Public transit services in Canadian cities not meeting many women’s travel needs: report

Gender-based data needed to help make services more equitable, say authors.


U of A assistant professor Emily Grisé’s expertise in transit planning was key to a first-in-Canada report examining how women use public transit. (Photo: John Ulan)

The first report of its kind in Canada to examine how women use public transit suggests their travel needs aren’t always being met by standard planning and service models.

“In a lot of transit agencies, women are the majority of riders,” explained Priyanka Babbar, a master’s student in the University of Alberta’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

The report involved reviews of academic literature as well as policy materials from 18 public transit systems in Canada’s largest metropolitan areas.

A major issue the authors identified was a lack of gender-specific data to inform policy and planning. “When data doesn’t consider women specifically, we tend to have white men as the default in a lot of our systems,” said Babbar, who served as research assistant on the project to lead author Emily Grisé, assistant professor in the Faculty of Science and consultant with the Edmonton Transit Service.

A grant from Infrastructure Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council sparked a collaboration between Grisé, Leading Mobility and Polytechnique Montréal.

David Cooper, a principal at Leading Mobility who was responsible for compiling Canada’s COVID-19 National Transit Recovery Strategy, said the existing gender-neutral approach to transit planning means decisions about transit services are often made in ways that can disproportionately affect women because the situation is considered heavily from a budgetary and ridership perspective.

“[The gender-neutral approach] looked at ridership as a whole — everyone was one group, which is a very numeric way of looking at things,” said Cooper.

The report showed that women had distinct patterns of behaviour on transit: off-peak and midday travel, short stops on trips to and from work, short-distance trips and a higher frequency of trips. This wasn’t served effectively by the standard transit services and planning.

“If we don’t provide a service that meets your needs, we hinder your ability to live day-to-day life,” said Cooper. “If you don’t have a functioning transit service for those who need it, there are so many knock-on effects down the road.”

Edmonton moving in the right direction

According to Cooper, Edmonton is already taking a step in the right direction to meet the needs for off-peak travel, a higher frequency of trips and more localized trips thanks to the recently redesigned bus network, which provides a higher level of service throughout the day.

“When you start doing things like that, you improve transit for women, but you also improve transit for everyone else,” he said, adding that ETS was the only one of the 18 agencies reviewed that conducts gender-based analysis in its city council reporting on transit planning. “Edmonton is ahead of the pack on this one.”

Babbar said it’s important to seek out data and information on women’s specific travel behaviour.

“If we can pinpoint where, when and how a majority of users, women, are travelling, then we can help a majority of users.”

She noted that collecting more gender-specific data could involve something as simple as riders filling in their gender when they register for electronic fare payment services like Edmonton’s Arc card.

“Then, every time we scan, we know what times of the day women are travelling, how long their routes are, to which destinations they’re most likely to travel — so just a simple user setup could provide lots of data.”

There’s also a clear precedent within the transit sphere for how to translate data and knowledge from academic research into meaningful policy and practice changes, Babbar said.

“A lot of literature focused on women’s safety and security on transit and on harassment,” she said. “From that research, we’ve seen transit agencies have more security guards, more lighting, helplines to call, so that research-to-practice path is there. We can now use it for other aspects of travel, too.

“We are in a great place of opportunity,” she added. “Gender conversations are starting to happen more and more, so if we keep this fire underneath us and keep these conversations going, a lot of progress can be made really quickly.”