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Heather Allen is an independent consultant and expert in gender, urban transport and sustainable development with more than 20 years of international experience. She has worked at UITP, the International Association of Public Transport and with the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory’s Sustainable Transport Group. Heather tells us more about her work and how important it is to better integrate the mobility needs of women into transport and how this presents an opportunity to address the global climate crisis.
Dear Heather, you are currently an independent consultant in transport, gender and sustainable development. Could you tell us a few words about your background and the reasons why you specialized in these specific issues?
While I was at UITP, I led an internal initiative called the Sustainable Development Charter which gave UITP members an opportunity to make a commitment to integrating sustainable development into their businesses and service offers. I was able to observe that the tools and understanding about the economic and environmental aspects of sustainability were better than for the social aspects. In addition, I was often in contact with the senior management of all types of transport authorities and providers from the public and private sector and it was pretty obvious that the sector was very male dominated.
Women and men have different travel behaviors, what are the main reasons for these differences – and do you think this is included in transport planning?
It is well documented that men and women travel differently, especially in urban areas – women tend to make frequent, shorter trips and men travel longer distances and fewer trips. In many cities women make more trips by public transport than men. This was confirmed in my research in Latin America on women’s personal security and public transport, where we found that they represented more than 50% of the ridership in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Quito, Ecuador, and Santiago, Chile. In this study we found two main reasons for this – the first was that women still take on most of the caring duties within a family and secondly their mobility behavior was more heavily influenced by their life stage. So, this meant they may travel in one way before they are married, but this changes when they have children. Overall, they also remained more mobile when they were older.
Additionally, they tend to walk for many trips, especially within the neighborhoods where they live. It is also well known that men tend to have more access to motorized transport, in other words – if there is a motorcycle or car in the family it is usually driven mostly by the man of the family. This also means that women usually travel shorter distances, walk and use public transport more often – therefore we can say that they already tend to use low carbon transport modes more than men!
In my experience, currently there are few cities that collect data on the different behaviours, based on sex and trip purpose, it makes it difficult for cities to consider this when they plan or make transport investments. However, I have noticed that this is slowly changing and we are having more discussions (especially at city level) about the gendered differences of both transport provision and infrastructure which is promising.
The notion of intersectionality can be defined “as the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect”. For example, the combination of poverty, race and gender can lead to stronger discrimination. Is this notion applicable to the transport sector?
Definitely! According to UNWomen, there are an increasingly number of female headed households and women are more likely to be unemployed and constitute a higher percentage of the urban poor. This situation when combined with the high levels of sexual harassment and violence that women encounter when travelling through public space and on public transport, results in women having to face high levels of discrimination and exclusion. This in turn affects their access to education, health and job opportunities – with race and income strongly influencing poverty levels and compounds pay gaps between men and women in both developed and developing countries.
The transport sector amounts to 25% of GES. If women take more often public transport in the coming years, do you think it could make a significant difference for the climate?
I believe that women have a major role to play in addressing climate change. Firstly because as women (and mothers of the future generations), we tend to care deeply about the low levels of environmental commitments from governments that we have seen within the UN process to combat climate change. It is easy to forget that in many regions of the world, and especially in poor and marginalized communities, women are the small-scale farmers responsible for growing the crops that are sold locally and also provide the food for the family. Many are already being directly affected by climate change. We have seen that the Gender constituency at the UNFCCC COP meetings is focused and well organized – and the Gender Action Plan looks to re-route development integrating both feminist and environmental economic principles.
Secondly, emissions from transport as a sector growing, faster it seems than emissions from any other industrialized sector, so it also holds the keys to progress on climate change. We also know that cities are major sources of CO2 emissions – yet as I mentioned women are not necessarily the culprits. But this can change as women become more empowered and they become more financially secure – they will shift to become car drivers. Indeed, we are already seeing this in a number of countries (such as the US and some countries in Europe). At least they tend to drive smaller, higher fuel-efficient cars than men – but we could also work with women more directly so they do not change their current sustainable habits to less sustainable ones. This could also help to influence the younger generation to take public transport and walk more, and to use cars less. Indeed, I firmly believe that investing in behavior change can deliver emission reductions in parallel to the high cost technologies that many governments are heavily investing in.
We have discussed about women as users. Let’s consider women as decision-makers: can we observe a better consideration of gender when decisions-makers at local level are women?
I recently was able to look into how many women are in positions that allow them to influence how transport is planned and developed. Unfortunately, they are few and far between! That said I do see more women being promoted into these senior positions especially in the public sector. Five years ago there were less than 5 female Ministers of Transport within the OECD grouping of countries – now there are more than double and also a few in the developing world. Chile and Ethiopia to name two. Additionally, there are a growing number of female city mayors and a number are very active in furthering the city commitments on climate and emission reduction. This certainly progress!
 Merriam-Webster dictionary, 2017