Men or Women: Who Travel More?

Typically, I run my stuff past a few test readers to see if it will meet the lofty standards of Freakworthiness. Reactions were mixed on my plan to do a series on gender and travel (see the first installments here). Some thought it was bound to be a bore because, duh, of course men’s and women’s travel patterns are going to be very different. Others thought it was bound to be a bore because, duh, of course in this day and age men’s and women’s travel patterns are going to be very similar. There was widespread sentiment that I’m going to bore you — but who was right about why?

I’ve been working with data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), which asks people what they’re doing on a minute-by-minute basis. These data are a treasure trove for social scientists and anybody interested in the way Americans live (Levitt begged to have it saved from the chopping block here. Cheery facts abound: for example, Americans with kids report spending about five minutes a day on their children’s education and two hours and twelve minutes a day watching television.

Place your bets: who spends more time traveling, men or women?

According to the ATUS, between 2003 and 2007 adult Americans averaged about one hour and fifteen minutes of travel daily. Men averaged an hour and eighteen minutes: women, an hour and thirteen. This difference is statistically significant, but in all I’d call a five-minute disparity strikingly small.

We can dig deeper using the empirical economist’s best friend, a mathematical technique called regression. Regression is a statistical technique that helps to untangle which factors are truly important for a particular outcome and which factors are relatively trivial.

We need to do regression here because men and women differ, on average, in ways besides mere gender. For example, women tend to live longer than men, so taken as a group they are a bit older. Perhaps observed differences between men and women are actually due to age, not sex.

To construct a regression model, you feed in the variables that you think work in concert to affect your outcome — in this case, daily travel time. I used age; number of children in the household; number of adults in the household; race/ethnicity; living in a center city, suburb, or nonmetropolitan area; family income; hours worked; weekly wages; and travel mode, specifically mass transit ridership.

Which variables matter? The numbers show that age is an important factor in determining how much we travel. Holding all the other variables constant (including, importantly, income), daily travel time is predicted to rise till we are about age 36, peak there, and then begin to decline.

Controlling for the other variables, those who live in suburbs are projected to travel about five minutes more per day than others.

Both family incomes and hours worked make a big difference. All else equal, more of each is associated with more travel.

Perhaps the most stark relationship is between travel time and transit ridership. All else equal, travelers who go by bus or train, even for one minute in the day, are predicted to spend about an hour a day more traveling than those who also travel but do so exclusively by car and/or on foot. This disparity holds up even when controlling for the fact that transit riders also walk a lot, and for the fact that they are more likely to live in New York City. But this is a story for another time.

And what of gender? Controlling for the other factors, men and women are even more similar than the simple averages indicate. In fact, there is very little travel-time difference between the sexes.

Thanks to the magic of regression, we discover that the majority of the small difference between the two genders can be explained by hours worked (the study finds men average 50 percent more than women) and family income (very roughly, the study shows that men have family incomes about $5,000 a year higher than women’s). Controlling for these characteristics, we find that men and women have daily travel times that are within about 1.2 minutes of each other. Given that mean travel times are over 70 minutes, total travel by gender is pretty close to identical.

And lest you doubt my fancy statistical hocus pocus, here’s some corroboration: according to the 2001 National Household Travel Survey, men and women both take an average of about 4.1 trips per day.

Bored yet? You may be, but don’t blame the data: the finding that men and women travel virtually the same amount is dramatic, cast-iron proof that we have reached a golden age of complete gender equality in America.

Or is it? More coming up.


"Americans with kids report spending about five minutes a day on their children's education and two hours and twelve minutes a day watching television"

And we wonder why China is pulling ahead?

Eric M. Jones

"...a series on gender and travel"? Gender pertains to rules governing the agreement between nouns and pronouns and adjectives. "Sex" is another thing.

One of the main differences between the sexes is that women set their alarm clocks ahead of time so that they can "fool themselves" into thinking they can get an extra few minutes sleep before getting up.

No men do this. I spend my life trying to NOT fool myself.

We will reach sexual equality when women quit trying to fool themselves first thing in the morning.


@jared because Chinese parents do their kids homework? Most days shouldn't require parental intervention in a child's homework. The child should just do it and parent's should only be involved if the material is difficult for the child.



Ever ask your kid what they're learning about? You can have over a 5 minute conversation easily that way. History and English lend themselves to this particularly well. You can ask what they think about the book/historic event, what they're talking about in class about it, whether or not they like it and why.

It's not about doing your kids homework for them. It's called engaging in your child's education.

Ian Kemmish

Irrespective of gender and age, won't this sample population - in 2009 and in a developed economy at least - show very distinct clustering around two centres: those who commute at all, and those who work at home.

Moving a small number of people from one cluster to the other might be expected to have a large effect on the average time. And in terms of all your subsequent calculations, that would just be noise. Why do you choose to ignore it? Shouldn't you have split your sample into these two populations before doing anything else?


@ jared
"And we wonder why China is pulling ahead?"

China is not pulling ahead. China is still very poor and they only have a higher GDP growth because they grew from virtually nothing.


Eric M Jones : what planet or study are you referring to when you say

"women set their alarm clocks ahead of time so that they can "fool themselves" into thinking they can get an extra few minutes sleep before getting up." No men do this. "

WTF? Where do you get off making assertions like that - in my experience men are just as likely (gut instinct = more likely) to do that than women. But I haven't studied it. Seems to be classic teen-age boy behaviour to me.

A suggestion - if you "spend your life trying to NOT fool yourself." then skipping the sweeping assertions would be a good start.

Panem et Circanses

Before taking the above seriously, read up on "third variable problems'" -


Wait - so correcting for all the factors that make the difference interesting, there's no difference?


Men work 50% more hours and have family incomes $5000 greater than women and this accounts for most of the difference in travel time? Duh. People who are engaged in different non-travel activities travel different amounts. Most travel is instrumental to other activities, and is not done for the sake of traveling.

If it is true that men "work" 50% more hours and have family incomes "only" $5000 higher, it suggests very different gender roles. This deserves more than a mention in passing.


I agree with John. Why state that men's working for 50% more and having bigger incomes does not imply differences between sexes / gender roles?


I'm not as worried about the statistics as Panem et Circanses might be, but the interpretation seems like it could be reconsidered... First, I would have expected something like "the differences--UNadjusted differences, that is--are quite small, and that tiny difference seems really rather shocking considering that men work 50% more than women and have higher incomes."

But then, delving into the effects of those two variables ((a) time devoted to work & (b) income) muddies the water a lot. Less time at work, eh? Well, of course, only about 20% of all travel is work-related, so then we might start thinking that working less might lead you to travel farther (more time to go to the more distant preferred place rather than the nearby poor substitute) but then again lower incomes should lead to less travel, right? Also, since women still make the majority of childcare and household-serving trips in dual-earner married households, mightn't we think that these women are traveling more -- though then again, we know that they are more likely to take more proximate jobs in this situation. Et cetera et cetera.


Eric M. Jones


I made a mistake. I meant to say "No REAL men do this".

susan helper

what does "travel" mean? if I walk a couple of blocks to buy lunch, is that travel? If I walk downstairs to the cafeteria in my building, does that count?

akinoluna - a female Marine

Well I know that's false, I know a man who has three or four alarms set on his cell phone so he can fool himself into thinking he has more time to sleep.


I suppose the data means that men, in general, travel to and from work and to/from their work/lunch. Women, in general, go to a lot more places (errands).



Eric M. Jones: I suspect we'll get closer to gender equality when REAL men quit claiming they know the One, True Way to do fiddly insignificant things that have nothing to do with them personally.


I hope this series asks the question of who in the family does most of the driving when both husband and wife are in the car. My gut impression is that mostly it's the man, but I wonder if that's a generational thing and the balance (if there is an imbalance to begin with) is shifting.

I would also like a discussion of how people navigate. We have the conflicting stereotypes of women as poor navigators, and men as preferring to wander around lost rather than ask for directions.



wow, you are living in a very immature sexist male-chauvinistic world. Ironic how you "spend your life trying not to fool yourself" yet fool yourself with male-chauvinism right this very moment. Time to become a "REAL man" and wake up.


I like the tone of your column. Such adjustments really are needed to use statistics in a responsible manner and in a genuine search for the truth, but by disclosing your adjustment, you point out how easy it is to obscure the truth by ignoring some adjustments and insisting upon others. Newspapers have got to master the subtleties of measurement and statistics to penetrate the ways various interest groups manipulate public opinion.


I think women love travel like men love sex. Most of the time when men spend money on travel and fine dining, it's because they are spending on the women who are dating them