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.


My Dad has triple vision in one eye after a retinal detachment a few years ago. Still, he drives every time the family gets in the car. He has always lightly disparaged my mother's driving (besides one ticket in 1974, she has a perfect driving record). I'm a grown woman now, and I shouldn't go along with this, but I still passively get in the back seat if I'm with my parents. I wonder, why does he insist on taking the wheel, even though we've politely asked if we could drive (answer: I still feel safer with me driving-- eye roll)? Why do we allow him to drive? We could mutiny. He has prism glasses that correct his vision to a point. It is *legal* for him to drive, but among the three of us, he is the least able. I suppose we don't want to emasculate him. It's a thing.


I am not totally convinced by the commute distance data. I take the train in from the Chicago suburbs (I get on at the furthest stop). I've been surprised by how female-skewed the gender ratio is on the train, and the skew is great the further from the city. The average train rider on my route is a 45 year old female. I suspect that this is due to decisions about child rearing. I imagine that the typical scenario starts with a family living in the suburbs near the husband's job, the wife staying home for a few years when the kids are little and then getting a job when they reach school age. Statistically it's more likely that she'll find a job in the city, so she ends up with a longer commute. I'd like to see more data on urban-suburban commutes and gender differences.


I suspect that your research will show women's trips involve household errands and/or chauffeuring family members around, while men travel solo and for personal reasons.

Unfortunately, even on the road, today's women still have less free time than men.


Sociology, as measured by jokes:

"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."

There's a famous riddle about this: A crash victim is wheeled into the operating room. The patient is in shock - as is the doctor. "I can't operate; this is my son!" But the patient responds, "You're not my father!" How is this possible? The answer is ridiculously obvious once you see it, yet it generally takes people time to find it. I have to wonder that the average response time should be declining.

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

There's a story about the blonde in NYC that is constantly leaving her car over the weekend to get her oil changed. Eventually one of the mechanics takes the woman aside to adviser her that all the other mechanics are laughing at her naivete, thinking she needs to be constantly changing her oil. But she gets the last laugh: She informs him that she's discovered in NYC that it's cheaper to leave her car in the shop for the weekend than to pay for parking.



" Tom Vanderbilt reported in his book Traffic, men and woman are more likely to honk at woman drivers than male ones."

I haven't read his book, but could this be due to the increased likelihood of a road rage incident from honking at men rather than a commentary of gender based driving skills?


We're a liberal, feminist household where both of us have graduate degrees, but I do most of the driving because my wife prefers that I drive most of the time. I'll ask her once in awhile if she wants to drive, and sometimes she says yes, but she mostly says no.

I am a bad backseat driver, as one of the other posters claimed to be too, not because my wife is a bad driver, but because she hesitates more/drives more conservatively than I would. I'm more likely to pipe in with something like "that car is far enough behind you that you can change lanes without hitting it" or something like that.

Also, it's a fact that women get in more accidents than men, but man-initiated accidents can be far deadlier, mainly because of speed and aggressive driving. I think that explains the insurance requirements.

Christopher Luccy

Households describe themselves as "Feminist"? What does that mean exactly?


What if women actually are worse drivers? Could that actually be possible? It wasn't too long ago that I was in high school and everyone was getting their driver's licenses. Out of all my friends who failed, only one of them was male.


Are you under the impression that "woman driver!" jokes have gone the way of the record player?

They are not only alive and well, they are for the most part true. Like blonde jokes. HEY!

Truth is, when I see someone creeping along in the interstate merging lane, awaiting their moment to jump in front of 70 mph traffic while going only 30 mph, I instinctively shout, "Woman driver!"

80% of the time, I'm right. (Give or take 5%).

This isn't to say that men are wonderful drivers, by any means. Only that there are some areas of the driving skills spectrum that seem especially daunting for women.

Some of this is tongue-in-cheek...but not the fact that women are poor at merging into traffic. I challenge anyone on that point!

I hate driving.

It wasn't too long ago that I was in high school either, and I never heard of anyone failing driver's ed or their driving exam. Then again, the standards in my state might be fairly lax, because given the driving record of many of my peers, it would appear than obtaining a license was as simple as answering both of these questions with a "yes" answer: Are you 15? Do you have a pulse? If we were to shift the focus to high schoolers, I think most of us could agree that they are generally equal in their driving habits, as in equally bad...

But anyway, just as a few other commenters have noted, female driver jokes are alive and well. Of course, there are also stereotypes about Asian drivers, and in my area, we also stereotype drivers based on what county they're from (as identified on the license plate). In regards to the female stereotypes, I've seen my fair share of overly aggressive female drivers who like to tailgate. I've also seen plenty of men who drive ten miles under the speed limit. And I've seen plenty of both sexes paying more attention to their damn cell phones than the traffic around them!


Eric M. Jones

Science: Each and every group or object, when carefully compared against another, will be found to differ in absolutely every meaningful way. Well, dah...?

Women drivers: LA Head Cop Daryl F. Gates held weekly press conferences during the LA Hillside Strangler crimes. When a rumor spread that the killer (or killers) could be police, or dressed as poilce, Gates suggested that young women NOT stop for police and instead should drive to a local police station. This was ridiculous, of course. Somebody figured it out so for a period of several weeks in the Fall of 1977 (?), young LA women frequently just drove pedal-to-the-metal and stopped for nothing and nobody, wove in and out of traffic and the police were ordered not to pursue them. Occasionally the police would start to pursue a law-breaker and a woman's hand would poke out the driver's-side window and give them the finger. The police would cease the pursuit.



While an individual may be of any type, there are certain general tendencies in a group.
ON AVERAGE, men tend to be more into driving than women. More men that I know actually really enjoy driving than women. More men are competant drivers. More women are fearful drivers, who I consider more problematic than the aggressives.
When my parents go out in a car, my father drives. This is because my mother does not like driving with my father, because she considers him a backseat driver. But to his credit, when I drive with my mother, I drive too. That is because I am unwilling to be in a car my mother drives because I fear for my life.

When my boyfriend and I are in a car, he drives unless circumstances make it far more logical not to. This is because he enjoys driving, while I am indifferent to it. I am comfortable driving, and do not mind it, but it has no particular thrill for me. Since he likes driving, I'm happy to let him do it. I am an excellent navigator though, which works out extra well.

I think there is little sexism at play here, and more of a demonstration of natural differences.
There does exist a little bit of sexism though - any of these stats will also include 70-year old couples, who did learn to drive and start their patterns in a time when the men drove and women didn't even get licenses. Including all generations in statistics will mean that some of the numbers come from a group where it was an issue.

To AaronS,
I will challenge your point. I will agree that more women than men are poor mergers. That I imagine is a statisticable fact. But to say that 'women' are poor mergers is to turn it into a sexist comment that speaks for all people's driving abilities based on their genitals.



We're actually pretty good at taking turns driving. Traffic frustrates the heck out of him, so I do the city driving and anything where we have to drive around rush hour. I get bored and tired on the long, open roads, whereas he enjoys these. We take turns DD'ing for bars, too. Though he definitely is a worse back-seat driver. Occasionally on the way to my parents' house, where I spent nearly all my teenage years, he starts giving me directions.

I'd be interested in seeing data on other modes of transportation broken down by gender. Biking, obviously, has its own gender breakdown, including the recent piece about women as an "indicator species". What about transit? A lot of my bus trips seem to include a larger portion of men than women, but that may be geographic, or correlated to certain times of day. It also seems like more women than men sit in the aisle, deterring anyone from taking the window seat right next to them. Again, perhaps this varies by route/time/etc.



Um, I haven't seen this suggested (maybe I missed it), but it seems so obvious. Women (even those who commute to work) are more likely to have more child-rearing responsibilities than their husbands. If you're dropping off and /or picking up your kid, you can less afford to have a long commute that cuts into an already short day. Put another way, if you don't have kid duty, you can more easily afford to get home at 6:30 if you have to, which allows for a longer commute.


I find it curious how you framed the question as a matter of progress. I think it's time to acknowledge that the genders are fundamentally different. If we like, we should study those differences in behavior, but to automatically assume that any difference is a lack of progress seems counterproductive at this point in time. At least in the U.S. and I imagine in most of Western Europe.


I let my husband drive when we both were in the car because when I was a SAHM I did all the errands while he was at work. I was looking forward to NOT driving. If I were driving I wouldnt have felt like I was in control and the boss, I would have felt like I had to chauffeur him too.

So is it a case of women letting men take the helm/men taking control over the car and driving or is it an attempt to have a more fair division of labor?

Is the person in the passenger seat being deprived the opportunity to drive or the person in the drivers seat being deprived the opportunity to ride?

Joel Upchurch

When I look at the statistics, the first thing that jumps out at me, is that more women are injured in vehicle accidents than men, but 2.5 men are killed for every woman.

Also, why does the NHTSA only report fatalities per vehicle mile and not passenger mile? It makes it difficult to make apples to apples comparisons with other modes of transport ion.


This is definitely a sexist holdover! I'm a 40's era feminist woman, with a PhD and a high paying career--I'm not exactly helpless in any area of my life.

I'm also (I admit!) very aggressive driver having grown up in a major city on the West Coast with some of worst traffic in the world. I also am a highly skilled driver---I've never had an accident in my life, drive defensively, and can parallel park a stick shift on a steep hill--no problem.

I only date men who are comfortable saying they're feminists, yet *every single one of them* has felt acutely uncomfortable if we went anywhere together & I drove instead of them!

They've explained that feel like everyone is looking and laughing at them, like they're emasculated or something idiotic like that.

I've basically given up asking if I should drive because they always look horrified...I just try to be resigned to it. Thinking about how much I'm saving on gas costs helps somewhat, but not when they are bad drivers (sigh).

Also, it's rank sexism to claim that men are *not* naturally worse back-seat drivers than women--they just feel more free to be rude and scold from that position, ie to act like a total jerk. I hate not driving but I grit my teeth and never say anything no matter what stupid thing he might do.

I did dump one guy I was starting to see---because he mentioned that he'd totalled 3 cars in the past 5 years (once while driving with his infant son~!!) I just couldn't stand riding with him after that. Honestly, I don't think you can blame it on bad luck (which he did) when a person repeatedly gets into terrifically destructive car accidents.


Jonathan Hopper

oh, so many issues here:
'A woman can do what ever she wants, be a stay at home mum, or have a career it is her choice'.
A man (to generalise) has no such choice. He has to have a career. And he is responsible for earning as much as he can to look after his kids.So he must take the best job he can, regardless of the drive.

If a woman is a passenger to 'her man' (sorry) that is considered normal. If the man is a passenger, that is considered odd. So 'society' puts pressure on the man to drive.

In general the 'a woman can choose to do anything' is NOT matched by a 'a man can choose to do anything'


In my marriage, we are pretty equal in many duties, but not as much with regard to driving as I'd like. I do most of the driving when we're together, even though I really don't like driving and I think my wife is a better driver than I am. But she puts up more of a fuss about it than I do, so if I want to go somewhere more than five minutes away for dinner, she'll demand that I drive if she's going to go. I, therefore, end up driving more if I want to go out.