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When gender makes a difference in transportation design

The connection between physical and social mobility is now well established. Today, we also know that physical and cultural factors impact how women interact with transportation options, from sidewalks, to bicycles, to mass transit, to car pool lanes. How can these insights inform design?

From sidewalk grates, to crash dummy sizes, to bicycling behaviors, transportation solutions need to meet the realities of both genders. 

With more women entering the transportation engineering field, I take a look at how our experience can inform truly universal design. 

The first national city planning conference in the US was entitled City Planning and the Problem of Congestion. Though it sounds like something you might attend this year, it was actually held in 1909. The themes included crowding in urban areas, blight, immigrants arriving in large numbers, and the shortage of affordable housing.

There was just one woman among the presenters: Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, who founded a settlement house in lower Manhattan. In addition to her comments on social issues, she spoke about the connection between social and physical mobility. Her focus was on improving transit to allow families to live in places where women would have economic opportunity and children would be able to thrive.

An art and a science
As planners, modelers, designers, and engineers, we recognize that what we do requires both art and science. The body of knowledge for our professional work provides the framework for most every task we tackle. But along the way we are called on to use judgment outside of the formulae to arrive at accurate, meaningful outcomes.

Stratifying the population in some manner to derive solutions is not new. You may look at income levels or age distribution to inform a decision. In the last ten years or so there has been a more deliberate examination of when gender makes a difference in the judgment calls.

A few areas open for exploration
At times, design is centered on physical factors. The average woman is shorter and weighs less than the average man. When car manufacturers were designing front and side airbags using male crash dummies, women were left at risk. A female crash dummy was later adopted and designs were changed. Now, for example, side curtain airbags are long enough so that most women will not hit their heads on the window glass in a T-bone crash. Other adjustments and recommendations have come forth for pregnant women.

But other design issues can be informed by behavior and culture. Streetscape projects are a great tool for enhancing a community but when pavers with wide spacing are used, many women are challenged to walk on these sidewalks while wearing high-heeled shoes. Tree wells that are open grates or the ventilation grates for subterranean spaces or trains that are incorporated into a sidewalk are even more difficult to traverse. Have alternatives been explored?

A recent University of Honduras study showed that male and female students have different bicycling behaviors. Male students were more likely to ride and even ride longer distances independent of where the bicycling occurred (on road or off road). Female students felt less safe riding in an on-road bicycle lane or where there was no designated lane and so rode less or rode shorter distances. This is a transportation issue, as well as a health issue.

Today many transit properties are using cameras and alarms to reduce the number of personnel needed in stations and trains. Some initial studies show that, in general, men feel safe with these technology-based solutions while women still strongly prefer having people on the platform and in the cars. While in the short term this use of technology may save some money, how will it impact transit ridership over time?

Household surveys tell us that women continue to do the majority of child-related car trips, which often means getting to many different places over the course of a work week. Could this be a factor when assessing who is willing to pay additional fees for access to increasingly popular HOT lanes? How might it impact their marketing?

With more women entering the transportation engineering field, we’ll continue to take a careful look at how our presence can inform truly universal design.

To explore the findings of the most recent conferences sponsored by TRB and the Women’s Issues committee, visit the website http://www.trb.org/ and search for women’s issues. 

Authored by Marsha Anderson Bomar

Streetscape projects are a great tool for enhancing a community but pavers with wide spacing challenge many women wearing high heeled shoes. 

Household surveys tell us that women continue to do the majority of child-related car trips, which often means getting to many different places over the course of a work week.

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