Thursday, October 5, 2017

On Strollers, Sidewalks, and Sexism

Yes, I'm *totally oblivious* for not hefting my double stroller up this amazing sidewalk, and instead choosing to walk in the street every day. 
It started with what might have seemed like a straightforward question to someone like Gary Richards of the Mercury News (aka Mr. Roadshow). A reader was upset by parents pushing strollers in the street. "Is there any legal prohibition to using the streets for such use when sidewalks are available?"

Mr. Roadshow answered that while technically legal, strollers should use the sidewalk because "That's common sense."

Readers were quick to respond with letters detailing the many reasons someone with a stroller (or a wheelchair) might choose the street over the sidewalk. Mr. Roadshow published a handful, but ended with a letter from a man complaining about "a pack of several oblivious moms pushing strollers in the street."

That this is an example of blatant institutional sexism appears lost on Mr. Roadshow, not to mention plenty of other people in the transportation community. Here's the thing:

Travel is gendered. 

How and why women move in public spaces is different from men. One way that it's different is that women are responsible for more child-related travel. Sure, anyone *can* push a stroller. But most of the time, the person pushing the stroller is a woman. When we talk about travel with strollers, we're talking about women's travel.

Constructing public spaces that make travel unsafe for certain classes of people (i.e., women), but not others, is discrimination.

To be clear, I'm not talking here about "interpersonal discrimination." Interpersonal discrimination is saying you can't have this job because you're a women. Institutional/structural discrimination is saying you're free to ride this trolley, but we're not going to give you space to store your stroller on it. Also a lot of strange men will probably try to talk to you while you ride.

Safe travel is something that should be enjoyed equally by everyone. It's not. Because of how they typically travel, some classes of people experience more danger on our roadways than others. When a roadway lacks a space for people to walk safely with strollers, that burden falls disproportionately on women (see above). Yes, this is a pedestrian rights issue. It's also a women's issue.

Blaming victims of gender discrimination for conditions outside their control compounds the problem

Travel behavior is extremely complicated, but it's rarely irrational. When a group of women consistently chooses to walk in the street, it's safe to assume that they have a good reason for doing so--not that they lack common sense.

Chalking up women's behavior on the road to poor judgment is not only belittling, it leads to policy "solutions" that fail to address the root problem. If you assume the problem is that women don't understand the rules of the road, then yes, educating them about those rules and increasing enforcement might have an impact. But all the education and enforcement in the world isn't going to move women out of the street when they don't have a viable alternative.

Pedestrian advocates must acknowledge the role that institutional bias plays in our cities and transportation networks, and work actively to remove it.
To their credit, some organizations are beginning to do this, but as a community we still have a long way to go. It's not going to be easy. This type of discrimination is so deeply incorporated into our society that it can be difficult to recognize, and even harder to eliminate. That doesn't mean we get to ignore it.

A good place to start is by taking the time to genuinely listen to what women (and people of color, and children, and people with disabilities, etc. etc.) say about their travel, rather than dismissing their concerns because they don't match our own experience.

(That goes for me too, for the record. I'm well aware that for all the challenges I face as a woman who walks and bikes, I also enjoy any number of benefits because I'm a white person living in an upper middle class neighborhood.)

Remember why we do this.

We don't advocate for sidewalks, we advocate for the people who use them. Most often, those are people are women (and children, and the elderly, and the disabled, and people of color.) That makes use, as pedestrian advocates, de facto women's rights advocates.

It's time we began to act like them. 


  1. This crystalizes exactly why I became a passionate pedestrian advocate 25 years ago. But no one has ever articulated it so clearly before. Thank you, Katie!
    -- Andy Hamilton, Circulate San Diego Board of Directors

  2. Why not choose a stroller that places one child behind the other instead of side by side.