The female mobility experience: a summary Image: Ypma, Polack, Bellmann
More reliable, efficient and elegant solutions

Women move differently, and that is OK. Diversity makes the world go round. Women in general have a greater need for flexibility. They create multi-modal travel patterns choosing the mode to fit the purpose. Women also perform inter-modal trips, combining several modes on one stretch. And women are more likely to schedule in a stopover (trip-chaining). To do so, they often rely on alternative transport, be it public, shared or private, be it electrified or manual. Women also feel more vulnerable when out and about alone. Women are more likely to create a tendency away from using privately owned cars, which is good for any city. If we can respond to this tendency, making alternative mobility modes more reliable, efficient and elegant, we can enhance the quality of life in our cities. If our mobility system catered better towards the kind of multi-modal and inter-modal travel undertaken by women, everyone could extend their range. Everyone could improve their access to jobs, services and social contacts. Everyone could combine paid and unpaid work better.

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