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Bus Commuting (and Gender)

Recently there has been discussion about how cities and transportation systems (really everything) is built for an average height able-bodied man who works downtown and lives in the suburbs, working a typical workday shift. While I am average height, able-bodied, and work a traditional shift downtown living in a historic suburb…I am a woman. I have experienced or witnessed many of the challenges the authors of a recent (February 2020) article in Planning magazine pose.

In “Mind the Gender Gap,” Meghna Khanna, AICP writes “in the US, women account for more than half of all transit ridership, yet their travel patterns and preferences have rarely been accounted for in planning efforts – or even measured.” Her observations about women’s travel behavior include “women are also more likely to trip-chain, or tie together small trips into a larger journey plan. In many cases, this can restrict or even prevent the use of public transportation: These complex, network-related trips often occur during off-peak hours, in areas that might not be easily reached by rail or bus routes designed for commuters.” Feelings of safety are also a factor, with studies from LA’s Metro system showing that 60% of women feel safe during the day on transit but that number drops by 2/3 at night.

Since September I have completed more than 95% of my commute trips via public transportation. I live in a mid-size metro area in the Midwest that doesn’t have a robust history of excellent public transportation – at least over the past 60 years. But in September 2019 we opened the first all-electric Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in the country with the opening of the Red Line (Blue and Purple will be operational in coming years). The Red Line is a 13 mile BRT route with platform stations spaced .25 to .5 miles apart, dedicated lanes over a portion of the route, and frequent (10-min goal) service between buses.

The first weekday the Red Line opened was the beginning of my great experiment with bus commuting. I ride transit (often trains) in cities I visit, and I have done that since high school, but I had only ridden the local bus once. Part of the reason is that the nearest stop to me is 1.5 miles away and there’s no pedestrian infrastructure to get there safely. While the Red Line doesn’t have official park and ride facilities, there’s plenty of parking available at the north end of the route, and I can conveniently park and ride.

In my experience the difference in travel time between driving and taking the BRT (or biking for that matter) is about 10 minutes and depending on traffic can be even. The BRT buses have wifi and USB phone charging and it is possible to get work done, listen to music or podcasts, or read while commuting. The downtown transit center is across the street from my office tower, so closer than the parking garage I used to use. Not everything is perfect about riding the bus, but not everything is perfect about driving either. The biggest difference is that you feel like you control things (even if you don’t) when you are driving.

I don’t have child care responsibilities and we don’t have family in town that I am responsible for caring for. My husband and I both work, though I am the only one with the suburb-downtown commute, his is suburb-suburb. However, I trip-chain like a rock star – in part to limit wasted travel time to support my Ironman training habit. What I have found is that when I need to be off-site for work or go to a gym that is not downtown it is really tough to make my trip-chaining work due to long travel times and infrequent service. While the BRT feels safe at all times I have ridden it, I have been sexually harassed on the bus – during evening rush hour. The local bus service sometimes “feels” less safe, but I haven’t had any negative experiences. I have started using local bus routes as my confidence in riding the bus has increased.

Here are some of the things I have experienced or witnessed that affect women differently than men in bus commuting:

  • Many women are not tall enough to stand and require a seat even if they would be willing to stand because the handles are too high.
  • When buses don’t pull close enough to the platform it is difficult for small children, people who use canes/wheelchairs/walkers, strollers, and shorter people to clear the gap between the platform and the bus.
  • On local routes many stops don’t have sidewalks to get to them and are just a sign in the grass along the street, where it can be uncomfortable or impossible (for some people) to access the stop.
  • The drivers, under their union contract, have a great deal of control over the rules of riding their bus. Some require toddlers to be removed from strollers and the stroller to be folded up even if the passenger is traveling one stop.
  • (Not a gender issue – but equity) The drivers don’t speak other languages and can’t communicate fare policies to people who don’t comprehend English. Since BRT is new to our community and the fare policies are different than on local routes it can be confusing for people who don’t know.
  • Service times are not consistent on all routes and trip-chaining can be difficult when you are using a new route. I got stranded out at a gym once because I missed the last bus by a few minutes. Service on that route ends at 7:15 PM.

The reason we should care is not just human decency. Khanna writes, “by failing to provide women with reliable, convenient, safe, and affordable transportation, cities reduce the economic opportunities of women and negatively impacts their quality of life.” Public transportation options provide many people (including those who can’t drive or can’t afford car ownership) the opportunity to be financially independent and resilient. They are able to contribute to the economy and society at large when given the opportunity to move around their communities safely, reliably, and efficiently. Public transportation provides additional benefits above single-occupancy vehicle use in terms of reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT), air pollution from transportation, and congestion/vehicle hours of delay.

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