Mind the gender gap: the hidden data gap in transport

By Nicole Badstuber

Tuesday May 21, 2019

Source: Forbes.

There has been much lament over the discarding of Australia’s Women’s Budget Statement as part of the budgeting process, and reinstating this process was one of Labor’s promises should they have won the election. While this is an absolutely critical document, there is an upstream problem that also needs addressing – data collection. The data which is collected and analysed is often itself subject to gender bias, resulting in huge gaps in our understanding of how policies affect women.

This analysis looks at the problem of women’s invisibility in data sets, using the example of transportation policy. Transport policy researcher Nicole Badstuber (@NicoleBadstuber) has written an explosive piece that resonated strongly with readers in the U.K. but also hit a nerve with Australians, as evidenced by a viral tweet on the piece from Per Capita’s Abigail Lewis.

In 2011, Sweden introduced a gender equality initiative that required municipalities to re-evaluate all their policies and activities through a gender lens. In the Swedish town of Karlskoga, one government official joked that at least snow clearing would likely be spared scrutiny by the ‘gender people’. Instead, as Caroline Criado Perez points out in her book Invisible Women: Exposing the Data Bias in a World Designed for Men it made them ask the question: was snow-clearing sexist?

The answer to that question turned out to be far different from what the naysayers likely suspected.

As Invisible Women points out, studies soon showed that the practice of clearing roads before footpaths, disproportionately disadvantaged women, who are more likely to walk, over men, who are more likely to drive.

In Sweden, once aware of the gendered impact of the sequence of snow clearing, Karlskoga was switched: pedestrian areas first, general road users second.

They reasoned that changing the order of snow clearing:

[W]ouldn’t cost any more money, driving through three inches of snow is easier than to push a buggy (or a wheelchair, or a bike) through three inches of snow.

Back in Karlskoga, it also became clear that making the change in snow-clearing priority would actually save the town money.

The cost of pedestrian accidents due to icy conditions – both in terms of healthcare costs and lost productivity – was about twice the road maintenance cost, and this dropped.

In the end, Karlskoga wasn’t the only one to spot the link. In Stockholm, accidents have halved since the city started clearing its 200km of joint cycle and pedestrian lanes of snow.

Karlskoga’s original snow-clearing schedule did not set out to deliberately disadvantage women.

Like many of the examples in Invisible Women, however, it quickly highlights that a gender gap exists within our transport data.

Without acknowledgement of a data set’s incompleteness, decision-making based on that data is inherently biased.

As a result, the absence of data on women and (equally) an awareness of the data gap created leads to data-based decisions that disadvantage women.

Criado Perez explains that decisions such as the snow-clearing schedule in Karlskoga did not set out to deliberately exclude or disadvantage women:

They just didn’t think about them. They didn’t think to consider if women’s needs might be different. And so this data gap was a result of not involving women in planning.

Invisible Women offers much food for thought on the hidden gender bias in transport decision-making.

Often, this bias stems from the lack of data we collect on women at all. For example, by not collecting data on women’s travel patterns, or only on commuting, the data tells an incomplete story.

Men’s ‘standard’ travel pattern

Let’s start with the basics: men are more likely to have a direct, point-to-point daily journey than women.

As Criado Perez summarises:

If a household owns a car, it is the men who dominate access to it.

Women, by contrast, are more likely to walk or use public transport, which the data presented in Invisible Women reflects: ‘In France, two-thirds of public transport users are women’, and in US cities Philadelphia and Chicago they are: ‘64% and 62% respectively’. In London, women are making about 8% more trips per weekday than men.

The impact of trip-chaining

Women’s travel patterns are generally more complicated than those of men. So complicated, in fact, that they are often not considered or catered for at all in transport planning.

‘On the whole, engineers focus mainly on ‘mobility related to employment’, Criado Perez summarises.

However, women’s travel demands are not limited to commuting. As Criado Perez also points out, ‘[w]omen do 75% of the world’s unpaid care work and this affects their travel needs’.

The need to accomplish multiple objectives within the same overarching journey leads to women often doing something that men don’t have to do: ‘trip-chain’.

That is, tie together small trips into a larger journey plan. Criado Perez points out that this is a typical travel pattern for women across the world.

The multitude of reasons for these consecutive trips isn’t hard to guess.

Household management (food shopping trips), caregiving (accompanying an elderly relative to the doctor or picking up a prescription) and much more all play a part, as they are all areas of activity that fall primarily on women.

Most of all, however, Criado Perez points out, in London, women are three times more likely than men to drop off children at school.

Overall, women are ‘25% more likely to trip-chain’.

Criado Perez adds, ‘this figure rises to 39% if there is a child older than nine in the household’.

Indeed across Europe, the burden of school drop offs and pick ups mainly falls on women.

Women in dual-worker families are twice as likely as men to drop off or pick up children on their commute.

An EU report on satisfaction with urban transport exemplifies how ingrained the male bias is in transport planning.

As Criado Perez points out, the study refers to male travel patterns as ‘standard’ whilst bemoaning the failure of European public transport networks to adequately serve female users.

The terminology used in transport planning is another manifestation of the male bias in the sector.

Prof Inés Sánchez de Madariaga, an urban planning professor at Madrid’s Technical University, tells Criado Perez of another example: the term ‘compulsory mobility’ refers to ‘all trips made for employment and educational purposes’ but excludes care trips.

This trivialises the importance of care trips and devalues transport planning for them. It reinforces not valuing, and therefore not catering, for women’s travel patterns.


The intentional omission of shorter walking and other ‘non-motorised’ trips when collecting travel data is another example of the gender data gap in transport.

These short trips are ‘not considered to be relevant for infrastructure policy’, Invisible Women quotes Sánchez de Madariaga as saying.

As women generally walk more than men, this omission disadvantages women disproportionately.

Short walks form an integral part of women’s trip chaining.

Women also walk further and longer distances. This is partly to fulfil their caregiving responsibilities, but also because on the whole, women are poorer.

As Criado Perez rightly summarises:

‘[T]he assumption that shorter walking trips are irrelevant to infrastructure policy is little short of an assumption that women are irrelevant to infrastructure policy.’

The male-dominated transport sector

Bad or missing data isn’t the only contributing factor to the transport sector’s gender problem.

Both are reinforced by the fact that women make up only a fifth of transport sector employees across Europe – with the UK below the European average.

This gender imbalance fuels the bias in transport planning towards typically male modes and patterns of travel.

Sánchez de Madariaga explains to Criado Perez that as humans we are innately biased by personal experience.

Since there are more men in the transport-planning profession than women, this personal experience bias is skewed towards improving the male experience of travel – that is, the traditionally (and statistically) male commute.

In 2014, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women found a male bias in the planning, provision and design of transport systems.

This was found to stem from gender imbalances in employees: women were not equally represented at any seniority level or within transport modes, and in particular not in decision-making positions.

As a result, women’s experience of travel was not being considered.

READ MORE: Transforming public services so they are fit for purpose in the 21st century

Safe travels

2004 UK Department of Transport study cited by Criado Perez found stark differences in the perception of danger between men and women after dark.

Criado Perez lists some of the study’s key findings in her book.

The study found three out of five women felt unsafe walking around multi-storey car parks, waiting on a railway station platform, and walking from a bus stop or station.

Half of the women surveyed felt unsafe travelling on a train, waiting at a bus stop and walking to the bus stop.

The figures for men surveyed were broadly at least half the percentages of women.

A quarter of all men felt unsafe waiting on a railway station platform. A fifth of men felt unsafe walking to the bus stop, waiting at the bus stop and travelling on the train.

Research by the UK government indicates that 10% more passengers would use public transport if passengers, especially women, felt safer.

Women adopt strategies to avoid feeling unsafe, Criado Perez summarises, pointing to research from across the world that shows ‘that women adjust their behaviour and their travel patterns to accommodate this fear’.

This might involve taking a longer, indirect route or only travelling with others.

Some women have gone as far as to leave their jobs to avoid the rush hour trip to work.

‘Crime surveys and empirical studies from different parts of the world show that the majority of women are fearful of the potential violence against them when in public spaces,’ urban planning professor Anastaisa Loukaitou-Sideris tells Criado Perez.

Women and men also respond differently to their surroundings. Crime data from the United States and Sweden, cited by Criado Perez in Invisible Women, found that women tend to be ‘more sensitive than men to signs of danger, social disorder, graffiti, and unkempt and abandoned buildings,’ as Loukaitou-Sideris tells Criado Perez.

One would think that the scale of behavioural changes women make would be enough to demonstrate there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Yet, as Criado Perez points out, the blame is often placed on the women, instead of planners who have created unsafe spaces. “It’s just a perception that the journey is unsafe, not a reality, so women needn’t be scared.” After all, official statistics suggest it is men who are more likely to be victims of crime in public spaces and on public transport.

Those same official statistics, however, once again fall foul of the gender data gap.

That gap is further worsened by the difference between male and female perception. As Criado Perez points out:

The invisibility of the threatening behaviour women face in public is compounded by the reality that men don’t do this to women who are accompanied by other men.

Criado Perez cites a recent survey in Sao Paulo that found two-thirds of women have been victims of sexual harassment and violence while in transit. Half of those incidents took place on public transport. By contrast, only 18% of men reported the same thing.

As Invisible Women summarises, this ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ attitude, leads to men dismissing women’s tales of their experiences with a: ‘Well, I’ve never seen it’.

The threat of sexual advances

All of the above is compounded for women by the ever-present need to deal with unwanted advances during a journey.

As Criado Perez points out, these range across a wide scale, ranging from catcalls to requests for a name or phone number and much more. As Criado Perez explains:

None of these behaviours is criminal exactly, but they all add up to a feeling of sexual menace.

As she points out, they also chip away at women’s confidence.

The sum of these incidents is greater than its parts.

It’s a cognitive load that male travellers do not have to deal with.

Criado Perez describes women’s everyday angst so well in her book: having to be alert all the time, as they are being watched and men’s behaviour towards them can quickly escalate from a ‘smile, love’ to a ‘fuck you, bitch’ – or worse, being followed home and even being assaulted.

And that threat of assault is very real. Criado Perez cites a 2016 study that found 90% of French women had been victims of sexual harassment on public transport.

Also, a Washington Metro survey found that women were three times more likely than men to face harassment on public transport.

Criado Perez quotes urban planning professor Vania Ceccato’s conclusion from her afterword to a 2017 special issue of the academic journal Crime Prevention and Community Safety entitled ‘Women’s Victimisation and Safety in Transit’:

Sexual crime against women in transit (cases of staring, touching, groping, ejaculation, exposing genitalia and full rape) is a highly under-reported offence.

Invisible Women points to multiple surveys on sexual harassment across the world that illustrate this problem clearly and in detail.

A Washington DC survey found that over three-quarters of those who were harassed never reported the incident.

Mexican government agency Inmujeres found similar.

In New York City, the reporting rate was even lower.

Here in London, Criado Perez quotes the findings of a 2017 London survey that found that ‘around 90% of people who experience unwanted sexual behaviour would not report it’.

It gets worse. An Institute for Transportation and Development survey of women using the metro in Baku in Azerbaijan, cited in the book, found that none of the women who had been sexually harassed on the metro reported the incident to responsible authorities.

All of these figures present an uncomfortable truth.

As Criado Perez concludes in her book, the prevalence of underreporting means official police data is not telling the whole story.

The statistics listed in Criado Perez’ book illustrate how the vast majority of these incidents go unreported.

Yet, even when they are, as Invisible Women, they are often excluded from crime reporting anyway.

Why don’t women feel they can report these incidents?

As Criado Perez outlines, the reasons are complex and varied:

Some of these are societal: stigma, shame, concern that they’ll be blamed or disbelieved.

To address these reasons for underreporting there needs to be a shift within society, Criado Perez concludes.

There are some things that transport authorities can fix on their own.

Sometimes the reason is simply practical, such as not knowing what is classified as sexual harassment or assault and to whom to report.

But women also need to know that the authorities will take them seriously.

Criado Perez cites the compelling case study of Nottingham Police.

Under its new ‘misogyny hate crime policy’ the Nottingham police force recorded all incidents of misogynistic behaviour– ranging from ‘wolf whistling’, to being followed home and unwanted sexual advances – as a hate crime or incident.

Suddenly, reports shot up.

As Criado Perez points out, this was not because men had suddenly begun offending more. It was because women could see that their complaint would be treated with the seriousness it deserved.

Mismatch: What makes women feel safer

In London, 61% of women reported that concerns of crime and anti-social behaviour impacted how often they used public transport.

Yet as Criado Perez retells in the book, when searching the academic literature on the topic, urban planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris found only three recent publications, not one of which looked specifically at women’s safety while travelling.

Loukaitou-Sideris embarked on producing her own research on the topic but, as Invisible Women makes clear, she encountered significant push back from the male-dominated workforce when doing so.

Some of the defensive comments Loukaitou-Sideris received are quoted in Criado Perez’s book.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they follow many of the myths already explored: that safety issues aren’t gender-specific, or that there is no evidence that women are genuinely less safe than men.

The results make grim reading.

As Criado Perez explains, of over 130 public transport agencies Loukaitou-Sideris surveyed, only a third felt that they should do something, and, shockingly only three agencies – just 2% – had done anything to improve women’s safety on public transport.

Yet, one of the things Loukatiou-Sideris’ research clearly highlighted was the fundamental mismatch between what transport authorities thought they should do and what would actually make a genuine difference for female travellers.

Perhaps the best example of this quoted in Invisible Women is the approach most authorities take to bus travel. Over 80% reported to Loukatiou-Sideris that they had CCTV, 76% had panic alarms and 73% had a public address system on their buses.

But as Criado Perez summarises:

‘This is in diametric opposition to what women actually want: they are far more likely to feel scared waiting in the dark at the bus stop than on the bus itself. And in fact, they are right to feel this way.’

As she points out, a study by Loukaitou-Sideris and her colleagues at the Mineta Transportation Institute ‘found that people were over three times more likely to be a victim of a crime at or near a transit [public transport] stop than on the vehicle itself.’

Criado Perez is right to conclude that in most cases, given the choice, public transport agencies opt for a technological solution over staffing the network, and similarly right to conclude that there is a paucity of data on the value of the former, at least in comparison to women ’vastly preferring the presence of a conductor or security guard’ – because that way help is close by.

Criado Perez suggests that once again transport planning may be suffering from the experience gap in planning, between men and women:

[M]en prefer technological solutions to the presence of guards […] because the types of crime they are more likely to experience are less potentially violating.

As we’ve already explored, women’s safety on public transport is important, as it shapes their travel behaviour: how many trips they make and by what mode.

Where staffing the public transport network is vetoed on cost grounds – although as Criado Perez adds it is ‘arguably worth it if it increases women’s use of public transport’– Invisible Women points to some simple interventions that can address women’s safety concerns.

Accurate, real-time information on when the next bus or train is one such intervention.

Here in London, such information is commonplace – whether from Countdown displays at bus stops or real-time journey planner apps.

Where bus stops do not have a countdown estimated arrival times of buses, information is also available online or by text message.

This information is important because it can minimise the length of time women have to wait at a bus stop.

Particularly at night, when the gap between buses can increase, it means they can time their arrival accordingly.

Another low-cost solution to improve the night bus travel experience for women, that Criado Perez points to in her book, is allowing request stops along night bus routes. Request stops shorten how far one needs to walk once getting off the bus. Bus stop design can also be tweaked so that women feel safer whilst waiting at them.

Such interventions are important because some of the data we do have already demonstrates clearly that there is a night-time problem that needs to be acted upon.

Criado Perez points out that in London, whilst women account for the majority of bus passengers throughout the whole day, fewer women use night buses than men.

Why are fewer women are using the night bus? We do not know, but as Criado Perez suggests: ‘it seems reasonable to conclude that feeling unsafe might have something to do with it’.

Of course, even where the will to make changes exists, the question of ‘value for money’ is one that will always be asked.

Even transport agencies feeling the pinch and unable to redesign their entire bus system can take impactful steps to improve women’s safety though, as Loukaitou-Sideris’s research, cited in Criado Perez’ book, found that gender-based crime was not occurring across the public transport network equally.

As she suggests, targeted interventions by the public transport authority at these hotspots would improve women’s safety when travelling and help keep costs low.

This does, however, return us to the crux of the problem – such targeting requires data that, in many cases, just doesn’t exist.

‘[T]he first step for transit authorities […] is to accept that they have a problem’, Criado Perez concludes, before any targeted actions to address women’s safety are attempted.

Tweaking the system for the better

How might we bridge the gender data gap that Invisible Women highlights so well?

How can we create better decision-making processes that are not gender-biased and implement interventions that do not disadvantage women?

‘[W]e need more women in leadership positions, bringing their perspectives and experiences into the decision-making processes, greater consultation with women during policy making, and better analysis of the differentiated gendered needs within cities’, UCL researchers Tiffany Lam and Ellie Cosgrave conclude in their Women4Climate: Gender Inclusive Action in Cities report.

The report includes concrete recommendations on how to bring about positive change.

To increase the diversity of those in leadership positions and support women in career progression, cities should invest in mentoring programmes.

To improve consultations and policy appraisal, a gender lens should be applied to any options under consideration.

Consultations should be designed to actively seek engagement with women and capture their views.

Policymakers should assess the gendered impacts of public spending, in particular, the impacts of large infrastructure investments.

Adopting women’s safety audits that capture women’s travel around the city and the obstacles to travelling would inform where to target interventions.

And last but not least, Lam and Cosgrave call for the collection of gender-disaggregated data. It, as Criado Perez makes the point in her book, is key to tackling the unconscious bias in data-driven policy making.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez is published by Penguin (ISBN: 9781784741723).

This post is part of the Women’s Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. 

This piece originally appeared in London Reconnections and can be viewed in its original format here.

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