Sexism and the City

Julia Vanella is a contributing writer. She graduated from Trachtenberg with an MPP in December 2022.

Women’s Unaccounted for Needs in Urban Design

Cities and corresponding infrastructure have historically been built, designed and planned by men — making their perspective the primary one dictating how cities should function. As a result, urban design and infrastructure often fail to accommodate the particular needs, roles, and responsibilities of women. 

Cities traditionally have centrally urban districts where employment opportunities are clustered — with residential neighborhoods located farther from city centers. This design reflects mens’ needs to commute to and from work. Although women live in the same cities, urban land and transportation designs often do not take into account women’s more complex travel patterns. 

Research has shown that women have different work and travel patterns than men. They often engage in “trip-chaining,” meaning they take more and longer trips, such as running errands, dropping their children at school and going to work. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, generally have one travel path, to work and back home. Women also drive less than men and rely more on public transportation, which comes with its own challenges, including fluctuating or inconsistent transit schedules and late-night travel. 

City design can impact women’s employment opportunities. According to a study in Los Angeles on women and their travel patterns, women were more likely to work part-time jobs that offer flexible schedules and are closer to home due to the time required to fulfill household responsibilities. The same study also found this is particularly true for workers who are women of color.

What Can Be Done?

While there seem to be no current initiatives across local and state governments in the United States to address this issue, there is potential for forward progress. These include improving women’s representation in urban planning careers and increasing research on women and their specific needs. 

According to 2019 statistics from Zippia, a website that collects data on careers, only one-third of urban planners and one-fourth of architects are women. The underrepresentation of women in urban planning professions may mean that women’s unique transit and economic needs are not fully considered or incorporated into city planning. This can lead to further lost economic opportunities for women and even put them in potentially dangerous situations, like having to commute late at night in unsafe areas. According to the Nationwide Personal Transporation Survey conducted by the US Department of Transportation, on average, women make 50% more stops on the way home from work than men, which adds time and cost barriers to using public transportation. Increasing the number of women working in urban planning means more city designers and urban planners would understand trip chaining and women’s complex travel patterns. As a result, they could plan transit systems that better suit to women’s needs, such as locating bus and train routes in areas with many grocery, daycare and school options. 

Some progress has been made in increasing the share of women in U.S. architectural and urban planning programs. In 2016, 52% of urban planning graduate students were women and according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, 42% of women received master’s degrees in architecture in 2017, an increase of 12% since 1995. However, the percentage of licensed female practitioners is only about 17%, a stark contrast with the share of women who graduate with urban planning-related degrees. Research suggests that this is due to the challenges women encounter when re-entering the profession after maternity leave, such as being denied their previous levels of responsibility or having reasonable work hours to accommodate their needs as a parent.

Policymakers and urban planners can also gather more data on women and their needs to better understand what changes can be made to support them. In 1997, the United Nations Economic and Social Council defined the term “gender mainstreaming,” a concept that evaluates the impacts planned actions, including legislation and policies, have on women and views their concerns as a critical design component. The adoption of this strategy into urban planning is critical to ensure that gender equality is achieved and women are able to have the same access to amenities as their male counterparts.

Despite this, policies that incorporate women’s needs into city planning have yet to be fully realized in the United States. Philadelphia’s transit authority, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, has begun the process of rethinking its transit system to gather more feedback from riders on current train and bus schedules, simplify routes and increase overall system efficiency. It’s unclear yet if any changes will improve women’s experiences on public transit.

Some cities have conducted studies that provide recommendations on how to better address women’s transit needs. The City of Los Angeles’ study on women and their travel patterns include recommendations to: close the data gap by collecting more data on gender inclusion and incorporating that data into developing solutions; adopt “inclusive infrastructure,” build the environment to inform decisions to improve women’s mobility, safety, and wellbeing; and establish new programs that will help women and their mobility, including providing increased transportation and other services. 

Although the actions taking place to address this issue are not fully implementing gender mainstreaming, local government’s investment in research about women’s transit needs gives hope that in the future more concrete legislation and other initiatives will be enacted to make urban planning more equitable for all.

This piece was edited by Deputy Editor Annie Robey and Executive Editor Lancy Downs.

Photo credit: Ted Eytan 

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