Building Back Fairly: Gender Equity and Public Transit

By Betsy Gardner • MAY 6, 2021

The only time I’ve ever been spit on was on public transit, riding one evening on the MBTA in Boston. It was a normal summer day; my friend and I were going back home after dinner and the sun was just setting. But once on the train, we noticed a man harassing another pair of women further down the car, and we didn’t have time to switch before he ended up turning on us. Still ranting, he came over and immediately trapped us in our seats by looming over our bodies and grasping the metal poles on either side of our bench, while we shrunk into each other and desperately tried to keep up the facade of being distracted by our phones, as if we somehow couldn’t hear his shouts and see him threatening us up above.

Literally yelling about how all women always ignore him, he began spitting, hawking globs of spittle at our legs, shoes, and the seat around us, thankfully missing our hair and faces. Still miming texting, we frantically typed on my friend’s flip phone to each other, debating how to escape when we were still several stops and another train line away from home. We decided that at the next station we would bolt out of our car and slip into an adjacent one, a maneuver that would hopefully escape his attention as he continued raging at the few other people in the car about how we were ignoring him.

My friend and I managed to get into another car and safely home that night, and there were other riders who helped make sure we weren’t followed. But instances of harassment like this are incredibly common among women, individuals who are gender-nonbinary, and people of color. In this article we’ll be focusing specifically on ways to address sex discrimination in regards to public transit, from overt examples like mine to the subtle ways in which bus routes and train schedules disadvantage women.

Building Back Equitably

While the conversation isn’t new, this moment is a unique opportunity to “build back better,” as evidenced by the federal program of the same name which incorporates economic recovery and infrastructure redevelopment. As part of the Build Back Better initiative, the American Jobs Plan will “replace thousands of buses and rail cars, repair hundreds of stations and facilities, and expand transit and rail service into new communities that need them most.” For these ambitious plans to truly improve communities, both expanded and upgraded transit will need to consider the often forgotten — or ignored — needs of female transit users.

According to researchers who study the intersection of gender and mobility, “historically women have lived and moved more locally, especially if they have children. This is because gender is the single biggest organising feature worldwide, and a major factor in travel behaviour.” Interpersonal care and caretaking work are also important factors in gender-differentiated transit needs; “Women do the large majority of local trips for the purposes of caring for and educating others. They play a profound role in shaping intergenerational mobility choices.” This is currently being considered as part of new infrastructure proposals at the federal level, under the encompassing title of “care infrastructure,” which includes not just physical transit and buildings but also childcare and paid parental leave — two things that would actually have an effect on physical movement around cities and usage of transit.

In order to achieve these goals, data is paramount. Speaking in a Wired Mag interview, spokesperson for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy Jemilah Magnusson stated that “most transport systems were explicitly designed for the solo male commuter.” This influence means that rail lines run according to 9-5 work schedules and stations are often designed for able-bodied individuals, disregarding the need for wheelchair and stroller access. However, it’s rare for transit authorities to collect sex-disaggregated data, either on usage patterns (i.e., more on-and-off stops, riding off peak commuting hours, etc) or on transit system climate (i.e., sexual harassment, gender-based violence, etc).

Importance of Data

Actually collecting this data can be challenging, which is why many mobility experts recommend exploring “the trove of unconventional gender-disaggregated data that’s already produced,” such as social media posts, phone location information, and census data. A group of international researchers studied mobility patterns in Santiago, Chile using anonymized mobile phone call data from female cell phone users and discovered that “women travel to fewer unique locations than men,” a difference that was more pronounced along income brackets, with “poorer women tend[ing] to remain more localized than their male counterparts.” Although smaller, the same gender gap was found among wealthier individuals. And when combined with census data, the group discovered that lower-income women made shorter trips overall. The gender gaps persisted even when individuals lived close to public transit stops.

Data can reveal significant and important truths, and the findings in Santiago are a case in point. Yet many transit systems and regional governments are still slow to process sex-disaggregated data. According to Open Data Watch, while more countries are publishing better open data, gender-separated data is still significantly lacking. Speaking to, Senior Data Analyst and report co-author Lorenz Noe pointed out that “The absence of sex-disaggregated information on these topics can undermine policies to support women.”

Governments at all levels have an obligation to collect gender-based data as thoughtfully and inclusively as possible. One of the first steps is to explain and contextualize why data is being collected by gender. Clearly explaining why the question is being asked and what will be done with the information will make respondents more comfortable with giving that information. Some additional recommendations include things like offering a “Prefer to Self-Identify” option when asking about gender identity, which allows users to include their own definition. Also, surveys should make sure that sex, sexual orientation, and gender aren’t misconstrued.

Current Trials and Apps

Currently, some cities and countries are conducting trials and campaigns to improve women’s experience on public transit. In Australia, data from a nation-wide survey on transit safety found that “nine out of 10 Australian women experience harassment on the street and modify their behaviour in response,” according to Sydney’s Minister for Transport, in an interview with Government News. Greater Sydney’s transit system will trial different types of technology and data to improve safety for women, including a “passive surveillance index” and algorithmic-based detection and alert.

A new anti-harassment campaign in the Bay Area called Not One More Girl, led by girls and young women of color, aims to send “a clear message to the aggressor that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.” Partnering with the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, the youth who work on Not One More Girl will push for systemic change through participatory research, a cultural-change strategy, visual arts and policy advocacy. The campaign purposefully includes trans and non-binary youth, in order to achieve true equity and combat all forms of gender-based violence.

There are also several different smartphone apps and technology that aim to make transit safer for women and help them report instances of gender-based harassment. In Ecuador, women who are being harassed on buses in Quito can text “acoso” (which means harassment/bullying) to 6367 to trigger a phone call from a trained operator who can alert the bus driver, who in turn triggers an alarm on the bus and a pre-recorded message about respecting other passengers. Police are also alerted and meet the bus at the next stop to confront the abuser. A similar app is used in Mexico, as part of the Hazme el Paro (Have My Back) campaign.

The app SafeCity, which operates across 25 countries, is an open-source platform that collects reported data on instances of gender-based violence, both in public and private. The app collects and analyzes the anonymous, crowdsourced reports in order to identify patterns, frequently-reported locations, and insights that can be used by local and city governments. The data is mapped and publicly available, so that community groups and individuals can also make transportation decisions based on the reported instances.

In order to have equitable cities, transit systems will need to correct the current, inequitable and unsafe transportation landscape for women. Collecting aggregated data, piloting new technology, and conducting inclusive community engagement are steps that city and regional officials can take to improve quality of life for women, and non-binary folks. As much of the world gears back up for travel on public transit, local and regional leaders are uniquely positioned to reimagine a better, safer, and more equitable future.

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.