Myth: Women’s needs are too flexible and diverse for public transport

Fact: ‘Flexible and diverse’ needs can be at least partly served by public transport, and the world’s best public transport systems do this well, so that both men and women use it often no matter what their purpose.

Why is the practice of good motherhood in contemporary Australia so tied to high levels of car usage?

—Professor Lesley Head, University of Wollongong, 2008

In recent times many minds have been occupied with something called the ‘feminist car’. It began with academic dissertations about how liberated women in a postmodern society lead lifestyles that are so ‘flexible’, ‘diverse’ and ‘transgressive’ that only the motor car could fill the resulting transport needs. It has since spread to become a theme in car advertising and a topic of media speculation: commentators point to the number of women who attend the Grand Prix and wonder whether women might even be starting to outnumber men as car enthusiasts.

This last is almost certainly a male fantasy. Car culture is still unmistakably blokey and testosterone-driven. Census data, meanwhile, show that male workers are still much more likely to go to work by car, and less likely to go by public transport, than female workers. (Men also outnumber women in the Victorian road toll by more than three to one.)

When people talk about what women’s ‘flexible and diverse’ travel patterns mean in reality, they generally refer to the kind of local trips frequently made by women in cars: doing the shopping, taking the kids to school and other activities, going to appointments, having coffee and suchlike. Such needs can be more difficult to meet using public transport than traditional central-city commuting, but many of them are the sort of short trips that are the ideal ones to shift away from car use, and ones that many women would prefer not to have to make at all.

As transport researchers K.H. Schaeffer and Elliot Sclar recognised as early as the 1970s, the high level of car use by women for local trips is not exactly the sign of liberation many take it to be:

With the modern technological revolution in the kitchen and in transportation,
the modern mother has been freed from the stove to be chained to the wheel.

—Schaeffer and Sclar, Access for All, 1975

Improved and well used public transport would mean that fewer children would have to be driven to school or other activities, and parents would feel better about letting their children use public transport. Paradoxically, one of the common reasons cited for parents driving their children to and from school is the amount of traffic around schools at drop off and pick up time: a self fulfilling reason if ever there was one. Of course while children have to be driven, or at least their parents feel they do, it is women who more often than not become the chauffeurs. Such ‘Mum’s Taxi’ trips are not just a hassle, they are also particularly wasteful.

It may be difficult to carry a week’s shopping for a family of four home on the tram, but that doesn’t mean shopping must be done by car. In some ways the argument about shopping is self defeating. If people only shop once a week, it doesn’t matter so much if they have to drive, and we do not argue that such trips should be done by public transport. On the other hand, if people shop every couple of days, it is not difficult to carry the shopping home in a shopping jeep, or even by hand, especially if a car is used once a week or so for heavy or bulky items. Some people take advantage of the delivery services that most supermarkets still offer. If those who can, choose not to do the shopping by car, it also frees up road and parking spaces for those who have no option, and everyone benefits.

As for going to appointments, coffee and the like, such things are usually in locations that are, or should be, well served by public transport. If the services are frequent and reliable, it makes things easier than driving: no need to worry about parking the car, feeding the meter, or worrying that you will be held up and get a ticket, or even going back to where you started: just jump on the tram or bus back home wherever on the route you are.

Sure enough, the latest work by the Households Research Unit at the University of Melbourne bears this out. While women’s car use has increased to catch up with men’s in recent decades, so has their public transport use – and at a faster rate! In both cases, the increase in women’s travel is driven by greater participation in the wider society: for paid work and, more particularly, for leisure travel.

The bottom line is that in cities with high-quality public transport, women as well as men avail themselves of it in significant numbers, for all kinds of purposes. These cities do not believe public transport is only for peak-hour central-city commuters, who more often than not tend to be men; they operate public transport as the kind of go-anywhere-anytime network that gives people a real choice to use a car or not, no matter how ‘diverse’ their needs.

Last modified: 17 December 2010