The first conference focusing on women’s issues in transportation was held in 1978, a Department of Transportation-sponsored research gathering that drew criticism before it even began. After initial conference announcements were circulated, DOT was considered for the “golden fleece” award, a dubious distinction handed out by Senator William Proxmire to public agencies seen as wasteful spenders. Later, Newsweek’s George Will penned a column decrying the conference, concluding that “if every government department feels entitled or obligated to shape policies to redress whatever ‘inequities’ it discerns, then government is becoming frantic.” Organizers received hate mail and other forms of pushback, according to Sandra Rosenbloom, who served on the steering committee for the event.
It took another 18 years, but a second conference commenced in the mid-’90s, when social attitudes proved more welcoming to the idea that the event was necessary. More conferences followed, and last year, at the sixth iteration — the 2019 International Conference on Women’s Issues in Transportation, or WIiT — close to 245 people attended. This number was more than double the size of previous gatherings, said Rosenbloom, who has stayed on the steering committee to this day.
“It’s 180 degrees,” she said, “but it took most of the 40 years for that to happen. It didn’t happen overnight.”
Rosenbloom, who works as a professor of community and regional planning at the University of Texas at Austin, said she believes the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault is a new factor that contributed to recent interest amid increased conversations about the effect of these issues on society at large.
“I raised money for all [the conferences] and it wasn’t easy until this one,” she said.
For Rosenbloom and other professionals running the conference, the event is not only a celebration of progress made since the ’70s but also a reminder of work that still needs to be done. Several ongoing needs were repeatedly highlighted by transportation professionals and academics the Bay Area Monitor interviewed.
They’d like to see more planning and policy that recognizes women’s different travel patterns, commute demands, and personal safety concerns when using public transit. It’s also important to advance education and female leadership opportunities in the transportation field. And in many ways, all of these needs are linked.
“Transportation fields have not traditionally had a lot of women in them and decisionmakers have been denied a very useful perspective,” Rosenbloom said.
While the field remains male-heavy, women are moving up in the ranks. They made up 14.6 percent of the transportation workforce as of 2017, according to research from the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI). The Bay Area chapter of Women’s Transportation Seminar, a group focused on bringing more women into the field, has seen a greater number of female employees holding managerial positions, based on its most recent survey. Also important are concurrent degree programs from schools such as UC Berkeley that provide access to students wishing to earn concurrent degrees in transportation engineering and city planning.
“Women are interested in things that are technical,” said Carmen Clark, a former Bay Area transportation executive. “We don’t buy the stereotype anymore.”
Shaping Policy and Perceptions
History offers a guide to perceptions about female travel. Looking back 100 years ago, a woman’s ability to ride a bike or independently drive a car was viewed as a tool for emancipation and promotion. In fact, journalist Emily Post ignored male dissuasions and in 1915 followed through on her plan to drive across the country from New York to San Francisco to determine whether it was possible to do so comfortably. She wrote about the experience in the book By Motor to the Golden Gate.
Women also were breaking stereotypes in the 1920s by participating in auto racing or piloting planes, said Dr. Martin Wachs, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering and of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.
“Transportation has always been a venue, a setting for upward mobility and women were among those who noticed it,” he said.
Concern for urban space also contributed to political activism, with women like Sue Bierman, a former San Francisco supervisor, leading efforts in the 1950s and ’60s to stop freeway expansion into the Golden Gate Park panhandle.
Interviewees also mentioned several transportation field “firsts” in which women broke barriers at the state and local level. Adriana Gianturco was director of Caltrans from 1976 to 1983 and the first woman to serve in that role, encouraging the state to focus on mass transit. Sharon Banks was the first African-American and the first woman to lead AC Transit as general manager during the ’90s.
Banks “was the model transit executive,” Wachs said. “She knew the drivers by first name, worried about the riders, as well as making sure the buses were clean and on time. She humanized the offering of transit service in a large part of the Bay Area.”
Banks died in 1999 after suffering two strokes during her tenure. Her husband later sued AC Transit in federal court for racial and gender discrimination against her, according to a 2008 East Bay Express article.
Women have played an important role in how we travel by leading, shaping, and influencing policy. Paying attention to transportation issues faced by women continues to be the challenge before today’s policymakers.
Most transportation research about women — regardless of whether they work full-time — generally examines their travel as it relates to linked or chained trips between home, daycare, work, and other essential stops to fulfill household or caregiving responsibilities. (Certainly, despite what researchers usually focus on, gender roles cannot be so easily pinned down.)
The flexibility necessary to complete multiple trips often means women (and men) opt for cars instead of riding a bike or using public transit. Yet it all runs counter to policy goals aimed at reducing traffic congestion and car-produced emissions.
But household responsibilities, in part, explain why some women tend to bike less than men, a preference that can surface when they’re teenagers, said Susan Handy, director of the Sustainable Transportation Center at UC Davis. That’s because some women don’t feel safe riding in traffic or just simply don’t like biking, which is “unfortunate” because there are many health and environmental benefits, Handy said.
“But it’s not as simple as giving them an electric-assist cargo bike because the attitudinal part starts earlier in terms of women not seeking biking as something they want to do.”
The decision to hop on transit is also driven by convenience factors. Even as women’s participation in the labor force grows — they accounted for one-third of the total labor force in 1950 compared to 46.8 percent in 2015 — transportation data collection methods and subsequent modeling often fail to capture their linked-trip behavior.
When transit services set schedules around commuters, they do so to the detriment of women and caregivers shopping or taking elderly relatives to appointments during off-peak hours, said Asha Weinstein Agrawal, MTI’s director of education and a WIiT 2019 steering committee co-chair.
When operators are “not paying more attention to non-commute travel needs it impacts women far more than men,” Agrawal said.
Policies to Protect
Also impeding the use of transit are worries about personal security when it comes to riding public transit or waiting at stops, particularly at night. While these are not necessarily new concerns, they’re now occurring in the context of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Los Angeles Metro released a report last fall that found women generally felt less safe on public transit compared to men. About one-quarter of women bus riders and one-third of women rail riders reported they experienced sexual harassment, based on a 2018 spring survey.
Separately, a study published in the Journal of Transport & Health in June explained that crowd reduction, bystander intervention, and women-only carriages are among the potential approaches to make public transit safer for people of all genders. The study was based on surveys and interviews with transit users on transit systems in Colombia and Bolivia, serving as a reminder about the risks at hand.
“One thing I think we often miss, including sometimes as researchers, is that both isolated and crowded environments pose risks for women,” said Gwen Kash, author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We need policies to protect women at isolated bus stops at midnight and crowded subway cars at 5 p.m.”
BART took a step in this direction recently. It’s starting an “ambassador program,” a six-month pilot in which teams of BART police employees will ride evening commute trains to help deter crime and inappropriate behavior.
Moving Their Way Up
It’s important to note that personal safety considerations can affect all genders. Not only is there more research that explores these viewpoints, but there also are more women sitting at transportation management tables to consider them.
In the Bay Area, there are many examples of women holding key management positions, including Therese McMillan, a WIiT 2019 steering committee co-chair who became executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission last year. There’s also Kate Miller, executive director of the Napa Valley Transportation Authority since 2012, and Tess Lengyel, who was promoted to executive director of the Alameda County Transportation Commission last fall.
“Once in the position, I think it’s a matter of opinion as to whether it makes a difference in terms of policy orientation,” said Grace Crunican, who retired as BART’s general manager last year and co-authored the 2015 book Boots on the Ground, Flats in the Boardroom.
“Just like men, all women aren’t alike. Some are more inclined to worry about people, or the bottom line of money, or safety. Where women stand on those issues does differ.”
Above all, Crunican emphasized the ongoing need to prioritize opportunities that help women advance in the field. For her part, she helped launch the BART Leadership Academy a few years ago aimed at preparing mid-level managers for future leadership positions at transit providers.
“We need to systematically make sure women are moving their way up,” she said.
Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.