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Understanding and responding to the transit needs of women in Canada

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About the project

The historical practices of transportation planning are known to be gender-neutral and as a result have marginalized the experiences of a large subsection of the population, namely women.

Identifying the motives behind women's travel behaviour works to inform equitable data collection methods, transportation planning and public transit policy. However, systematic gender inclusion procedures, spanning from the hiring of professionals to the design or planning of systems and equipment, are yet to be widely identified or highlighted within the Canadian context.

This project sought to understand:

  • the differentiated needs and experiences of women’s travel; and
  • the current practice of considering women’s distinct travel needs in public transit planning in Canada, including available data collected by transit agencies and methods to analyze these data.

An inductive literature review of Global North grey and academic documents regarding women’s travel behaviour (mode choice, travel route, time of travel and distance) and needs was conducted. Additionally, a systematic review of policy materials of 18 public transit systems from Canada’s eight largest Census Metropolitan Areas and a webinar discussing public transit policy with female industry leaders were conducted.

Key findings

  • Gender roles that lead to disparities in caregiving, income, employment and security impact women’s travel behaviour. Trip-chaining, off-peak travel and short-distance trips are all common features of women's travel behaviour that are not well served by public transit in its current state. Women’s travel, as compared to men’s travel, is characterized by more multiple short-distance trips with the purpose of serving others; this behaviour does not coincide with traditional public transit service planning.
  • The gender-based social roles that influence women’s standing within families, workplaces and broader society inherently impact their mobility. Therefore, women’s travel behaviours cannot be examined appropriately without the understanding and recognition of external pressures that determine travel purpose, mode, route and time. While many public transit agencies in Canada are implementing service improvements that are aligned with the observed travel behaviour and needs of women, the policy surrounding these improvements is not explicitly presented as responses to these needs. There is a mismatch between the services that meet women’s needs and the standards outlined that determine what public transit service is provided and how it is assessed for performance. This limits the accountability of policy-makers and transit planners to maintain or improve services that meet the transportation needs of women.
  • Opportunities exist in the collection and use of gender data to understand the travel behaviour of women and to monitor the impacts of service changes. For instance, household travel surveys, a primary tool for decision-making and a rich data source that is inclusive of gender information, have the potential to be further analyzed and gender-disaggregated to generate more insight on women’s travel behaviour and purpose across a variety of modes.
  • While the processes that guide major projects and planning highlight broad social impacts and the need for consultation practices that are representative of the population, the analysis reveals that there is growing recognition of the potential and use of gender-based analysis practices, specifically GBA+, to understand and respond to the specific travel needs of women.

Policy implications

Opportunities exist to foster research partnerships between academics and practitioners to co-create knowledge and understanding of women’s travel behaviour. The sharing of gender-inclusive data and findings between academics and public transit agencies or other transport authorities can enable the collaborative effort of understanding women’s travel behaviours and needs.

Public transit agencies have several opportunities to better understand women's travel needs, including the exploration of novel avenues for gender-based data collection (such as real-time and passive data), and through customer satisfaction surveys to collect additional gender-specific data on service attributes. These data generate gender-specific insights and can be applied to several aspects of public transit planning, such as developing gender-informed metrics for service standards and performance indicators and gender equity evaluations in business cases for major projects.

Increasing the number of women employed across all levels of the public transit sector can directly contribute to a greater consideration of women’s distinct needs; when women have a seat at the table from front-line operations through to leadership, their perspectives are more likely to be included in decision-making.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Emily Grisé (principal investigator), assistant professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Alberta: egrise@ualberta.ca

Geneviève Boisjoly, assistant professor, Département des génies civil, géologique et des mines, Polytechnique Montréal: gboisjoly@polymtl.ca

David Cooper (industry advisor), principal transportation planner, Leading Mobility Consulting: david@leadingmobility.com

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Infrastructure Canada or the Government of Canada.

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