Can Snow-Clearing be Sexist?
It all started with a joke. It was 2011 and officials in the town of Karlskoga, in Sweden, were being hit with a gender-equality initiative that meant they had to re-evaluate all their policies through a gendered lens. As one after another of their policies were subjected to this harsh glare, one unfortunate official laughed that at least snow-clearing was something the 'gender people' would keep their noses out of. Unfortunately for him, his comment got the gender people thinking: is snow-clearing sexist?
At the time, in line with most administrations, snow-clearing in Karlskoga began with the major traffic arteries, and ended with pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths. But this was affecting men and women differently because men and women travel differently.
We lack consistent, sex-disaggregated data from every country, but the data we do have makes it clear that women are invariably more likely than men to walk and take public transport. In France, two-thirds of public transport passengers are women; in Philadelphia and Chicago in the US, the figure is 64% and 62% respectively. Meanwhile, men around the world are more likely to drive and if a household owns a car, it is the men who dominate access to it – even in the feminist utopia that is Sweden.
And the differences don't stop at the mode of transport: it's also about why men and women are travelling. Men are most likely to have a fairly simple travel pattern: a twice-daily commute in and out of town. But women's travel patterns tend to be more complicated. Women do 75% of the world's unpaid care work and this affects their travel needs. A typical female travel pattern involves, for example, dropping children off at school before going to work; taking an elderly relative to the doctor and doing the grocery shopping on the way home. This is called 'trip-chaining', a travel pattern of several small interconnected trips that has been observed in women around the world.
In London women are three times more likely than men to take a child to school and 25% more likely to trip-chain; this figure rises to 39% if there is a child older than nine in the household. The disparity in male/female trip-chaining is found across Europe, where women in dual-worker families are twice as likely as men to pick up and drop off children at school during their commute. It is most pronounced in households with young children: a working woman with a child under the age of five will increase her trip-chaining by 54%; a working man in the same position will only increase his by 19%.
What all these differences meant back in Karlskoga was that the apparently gender-neutral snow-clearing schedule was in fact not gender neutral at all, so the town councillors switched the order of snow-clearing to prioritise pedestrians and public-transport users. After all, they reasoned, it wouldn't cost any more money, and driving a car through three inches of snow is easier than pushing a buggy (or a wheelchair, or a bike) through three inches of snow.
What they didn't realise was that it would actually end up saving them money. Since 1985, northern Sweden has been collecting data on hospital admissions for injuries. Their databases are dominated by pedestrians, who are injured three times more often than motorists in slippery or icy conditions and account for half the hospital time of all traffic-related injuries. And the majority of these pedestrians are women. A study of pedestrian injuries in the Swedish city area of Umeå found that 79% occurred during the winter months, and that women made up 69% of those who had been injured in single-person incidents (that is, those which didn't involve anyone else). Two-thirds of injured pedestrians had slipped and fallen on icy or snowy surfaces, and 48% had moderate to serious injuries, with fractures and dislocations being the most common. Women's injuries also tended to be more severe.
A five-year study in Skane County uncovered the same trends – and found that the injuries cost money in healthcare and lost productivity. The estimated cost of all these pedestrian falls during just a single winter season was 36 million Kronor (around £3.2 million). (This is likely to be a conservative estimate: many injured pedestrians will visit hospitals that are not contributing to the national traffic accident register; some will visit doctors; and some will simply stay at home. As a result, both the healthcare and productivity costs are likely to be higher.)
But even with this conservative estimate, the cost of pedestrian accidents in icy conditions was about twice the cost of winter road maintenance. In Solna, near Stockholm, it was three times the cost, and some studies reveal it's even higher. Whatever the exact disparity, it is clear that preventing injuries by prioritising pedestrians in the snow-clearing schedule makes economic sense.
A brief snow-clearing coda comes from the alt-right blogosphere, which reacted with glee when Stockholm failed to execute a smooth transfer to gender-equal snow-clearing in 2016: an unusually high snowfall that year left roads and pavements covered in snow and commuters unable to get to work. But in their rush to celebrate the foundering of a feminist policy what these right-wing commentators failed to note was that this system had already been working successfully in Karlskoga for three years.
They also, in any case, reported the issue inaccurately. Heat St claimed that the policy was a failure in part because 'injuries requiring a hospital visit reportedly spiked' – neglecting to note that it was pedestrian injuries that had 'spiked', illustrating that the problem was not that pedestrians had been prioritised, but that snow-clearing as a whole had not been conducted effectively. Motorists may not have been travelling well, but neither was anyone else.
The following winter was much more successful: when I spoke to Daniel Hellden, a local councillor in Stockholm's traffic department, he told me that on the 200 km of joint cycle and pedestrian lanes that are now being cleared with special machines ('which make them as clean as in the summer') accidents have gone down by half. 'So it's a really good effect.'
The original snow-clearing schedule in Karlskoga hadn't been deliberately designed to benefit men at the expense of women. Like many of the examples in this book, it came about as a result of a gender data gap – in this instance, a gap in perspective. The men (and it would have been men) who originally devised the schedule knew how they travelled and they designed around their needs. They didn't deliberately set out to exclude women. They just didn't think about them. They didn't think to consider if women's needs might be different. The data gap was a result of not involving women in planning.
Inés Sánchez de Madariaga, an urban-planning professor at Madrid's Technical University, tells me that this is a problem in transport planning more generally. Transport as a profession is 'highly male-dominated', she explains. In Spain, 'the Ministry of Transportation has the fewest women of all the ministries both in political and technical positions. And so they have a bias from their personal experience.'
On the whole, engineers focus mostly on 'mobility related to employment'. Fixed labour times create peak travel hours, and planners need to know the maximum capacity that infrastructure can support. 'So there's a technical reason for planning for peak hours,' Sanchez de Madariaga acknowledges. But needing to plan for peak hours doesn't explain why female travel (which doesn't tend to fit into peak hours, and therefore 'doesn't affect the maximum capacity of systems') gets ignored.
The available research makes bias towards typically male modes of travel clear. The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women found 'a male bias' in transport planning and a failure to address gender 'in system configuration'. A 2014 EU report on Europeans' satisfaction with urban transport describes male travel patterns as 'standard' even as it decries the failure of European public transport systems to adequately serve women. More galling are common planning terms such as 'compulsory mobility', which Sánchez de Madariaga explains is a commonly used umbrella concept for 'all trips made for employment and educational purposes'. As if care trips are not compulsory, but merely expendable 'me time' for dilettantes.
The bias is also clear in government spending priorities. Stephen Bush, the New Statesman's political correspondent, pointed out in a July 2017 article that although the Conservative government has consistently spouted austerity rhetoric, the last two Tory chancellors have made an exception for road-building, on which both have spent lavishly. With living standards falling and Britain already having a fairly serviceable road infrastructure there is a whole host of areas that seem a potentially wiser investment, but somehow, both times, for both men, roads have seemed the obvious choice. Meanwhile, by 2014, 70% of councils had cut bus funding (the most feminised form of transport), with a £19 million cut in 2013 alone, and bus prices had been rising every year.
British politicians are not alone here. A 2007 World Bank report revealed that 73% of World Bank transport funding is for roads and highways, most of them rural or linking up cities. Even where roads are the right investment choice, where the proposed road leads is not a gender-neutral decision. In an illustration of how important it is that development projects are based on sex-disaggregated data, another World Bank report recounted the disagreement over a proposed road in one village in Lesotho. Women wanted the road to be constructed in one direction to 'facilitate their access to the nearest village with basic services'; men wanted it built in the opposite direction 'to enable them to reach the larger town and market more easily on horseback'.
The gender gap in travel data continues with the intentional omission in many transport surveys of shorter pedestrian and other 'non-motorised' trips. These trips, says Sanchez de Madariaga, are 'not considered to be relevant for infrastructure policymaking'. Given women generally walk further and for longer than men (in part because of their care-giving responsibilities; in part because women tend to be poorer), this marginalisation of non-motorised travel inevitably affects them more. Ignoring shorter walking trips also adds to the gap in trip-chaining data, as this kind of travel usually involves at least one journey on foot. In short, the assumption that shorter walking trips are irrelevant to infrastructure policy is little short of an assumption that women are irrelevant to infrastructure policy.
But they aren't. Men tend to travel on their own, but women travel encumbered – by shopping, by buggies, by children or elderly relatives they are caring for. A 2015 survey on travel in London found that women are 'significantly less likely than men to be satisfied with the streets and pavements after their last journey by foot', perhaps reflecting the reality that not only are women more likely to walk than men but also that women are more likely to be pushing prams and therefore be more affected by inadequate walkways. Rough, narrow and cracked pavements littered with ill-placed street furniture combine with narrow and steep steps at numerous transit locations to make travelling around a city with a buggy 'extremely difficult', says Sanchez de Madariaga, who estimates that it can take up to four times as long. 'So what do young women with small kids do?'
Valuing cars over pedestrians is not inevitable. In Vienna 60% of all journeys are made on foot, in no small part because the city takes gender planning seriously. Since the 1990s Vienna's head of gender planning, Eva Kail, has been collecting data on pedestrian travel and has installed the following improvements: improved and signed crossing locations (plus forty additional crossings); retrofitted steps with ramps for prams and bikes; widened 1,000 metres of pavement; and increased pedestrian street lighting.
The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Callou, has shown similar determination to give her city back to pedestrians, creating what are called superilles or 'superblocks' – squared-off sections of the city with low speed limits open only to local traffic, with roads where pedestrians have equal priority with cars. Another example of easy changes that can be implemented to accommodate female travel patterns comes via London, where in 2016 the 'hopper fare' was introduced to the bus network. Previously, every time a user boarded a bus they were charged for a new journey, but under the new system users can now make two trips in one hour for the price of one. This change is particularly helpful for women because they were disproportionately penalised by the old charging system. This is not only because of women being more likely to trip-chain, but also because women make up the majority (57%) of London's bus users (partly because it's cheaper, partly because the bus is perceived as more child-friendly), and are more likely to have to transfer (which under the old system counted as a new trip).
The reason women are more likely to have to transfer is because, like most cities around the world, London's public transport system is radial. What this means is that a single 'downtown' area has been identified and the majority of routes lead there. There will be some circular routes, concentrated in the centre. The whole thing looks rather like a spider's web, and it is incredibly useful for commuters, who just want to get in and out of the centre of town. It is, however, less useful for everything else. And this useful/not so useful binary falls rather neatly onto the male/female binary.
But while solutions like London's hopper fare are an improvement, they are by no means standard practice worldwide. In the US, while some cities have abandoned charging for transfers (LA stopped doing this in 2014), others are sticking with it. Chicago for example, still charges for public transport connections. These charges seem particularly egregious in light of a 2016 study which revealed quite how much Chicago's transport system is biased against typical female travel patterns. The study, which compared Uberpool (the car-sharing version of the popular taxi app) with public transport in Chicago, revealed that for trips downtown, the difference in time between Uberpool and public transport was negligible – around six minutes on average. But for trips between neighbourhoods, i.e. the type of travel women are likely to be making for informal work or care-giving responsibilities, Uberpool took twenty-eight minutes to make a trip that took forty-seven minutes on public transport.
Given women's time poverty (women's paid and unpaid work combines into a longer working day than men's), Uberpool might seem attractive. Except it costs around three times more than public transport and women are also cash poor compared to men: around the world women have less access to household finances than men, while the global gender pay gap currently stands at 37.8% (it varies hugely from country to country, being 18.1% in the UK; 23% in Australia; and 59.6% in Angola).
There is, of course, an issue of resources here, but the problem is, to a certain extent, one of attitude and priorities. Although Mckinsey estimates that women's unpaid care work contributes $10 trillion to annual global GDP, trips made for paid work are still valued more than trips made for unpaid care work. But when I ask Sanchez de Madariaga if, in a city like London or Madrid, there is an economic argument for providing transport that caters for women's care responsibilities she replied immediately. 'Absolutely. Women's employment is a really important input to GDP. For every percentage increase in women's employment there is a greater increase in GDP. But for women to work, the city has to support this work.' And one of the key ways to do this is to design transport systems that enable women to do their unpaid work and still get to the office on time.