Sex and the SUV: Men, Women, and Travel Behavior

As Virginia Slims cigarettes famously put it in the late 1960’s, “you’ve come a long way, baby.” Indeed, in many ways the last century has witnessed terrific progress toward gender equality in our society.

Women can now vote and are free to wear pants without provoking a social scandal. At the turn of the 20th century, if you visited a doctor, there was only a five percent chance he would be a she; today, women constitute half (and climbing) of the medical-school population. And for what it’s worth, I now report to the UCLA Urban Planning department’s “chair” instead of its “chairman” and am represented by a Los Angeles city “councilmember” instead of a “councilman.”

In some ways, transportation is no exception to this leveling process. In the early days, the streets were male territory and the art of driving was a male preserve. “Woman driver” jokes were extremely common in my grandparents’ generation and as late as the early 1950’s only about 40 percent of women had a driver’s license (gated).

But despite all our efforts to create a gender-blind society, even in the 21st century sex plays an important role. Indeed, the conclusion of the slogan “you’ve come a long way, baby” ironically demonstrates that women had not come quite as long a way as they might have hoped. Even now, important gender differences persist, and they show up quite clearly in the realm of transportation.

For example, consider the commute to and from work. Using data from the American Housing Survey, UCLA’s Randall Crane found that, as of 2005, male drivers averaged a 14.1 mile commute and women an 11.8 mile one (gated). Males spent 23.5 minutes getting to work while females averaged only 21.1 minutes.

Why the difference? And is it narrowing over time, as we would expect if women are inexorably marching to greater equality?

There are sharp disparities in other areas as well. For example, while there is little difference in the number of trips women and men take on a daily basis, women’s trips are shorter, are undertaken for different reasons, and are arranged in more complex patterns than men’s.

The differences extend to the professional world. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than five percent of “driver/sales workers” and truck drivers are women, and only about 13 percent of cab drivers and chauffeurs are.
What’s more, the “woman driver” stereotype hasn’t quite deserted us entirely; as Tom Vanderbilt reported in his book Traffic, men and woman are more likely to honk at woman drivers than male ones. And, perhaps surprisingly, University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz reports that in 9 of 10 households that identify themselves as “feminist,” the man does most of the driving when both partners are in the car.

Over the next several posts I’ll look at these issues. In what ways do the travel behaviors of men and women differ, and why? Are these differences good for women, or bad? Do they arise from choice or necessity? Are they best explained by gender alone, or do other factors like family structure or age lie at the root of the question? Are the differences between men’s and women’s travel going away any time soon? And what, if anything, should be done about them?

Surprisingly enough, in the past there has been some resistance to the very concept of considering women’s travel separately from men’s. When the first conference devoted specifically to this issue convened in the late 1970’s, George Will wrote a disapproving article denouncing the endeavor.

The topic has found more acceptance in recent years, but as with any consideration of behavior and gender, it is bound to push a few buttons. I’ll do my best to avoid Larry Summersing myself, but in the next few posts I’ll pass on the straight dope on what contemporary scholarship says about these questions. So tune in next time, and read the stuff George Will doesn’t want you to know.

Josh Fisher

I love the verb, "to LarrySummers".


"'Woman driver' jokes were extremely common in my grandparents' generation and as late as the early 1950's."

Umm... I don't know about you, but they're still extremely common today. Maybe they're more tongue-in-cheek/sarcastic these days, but chauvinism is still alive and well in comedy.


In how many out of 10 households that call themselves "feminists" do men do the majority of football watching?

Might not this difference just be a matter of preference and not latent sexism? Is the goal of equality to force everybody to equally prefer all activities?


So women have shorter commutes and and shorter drive times (yes the time per mile is longer, but anyways). It sounds like women are making smarter decisions about where they live than men are. And re. the numbers of long haul truckers, chauffers and cabbies, good, none of those jobs are exactly something to be aspired to. Again it sounds like women are making the smarter decision by being doctors instead of cabbies.


Both sexes are bad drivers, though typically in different ways. Men usually an over-aggressive way and women in a more cautious way. When driving with my girlfriend, whenever we see a bad driver, we like to play a "guess the sex" game. We're right 9/10 time.

Weaving in and out of traffic - Man

Going 10mph under the speed limit - Woman

Tailgating - Man

Leading car in left lane, driving same speed as leading car in right lane - Woman

Running red light - Man

Not moving up to make room for right hand turners at a red light - Woman

It's fun, try it for yourself!


"Woman driver" jokes were extremely common in my grandparents' generation and as late as the early 1950's ....

Uhhhh, dude, you need to get out of the house more.


More women are also becoming sommeliers and taking that hard to pass ' wine expert exam'.

Also, would George Will approve of women who wear the evil fabric that is commonly called denim ? lol.


the disparity in mileage is actually simpler than you suggest: women ask for directions


"Women ~ are free to wear pants without provoking a social scandal."

Unless they're Hilary Clinton and running for president.

"men and woman are more likely to honk at woman drivers than male ones. "

That might mean people are more wary of provoking men than they are of women.

Mary Ellen

I'm a woman in a feminist household whose husband does almost all of the driving. He likes to have the opportunity to bob and weave at will, and I prefer to read, listen to music, and generally focus on other things than traffic. I think that differences in driving time between genders (at least for younger people) result from different preferences and not negative stereotypes about woman drivers. For one thing, hasn't everybody heard that insurance companies charge smaller premiums to women than to men, because men are more likely to get in an accident? In my experience, women are much more likely to look for ways to integrate outings with a walk or bike ride, and men tend to want to just get in the car and go.


One thing to keep in mind when making assumptions about things like households where the men do most of the driving is that -- and this is obviously a gender stereotype, but not a particularly negative or surprising one -- more men actually like driving.

I'm a woman who really likes to drive, particularly on rural undivided highways where I can play catch and pass with the traffic in front of me. But I'm far and away an exception. The women in my peer group aren't afraid to drive, they don't mind driving, but for them, it's something you do to get from point A to point B and back again, not something they like to do. Men are much more likely to smile knowingly when I talk about the zen of accelerating around a logging truck before the next curve.

And while driving to the grocery store isn't usually all that zen, its still driving, and most men like it more than most women. It's not anti-feminist to let the person who prefers a task do it.



A child comes running into the living room, with tears in his eyes, and hops onto his father's lap. "Daddy," says the child, "Mommy ran over my bike." The father, with a knowing look in his eye, lovingly pats the child on the head and says with a stern voice, "How many times have I told you not to leave you bike on the porch?"

I learned this joke as a child less than three decades ago.

Bill Harshaw

Unfortunately we don't, I assume, have statistics on the horse and buggy era. I'd suspect a higher percentage of women drove horses in 1900 than drove cars in 1920?


I think men are more likely to drive when both partners are in the car, even in a self-described "feminist" household, because men are worse back-seat drivers. I know I am.


For example, consider the commute to and from work. Using data from the American Housing Survey, UCLA's Randall Crane found that, as of 2005, male drivers averaged a 14.1 mile commute and women an 11.8 mile one (gated). Males spent 23.5 minutes getting to work while females averaged only 21.1 minutes.

From my own situation, when we moved, we looked only at homes that were within a certain radius of my wife's job... as it turned out we found a home that wasn't much farther from my home, but her job was the first priority.

The reason? The daycare is closer to her job.


Maybe the stats on the length and duration of women and men commuting had more to do with our (men's) inability to follow directions or drive the most efficient route??


Sex differences exist? Stop the presses!


men travel 60 miles/hour to work while women travel 55.9 miles/hour. women are slower drivers? women drive more on slower roads?


This is all very amusing. Why is it that people have to pull apart, examine, reason out using their own precoded beliefs the things that just are. Men and women are different, this isn't news - so what?

Men and women drive differently - so what?

Is there some god-stated rule that I missed that says "all genders and people must be the same and do the same and things, and this will be studied until we can make it happen?"
Why is it we refuse to accept the fact that we are different? Why is this such a bad thing?

I submit that we stipulate that all people are different. Therefore we no longer need studies to prove that people are different and that money can be spent on wars against those who still insist on being different than the rest of us.


I'm also a self-described feminist whose husband usually (but not always) drives when we are together. He WANTS to, and I don't care either way. I agree with what other posters have said here.

There are inherent differences between the male and female psyche that can be observed in the choices we make about career, where to live, how and when to drive, etc.

Just because I have the right to do something and I have the ability to do it, doesn't mean I want to do it or I should do it. Isn't that the ultimate goal of feminism?

If I want to be a stay-at-home mom in a society that sees one as an uneducated body-fluid cleaner-upper . . . I can.

If I want to return to school and earn an MBA & CPA while my daughter is in school . . . I can.

A true feminist, if she wanted to drive, would ask her husband, "Can I drive this time?" and he would say, "Sure."

p.s. One time I asked my husband why he never purchased any "self-defense devices" (pepper spray, etc.) that many of my friends' husbands have purchased for them. He said, "I think I'd actually be more scared for the attacker than for you. I pity any man who tries to take you on in a parking lot."