If you need another reason to be annoyed while stuck in traffic or squashed onto a crowded rush hour bus, consider this: the 9-5 work cycle with its crushing commutes is also connected to gender inequalities in the city. Although nobody likes rush hour, the way our cities have been organized around this work schedule is markedly less convenient for women. Transit networks and roadways have been designed with the lives, bodies, and needs of a “standard” male commuter at their center. Despite decades of research illustrating gender differences in commuting patterns, little has been done to address gender inequality in urban transportation.
My father fit the figure of the standard commuter perfectly. A business executive with a wife and two kids in the suburbs, he had access to a private vehicle and travelled into Toronto’s central business district from Monday to Friday. On days when the mind-numbing stop-and-go traffic and sun-in-your-eyes-both-ways journey on some of North America’s most congested roads seemed unappealing, he hopped onto a comfortable commuter train. Mornings and evenings, the train ran every ten or fifteen minutes and deposited him right downtown at the mouth of an underground pedestrian concourse connected to most of the financial center’s office towers.
I don’t think Dad enjoyed his commute, but the network of roads and rails that got him where he needed to be was created with his day in mind. In post-war North America, suburban residential construction boomed and freeways connected far-flung bedroom communities to offices and factories in the city. Getting men back to work and women back to the home was a policy priority, one that could be achieved by separating the worlds of work and home and defining white, middle-class gender roles by their distinct place in each.
While the breadwinning husband and father was at the heart of urban transport planning, women’s travel needs were rarely considered at all. It did not take long before the isolation of the suburbs produced the housewife’s malaise that Betty Friedan labeled “the problem with no name” in 1963. Although transportation policy had no public response to this issue, car makers did and the idea of the “two Ford family” was born. In an advertisement from 1956, a suburban homemaker tells viewers she was “practically a prisoner in her own home” until husband Dave bought himself a new Ford, freeing her up to drive his older model for shopping and social engagements.
Perhaps more critical, though, than the housewife’s inability to socialize, was the fact that many women were already in the paid workforce, especially working class and Black women, and their mobility needs were simply not on the agenda. My own mother did not have a driver’s license until she was almost 40, making it all but impossible for her to work outside the home while we lived in the suburbs. It is fair to say that women’s urban mobility has remained at best an afterthought even though women’s participation in paid work has generally increased over time.
Critical gender differences in urban mobility have been observed for decades. Women’s journeys are less linear than men’s and often involve multiple stops on the way to and from work. These might be to drop children at school and day care, check on elderly parents, or to run household errands. Women need access not only to the central city but to residential neighborhoods, school zones, and suburban employment areas like malls and call centers. Their journeys also involve more pedestrian trips and they are more likely to use public transit. Women take more trips per day and these often occur outside of peak travel times. Women have less access to a private vehicle and are less likely to have a driver’s license than men. They are more likely to travel with children and struggle to access buses and subways safely. Women also report regular incidents of sexual harassment and even assault on public vehicles.
Remarkably, these differences have persisted over time, and women all over the world report similar challenges with respect to urban mobility. The central factor contributing to these gender inequities is the still-disproportionate responsibility that women bear for caregiving work, inside and outside the home. Caregiving responsibilities are rarely considered in urban and regional planning. Care work is not considered an “economic” activity and economic activities tend to take precedence over all other priorities. Care work does not fit neatly into a 9-5 schedule, either. School days operate on different timelines as well, adding yet another layer of complexity.
The impacts on women are significant. There is, for example, a transportation “pink tax” that women pay. A pink tax describes a good or service for which women typically pay more than men. Because women take more transit trips per day, travel at off-peak times, pay for children, and sometimes need to use taxis or ride-hailing services due to safety concerns or lack of reliable transportation to the areas they need to travel to, their monthly transportation costs are higher, on average, than men’s.
Over three quarters of the 76 million domestic workers worldwide are women. Because their workplace is other peoples’ homes, these workers are not typically traveling to the financial district or other commercial areas. Their journeys are between residential neighborhoods, but transportation systems are geared to bring people into the central city. Research in Latin America, where one in every four female wage earners is a domestic worker, found that their travel times were significantly longer than those of other women commuters because they often had to travel into the city and out again to their final residential destinations.
The extra burdens of time and cost that women face are compounded by myriad inconveniences, including inaccessible subway stations and buses, low-frequency and unreliable service to suburban areas, the lack of restrooms on public transit, and sidewalks clogged by barriers such as snow, outdoor dining, and garbage bins. Add harassment and groping to this mix and it is a wonder women leave the house at all.
If the 9-5 workday and the transportation networks designed to support it are functioning so poorly for so many, what actions can cities take to improve the situation? Implementing gender equity goals for public transit systems is one intervention. Cities around the world are trying out ideas such as creating more space for strollers on buses, family-fare passes, on-demand transit, and increased off-peak service. In São Paolo, new metro lines between low- and high-income residential neighborhoods reduced commuting times for domestic workers significantly. Stockholm has prioritized clearing snow from school zones, public transportation routes, and bike lanes ahead of major roads in order to acknowledge the importance of caregiver journeys and to encourage everyone to use mass or active transport.
Cycling advocates recognize that there is a gender gap in bicycle use in most countries, and that issues such as safety, harassment, and the ability to travel with children are still barriers. Thus, initiatives to increase cycling have to employ an equity perspective in order to address this imbalance. Boosters of the 15-minute city concept, such as the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, propose that all residents should have access to home, work, school, green space, and daily needs within a fifteen-minute radius by foot or bike. Feminist urbanists have long-advocated for mixed-use urban environments with close, efficient connectivity between the spaces of both care work and paid work. Paris’ plan includes “caring” as one of the six functions each neighborhood should fulfill.
In combination with these practices, changes to work norms can also make a difference. Hybrid work, which looks as if it is here to stay during and after the pandemic, can support those with caregiving responsibilities by offering the ability to work from home some of the time. Flexible work hours, four-day work weeks, paid parental leave, and leaves for those providing elder care and sick care are other ways that employers can affirm the value of care work and safeguard their employees from the difficult decision to either give up work or look after others.
Breaking up the tyranny of the 9-5 work day goes beyond changes to working hours. It means cities designing systems to support people’s varied needs for mobility. It means employers taking gender equity into account when planning their work days and work environments. It means recognizing that “work” and “life” are not in competition with one another, but that what happens in one space is essential to the other. Economic and social recovery post-pandemic requires bringing hundreds of thousands of women back into the paid workforce. Acknowledging the ways that the 9-5 city has failed women (and not been very much fun for men, either) is the first step toward making significant change. We now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create different times, spaces, and modes of work. Let’s seize it.