Let’s design for women too – beyond the commute

Various feminist geographers-planners-researchers have pointed it out before, but it still warrants repeating. Looking at the commute alone is discriminating against women.

Of course it is much easier to look at the commute. The census data contain that question “how do you usually travel to work?” and the census provides near-full coverage. Yet looking at this data alone, means remaining focussed on the commute to the detriment of trips done for other purposes. And perhaps our decisions (for example, how to set up the census questions) may well be biased towards men, as men (still, largely) make the political and professional decisions. That said, how big is the problem anyways?

The data say

I looked at gender and census data last year here and noted that women ‘already’ have a more sustainable commute profile than men. In our (still) gendered society (men – breadwinner, women – carers), this tells us far from the complete picture though. The question is what other trips are there to consider, and how much are these in comparison to the commute? We have to look beyond the census.

As we all perfectly understand, travel is a varied thing. We move from A to B for a multitude of reasons, in a variety of ways. It is another dataset, the National Travel Survey of NTS, that tells us a bit more about that. It does not have the near-universal coverage that the census has, but it does promise representative data on a national level. It let’s us see how much women’s travel differs from men’s. I am not shy to quickly add again, this is due to our gendered upbringing in society. I had looked at the NTS with regards to gendered travel:

The commute makes up fewer than 20% of all trips (combined 16%, men 18%, women 13%), slightly outnumbered by shopping trips (combined 20%, men 18%, women 21%). Previous post on trips here which contains more details such as age profiles. The complete data spreadsheet (trip counts) is here: nts0611_kl_uploadv2


The figures for travel distance are worth a look too. The commute makes about 20% of all the mileage (combined 19%, men 23%, women 15%), whilst shopping trips accumulate considerably less mileage (combined 12%, men 9%, women 14%).  The highest category for women actually is “visiting friends at private home” (18%), joint second followed “commute” and “holiday / day trip” (each 15%) and shopping hence coming fourth (14%). Men’s mileage, on the other hand, is somewhat dominated by the commute (23%), then jointly followed by “business” and “visiting friends at private home” (each 13%), with “holiday / day trip” (12%) in fourth place. I previously wrote about miles here including age profiles. The complete data spreadsheet (miles) is here: nts0612_kl_uploadv2


Women’s annual mileage travelled is 5,951 miles, amounting to about 80% that of men’s (7,237 miles) – whilst overall average is 6,584 miles. However women make more trips, 4% to be precise (annual trip numbers: men 901, women 944, combined 923). This makes women’s average trip length 6.3 miles (5951/944) and men’s 8.0 miles (7237/901).

We can summarise this crudely: with more trips and shorter travel distances, getting women cycling may depend more on getting the local infrastructure right (let’s recall: people do not like to share with motor traffic and short journeys are eminently more cycleable). When we want to get men cycling, as they are covering larger distances on the whole, this undertaking may in addition necessitate better urban planning to locate work and home closer together. This could explain, to a degree, why women’s cycle levels in the Netherland, Denmark and Germany (mildy) outstrip those of men (Garrard et al, 2012): the infrastructure is available and it covers well the trip requirements of women. It is perhaps easier to design streets for cycling and enable those short journeys, than turn around a whole spatial planning system to shorten trips.

Research says

A gendered difference does not exist in the enactment of travel alone. It also persists to exist at decision-making level. To change this would go to the core of the problem, getting it right when creating and designing (transport) environments.

An extensive literature is available on the subject of feminist urban planning in Greed and Johnson (2014), McDowell (1999), Eichler (1995), Little, Peake, and Richardson (1988) or reframing transport to accessibility planning by Lucas (2006) – to name but a few people and approaches. For decades, authors have consistently written about the difficulties they have encountered with addressing the social exclusivity of designs and the gender imbalance at the professional planning level. Some of these researchers have dedicated their professional energy to highlighting the gendered outcomes of predominantly men-led planning practices and processes resulting in an urban form that neglects women’s needs. Women are repeatedly consistently excluded from public participation by making urban designs inaccessible to them, may that be through lack of seemingly little things (like public toilets and nappy-changing rooms), to lack of design for the needs arising from pram use or other care-taking journeys and care-related activities.

Calls to widen our view to the whole trip horizon have time and time again been made over the years.  Here are just a couple specific ones for your tasting.

Sánchez de Madariaga (2013) offers an angle on gendered transport that introduced the concept of ‘mobility of care. She suggests the inclusion of the ‘mobility of care’ in all transport assessments, in order to account for women’s journeys too. Conceptual frameworks must be broadened to reflect everyday life and should include a much fuller assessment and understanding of journeys, like the accounting for school travel and running errands, in addition to the traditionally investigated journeys of commute (and occasionally leisure).

Lehner-Lierz (1997) cogently describes the gendered needs of women’s travel and the structural struggles in city planning and road layouts that remain unsupportive for certain uses in the UK. Women, and by extension carers in general, are confronted with complex travel diaries of short but chained trips often with children and goods to transport. In addition to travel needs, it is a regular experience, the author argues, that children are ferried by car from ‘island to island’ and are hence deprived of seeing the city as a connected map of society and human interactions. The way we travel can disconnect us from the public realm.


Disregarding over 80% of all trips does not seem a sensible way forward. Yet, the transport systems and practices, still, are obsessed with the commute, even after various pushes for change have been made by the research community over many years.

Just looking at commuting data misses to consider a large number of trips, especially those made by women. Women, as is clear, are not a minority group. Yet women and their needs, even as a major group in society (women make more trips than men), are often disregarded. Looking at the commuting data alone discriminates against women in general, women’s activities and discounts women’s place in society.

We historically have looked at the commute for its coincidence with the rush hour, to deal with peak travel demand. In the UK at least, a real and honest look at space as a limited precious resource (and how to carve it up fairly and effectively) has not taken place. The commute focus has not brought about a better transport system with alternatives to the private car largely still excluded. I suggest that taking the commute approach brings the problem that over 80% of all trips have been neglected in transport assessments. These trips require attention for other reasons than the peak demand. Reasons are for example safety needs when travelling with kids and transporting  shopping. In cycle cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam these trips are still carried out by women, by they are cycled. Removing those trips from the transport agenda marginalises the importance of women’s everyday activities and careful and sensible provision for these activities.

The commute accounts for fewer than 1 in 5 trips. In order to make designs environmentally effective and create gender-inclusive networks, we need to incorporate all ways of travel in our assessments. Women’s trips are usually shorter and women make more trips. This would mean by leaving out the women-type trips of shopping and visiting others, we could miss out on building useful networks on a neighbourhood level to make it possible to cycle quick errands, cycle with kids and transport shopping by bike.  Constructing good cycle solutions is two-fold. Fast commuting corridors are important (protected cycleways), for sure. And these must be complemented by local travel solutions too (cycleways, zoning, filtering etc) to provide good access to the immediate community, designed on a risk basis of appropriate volume and speed.


We must much more inclusively look at transport, trips and space. It is important to diversify census (commuter) data with other datasets such as the NTS in order to get a fuller picture and arrive at a more gender-inclusive system for transport planning and engineering.

As a health warning to academics most specifically, it is also paramount to clearly state limitations of the data sets we use. If we use census data, we must be aware of its possibilities as well as its restrictions, and feel obliged to explain these. But, really, to degender transport we will have to go beyond the easy wins of data availability, and be prepared to scratch some more veneer and bother digging a little deeper into the data.



Eichler, M. (1995). Change of plans: towards a non-sexist sustainable city.

Garrard, J., Handy, S., & Dill, J. (2012). Women and cycling. In J. Pucher & R. Buehler (Eds.), City cycling: MIT Press.

Greed, C., & Johnson, D. (2014). Planning in the UK: an introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lehner-Lierz, U. (1997). The role of cycling for women. In R. Tolley (Ed.), The greening of urban transport: planning for walking & cycling in western cities: Wiley and Son.

Little, J., Peake, L., & Richardson, P. (1988). Women in cities: gender and the urban environment. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Lucas, K. (2006). Providing transport for social inclusion within a framework for environmental justice in the UK. Transportation Research Part A, 40(10), 801-809. doi:10.1016/j.tra.2005.12.005

McDowell, L. (1999). Gender, identity and place: understanding feminist geographies. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Sánchez de Madariaga, I. (2013). From women in transport to gender in transport: challenging conceptual frameworks for improved policymaking. Journal of international affairs, 67(1), 43-XVIII.



5 thoughts on “Let’s design for women too – beyond the commute

  1. This is fascinating stuff. While your discussion is clearly about gender variations and perhaps some stereotyping which misinformed transport policy, have you thought about age profiles as well?

    My guess would be that the travel mix would also look different outside the 25-55 age group. Teenagers and young adults probably travel for the same type of reasons as women do in the data – not commuting, but visiting friends, shops (or cone as, bars etc) and of course college but I suspect that is not a typical work-commute pattern.

    Quite possibly the same is true of older people. I no longer work (though that could be temporary – if Brexiters tanks the economy I might have to start again) so I don’t commute, but I make daily trips to the shops – like most these days we don’t do that huge weekly supermarket trip. Visiting friends and other “errands” also feature largely.

    Finally, I recall when looking at the 2012 census data on commute modes, I was struck that typically about 35% of responses were “work at home/don’t work” so the mode shares have to be restated as X/65%. I always wondered what the census had to say about travel choices of that 35%.


  2. Brilliant. Thanks for this analysis.
    If men were responsible for shopping, child care, household upkeep, I wonder if our transportation system would look different.
    The day trip/holiday percentage should definitely be considered in terms of public transit here in the U.S. with huge weekend traffic jams on the roads to mountains and beaches.


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