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Commentary: Toward equality for all commutes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 24, 2013 - I’m a busy working woman with kids. Driving everywhere is so expensive, but biking, walking, and taking transit seems really difficult. Am I missing something?

For the past 50 years, transportation engineering centered around the basic idea of moving cars as quickly as possible at peak traffic times. Prioritizing rush hour means prioritizing breadwinners, while access to other daily, local activities fall by the wayside.

For instance, in St. Louis, if you live just south of Forest Park, it also means you live just south of Highway 64-40, where pedestrian-friendly crosswalks are extremely limited. You’re lucky you live near the park, but taking your children there is harder than it should be. This is just one example that illustrates our cultural hierarchy of paid work over other activities that are equally vital to society. Caretaking, homemaking and running errands are also work.

Whether it’s a drive in the BMW to a downtown high-rise office, a leisurely stroll to the park with the kids, or riding the bus to the pharmacy, it’s high time that all commutes, of all modes, are safe, comfortable, and valued.

Thirteen percent of all heads of family households in the city are female (the language used in the census report unfortunately and inadequately describes their status as “[having] no husband present”). More than half of them have dependent children under 18 years of age. Additionally, women living alone comprise nearly 15 percent of nonfamily households, and about half of them are 65 or older.

Across the nation, single female-led households are more than twice as likely to be poor or impoverished as single male-led households. While poverty can affect myriad facets of a woman’s life, a major challenge is transportation. In the St. Louis region, typical transportation costs exceed 26 percent of the median income; in some areas of our region it may be as high as 35 percent.

According to AAA, the average annual cost of owning and operating a vehicle in the U.S. is now $9,122 (this figure does not include car payments).

Despite the high cost of car ownership, our infrastructure and policies continue to favor cars over biking, walking and public transit, leaving those who cannot afford to own a car at a disadvantage. Transportation is more than getting from one place to another: It’s how we access goods, services, employment, schools, and loved ones.

Because women-led households are far more likely to be impoverished, transportation costs can have a staggering effect on a low-income woman’s budget. That in turn may make it impossible for her to meet her, and her family’s, daily needs. Yet regardless of income level, transportation costs can unevenly impact any woman’s finances. While the gender pay gap has narrowed, it’s still a national problem, with women on average earning 77 cents for every dollar that men earn.

Aside from income inequality, social norms have established women as far more likely to serve as caretakers, absorbing many more household duties and errands, thus increasing their transportation needs. The League of American Bicyclists’ recent Women on a Roll report reveals that in heterosexual two-worker households, women make twice as many trips to drop off and pick up children as their male partners. Kids also have sports and doctors’ appointments, there are elderly parents to care for, and groceries do not magically appear in our pantries.

For a woman who works outside the home, errands result in 110 more trips taken a year, outside of rush hours, than her male partner. It is striking, then, that our roads are primarily designed to accommodate the 9-to-5 workday and peak rush hours, when there are so many other essential trips that need to be taken.

It is not only women in the U.S. that face such challenges when it comes to transportation. In the early 1990s, Viennese officials began to take a hard look at the needs of their women citizens. After collecting data through extensive surveys, one city administrator noted that “most of the men filled out the questionnaire in less than five minutes … But the women couldn’t stop writing.” The survey results made it clear that the majority of men used a car or public transit just twice a day—to work and back. Women, however, made many more trips for various reasons, and also used more transportation modes. These results were taken seriously, and the city began to actively address the needs of women that were not being met. They widened sidewalks to accommodate strollers, walkers, and wheelchairs, and improved street lighting for safety at night. The city even built an apartment complex that specifically caters to women’s needs called Frauen-Werk-Stadt (Women-Work-City), including an onsite kindergarten, parks, a pharmacy, a doctor’s office and close proximity to public transit. Vienna’s planning strategies have carried profound impact and have been recognized by the United Nations in its registry of best practices.

Vienna provides just one example of how equitable city planning and design can foster high-quality transportation options that accommodate and benefit everyone. Increasing safe and comfortable transit helps support women when it comes to caretaking responsibilities, especially those who cannot afford cars. It might even spur more men to participate in household duties and caretaking, furthering gender equality overall. Simultaneously, car-free transportation options incorporate exercise into our daily lives, reduce carbon emissions and decrease traffic-related fatalities.

By planning for biking, walking and public transit, in addition to driving, we actively value life beyond the confines of the 9-to-5 workday. We acknowledge that many of our most important journeys are best done on foot, bike and transit, and demonstrate respect for everyone and their many needs outside of paid employment. We all thrive when we place the same importance on safely getting the kids to the park as we do getting to work.

Molly Pearson is an American League of Bicyclists’ certified instructor, and serves as TravelGreen Program Coordinator at Trailnet. The mission of Trailnet is to lead in fostering healthy, active, and vibrant communities where walking, bicycling, and the use of public transit are a way of life. She will be writing Voices articles to raise awareness and understanding of bicycling conditions in St. Louis, and how such conditions affect all roadway users.

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