Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sexism on the Sidewalk: How Poor Street Design Keeps Women from Walking

Source: Burden
“Can we walk there?” my daughter asked.
I was facing down a long afternoon with four kids under eight. A trip to the local coffee shop was in order, and since it was less than a mile away, I did what any good walkability advocate would do: I tossed all the kids in the mini-van and drove there.

My choice, like so many of women’s travel choices, was based primarily on safety. I was confident the kids could walk that far, and I knew it would be the healthier and more interesting choice for all of us--but without good walkability, I wasn’t sure that I could keep them all safe.

All across the country women, in particular mothers, make similar choices every day. Poor street design, disparate land use, time constraints, lack of personal safety—all of these conspire to force women off their feet and into cars. We have built a transportation system that discounts women’s travel needs, and women—and our communities—are suffering for it.

To understand what we should be doing better, it’s important to understand how women’s travel is different from men’s travel. Women make more trips than men, but travel shorter distances. They travel more with children, and their trips are more likely to be household-serving (e.g., shopping, daycare, errands), rather than for work or leisure. Women are also more likely to trip-chain (stop at multiple locations along the way during one trip). In particular for women with young children who haven’t started school, gender drives travel patterns.

Source: Burden
In theory, the trips women take the most are ideally suited for walking. Short trips to the school, grocery store, or similar locations should be simple to complete on foot--and in the most walkable neighborhoods, women do walk a lot. However, more often we’ve built walkablility out of our neighborhoods. Our streets lack sidewalks where kids can walking hand-in-hand or be pushed in a stroller. We fail to provide safe, regular crossing points along key routes. We create neighborhoods where stores, schools, and (critically) childcare are too far apart to be accessed on a single walking trip. We fail to consider the design elements (lighting, lack of hidden spaces, etc.) that can deter crime and make women feel safe while walking.

These challenges have a real impact on women’s health. One recent study investigated the physical activity patterns of over 700,000 people in 111 different countries. Using travel data from cell phone records, the researchers developed a measure of activity inequality that quantified the difference between the most physically active and least physically active portions of the population. Not surprisingly, the US appears near the head of the list of least equal countries, topped only by Egypt, Canada, Australia, and Saudi Arabia.

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. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Is Our Obsession with Work Trips Making it Harder to Walk?

Basking in the glory of Circulate San Diego's Captain VZ at a Bike to Work Day pit stop
You can tell by my smile in this picture that I love a good Bike to Work Day pit stop as much as the next cyclist. But guess what? I'm not biking to work in this picture; I'm biking to the grocery store.

This underlines something about travel behavior and policy that has bothered me for a while: we focus on work trips, despite the fact that most of our travel isn't for work. The latest California Household Travel Survey data shows that about 10 percent of California's travel is work-related, similar to the latest national data showing that commute trips are about 15 percent of travel.

There's a pretty obvious explanation for our work-trip bias: it's what the Census counts. Since 1960, the Census has asked every working American how they get to and from their job. Often it's the only data that's regularly (if you call every 10 years "regularly") gathered about walking and biking within a city. Because of this, Census data often becomes the proxy for "how many people walk or bike in our city."

To see the problems with this, let's go back to 1959 and take a look at why we started counting commute trips in the first place. Here's an excerpt from a congressional subcommittee hearing on plans for the 1960 Census:

As you can see, a key reason for counting work trips was to help solve "problems of highway planning." Put another way, the government was hoping to figure out how best to get workers (mostly men) who owned cars (mostly men and families with higher incomes) and lived far enough from central cities to drive on highways (mostly white people) to work.

Shockingly, focusing on the travel patterns of rich, white men led to investments in transportation infrastructure that mainly benefited wealthier, whiter, suburban households, usually at the expense of poorer, less-white, urban communities.

While we're (very) slowly beginning to consider issues of equity in our transportation system, the emphasis on work travel continues to color the way to talk about, and plan for, transportation. Here's a beautiful graphic from a report by ARUP, Cities Alive: Towards a Walking Word:

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Walkability Starts When Street Harassment Ends

Courtesy of Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh 


It's been nearly 20 years, and I'm still angry at the young men who yelled that at me as I walked to and from my first urban planning job in downtown San Diego.

At the time, I was also confused. No one had ever explained to me how insidious street harassment can be. No one had pointed out how women are trained to think it's "their problem" if they don't appreciate a cat-call or a comment on their looks. No one told me that "Smile" is code for "Pay attention to me, even if you don't want to." All I knew was that I was uncomfortable. And I was mad.

Obviously that hasn't stopped me from walking and biking, but street harassment does keep other people--in particular women and people of color--away from active transportation. As a pedestrian advocate (and mom of two girls), here are the three things I'm going to do to make sure other people don't have to experience what I did.

1. Call it what it is.
Even now, street harassment is justified or explained away as harmless banter or "compliments." When we call out harassment for what it is, we give victims the ability to address it appropriately, instead of making them feel like they are the ones doing something wrong.

2. Respond.
Street harassment is about power, and figuring out the right response is difficult when you're already in a position of vulnerability. Stop Street Harassment is one great resource for ways to respond effectively, providing info and links from the practical ("Using your voice, facial expressions, and body language together, without mixed signals, show assertiveness and strength.") to the whimsical:

Courtesy of The Rior

3. Be an ally. 
Street harassers get away with harassment because their victims can't fight back. But often they're surrounded by people who can fight back, but who choose to remain silent. This needs to change, both on and off the street. Not only should we refuse to tolerate street harassment in the moment, we also need to include more women in conversations about transportation and infrastructure. In the 20 years since that first urban planning job, I've spent a lot of time in meetings where women are sorely underrepresented. We can't build transportation systems that work for everyone until we start hearing from everyone. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

How I Teach my Kids to Cross the Street

The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary are some of my daughter's favorites, mainly (I suspect) because they chronicle the same struggles she faces in her life right now: starting school, sharing a room, grouchy parents.

Since the first books in the series were written in the late 1960s, I'm always struck by the subtle differences between social norms then and now. Ramona, for instance, walks to school. By herself. In kindergarten. I'm pretty sure if I let my daughter do that I'd be considered crazy, if not criminal.

But I've got big dreams of someday sending these short people off on the epic four-block walk to school without the slew of grown-ups you see in the background, and that means I spend a lot of time talking to them about how to walk safely. Here's what I tell them about crossing the street:

1. Be predictable
Kids are already at a disadvantage because they're small, and thus less visible. If they're going to be seen by drivers, they should put themselves in places where those drivers are already going to look. That means no darting out between cars, crossing mid-block, or running a red light. It means crossing in the crosswalk, ideally at an intersection with stop signs or signals. I fully believe that there are times and places where crossing rules should be broken, but I don't trust my kids to be able to make those types of judgment calls yet.

2. Use the Three-Second Rule
I see so many kids treating the crosswalk signal like it's a checkered flag in a drag race, launching into the street the second the light turns green. Every time it happens, I cringe. Drivers run those lights All. The. Time.

Knowing this, I've stolen a rule my friend created for her kids: count to three before crossing. It won't save my kids from drivers who blatantly run lights, but it keeps them out of the path of drivers to try to sneak through the intersection just as the light changes.

3. Look, Listen, and Go
That's the mantra for my kids when they cross the street, and they're probably already sick of hearing me say it. Every time we walk I remind them that it doesn't matter what I (or anyone else) says, at the end of the day it's their responsibility to look and listen for cars before they cross.

4. Trust No One
This one can be hard, because kids are used to being told what to do. But when it comes to crossing, I teach my kids that they need to be the ones to decide what's safe. That means making eye contact with drivers before crossing, not just assuming they will stop when they're supposed to.

It also means refusing to cross when a driver stops for them in the middle of the road. Rarely do I feel called to yell in blog posts, but will everyone PLEASE STOP DOING THIS. You've just created a super dangerous situation for my kids by pressuring them to cross the street while blocking their view of the roadway and blocking other drivers' views of my kids. I tell my kids to just wave those drivers on, and wait until they can cross safely on their own.

Don't let all these rules give you the wrong impression: I absolutely think kids should be allowed to walk places on their own, and I have no intention of holding my kids' hands every morning until they leave for college. Ramona was so proud the first time that she walked to school on her own, and I want my kids to have that same feeling too.