In cities like Philadelphia, a remarkable 64 percent of the people riding public transportation are thought to be women.
By Sarah Goodyear, January 30, 2015
The majority of the people who use public transit in the United
States are women. They account for 55 percent of overall ridership
across the country, according to a 2007 survey from the American Public Transportation Association. In some places, the proportion of women riders is even higher.
Jim Saksa, transportation reporter for the website PlanPhilly, has crunched some numbers and found that Philadelphia leads the nation in this department: according to a recent survey by SEPTA, the city's transportation agency, a remarkable 64 percent of the people riding Philly’s subways and buses are women.
Chicago was second in his accounting, with a 62 percent female
ridership on the MTA, while Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston all
came in at 60 percent.
While differences in methodology mean the results aren’t strictly
comparable (as Saksa writes, it isn’t so much apples to oranges as
“mandarins to tangerines”), the numbers are striking. The most recent
tally of self-reported female commuters from the American Community Survey again shows Philly in the lead, with 58.5 percent (Baltimore is close behind). Nationwide, 50.5 percent of transit commuters are women, even though they comprise only 47 percent of the workforce.
There's likely no single answer to why women take mass transit more
than men, or why Philadelphia has a particularly female transit
ridership. “There are a dozen things going on,” says Saksa, who says the
big number of women riders jumped out at him when he began reviewing
SEPTA data soon after starting his PlanPhilly job. “It’s a perfect storm
of sorts. Our largest employers are industries that are particularly
dominated by women—clerical, retail, health. Wage inequality probably
plays a part. We can only just point out a bunch of correlations here.”
to Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning at UCLA,
women predominate on mass transit around the globe. It’s a phenomenon,
she says, that is mostly not a matter of choice. “I don’t know about
Philadelphia, but there are many studies that indicate there are women
who are riding transit out of necessity,” she says. “Women are captive
transit users. If there is one car in the family, it is often driven by
the man in the household. Men are much more likely to use motorbikes or
mopeds than women. Taking a taxi is often too expensive to be an option.
For many of these women [public transit] is the only transportation
Yet Loukaitou-Sideris, along with many other researchers, has found
that as much as they are compelled by circumstance to use transit, women
are also often wary of it for reasons of personal safety.
“Women are more frightened to use transit,” she says. “For many of
them this is always in the back of their minds, safety, being on my own
at night. Even in taxis. If it is a woman alone, it is always a kind of
consideration.” As she and co-author Camille Fink wrote in a 2008 paper
published in Urban Affairs Review, “fear has some significant
consequences for women and leads them to use precautionary measures and
strategies that affect their travel patterns.”
Those concerns are something that women are often left to cope with on their own. As Ann Friedman wrote here last year,
despite the persistent worries of women about transit safety, those
concerns are rarely directly addressed in the United States.
In her 2008 paper,
Loukaitou-Sideris reported that “[f]ew researchers, transit agencies,
or policy makers have directly asked women passengers about their safety
needs or sought to identify women’s proposals and preferences regarding
safe and secure travel.” She and her colleagues surveyed U.S. transit
agencies to find out what, if any, strategies they employed to address
the particular safety concerns of women.
Of the 131 operators that responded to the survey, only three said
they had any safety efforts that were specifically tailored toward
women, although two-thirds of respondents expressed the opinion that
women had special vulnerability when riding transit. (A spokesperson for
SEPTA said that agency did not have any specific safety policies
tailored to women, but that the agency had safety as a general priority
for all passengers.)
By contrast, Loukaitou-Sideris says, transit agencies in several
European countries, as well as Australia, Canada, and Japan, have
launched programs specifically targeted at women’s safety, based on the
concerns expressed by women themselves as assessed by safety audits and
surveys of female passengers. “Since our survey covered more than half
of all the large and medium-sized transit operators in the United
States,“ writes Loukaitou-Sideris, “we have to sadly conclude that the
United States is considerably behind other countries on the issue of
transit safety for women.”
Of course, safety from crime is not the only consideration for women
on transit. One of the reasons that women predominate on transit,
researchers believe, is that they are most often the caretakers of
children and responsible for many of the household errands. Better
accommodations for strollers as well as other measures to increase the
ease of traveling with children could no doubt dramatically improve
The lack of such accommodations can have tragic consequences, as the
case of Raquel Nelson showed. Nelson, a young mother with several
children in tow, was coming home from a long and arduous bus journey in
the Atlanta area in 2010. After getting off the bus directly across the
street from her building, three children and her grocery shopping in
tow, Nelson crossed the street to get home,
traveling with other pedestrians across several lanes in a spot where
there was no crosswalk. Her four-year-old son was hit and killed by an
impaired driver who then fled the scene.
Nelson was prosecuted and convicted of vehicular manslaughter because
she didn’t use the crosswalk, which was located a third of a mile away
(none of the members of the all-white jury were regular users of public
transportation). After years of legal battles, Nelson’s conviction was eventually dropped
and she ended up with a ticket for jaywalking. But similar
life-threatening conditions for people traveling with children—usually
women—remain common across the United States. A similar case occurred, also in the Atlanta area, late last year.
Marketers of many, many consumer products focus on women—quite
naturally, because women are the ones doing most of the buying for
families. Imagine if more transit systems in the U.S. started doing the
same. The result would no doubt be transit systems that would be better
for, and more attractive to, everyone.