Search the Site

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.