Monday, March 8, 2010

International Women's Day . . . and World Streets

Today is the ninety-ninth anniversary of the first International Women's Day, a day well worth celebrating. And while we are at it a perfect occasion to remind ourselves of what we need to be thinking about and trying to do over the next twelve months to make sure that when 2011 and that important 100th anniversary roll around, we have made our own best effort for a better and brighter future for all. Because. . . women hold the key to the future of not only sustainable transportation but also to a sustainable and just world. It's that smple.

Women have been absolutely critical to the focus of World Streets, and behind it the work of the New Mobility Agenda since the latter's founding in 1988 -- and, it is fair to say, that this has been the case to a far greater extent than with most of the groups and programs working in our area. Why is that?

From the beginning we have had two very specific policy targets as far as the involvement of women in this sector, both of which eminently ethical and no less practical and political. If you click through the articles which are grouped under the heading you will find that on average each month we publish one or two on the subject of women in transport as part of our continuing, long-term, and, we can say, passionate commitment to this great cause.

The first of our arguments in support of a greatly increased role of women in the sector is "Women as our metric for sustainable lives". The second sets out our best arguments for "The leadership role of women in transport".

1. Women as our metric for sustainable transport and sustainable lives:

One does not have to be an especial genius to figure out after spending a few years working with and looking at transportation projects, programs, processes, accomplishments, shortcomings, and hypocrisies in many parts of the world, that the limitations of the policies behind all this jumble have been a direct function of (1) the kinds of people who are making the decisions that shape them, and (b) the kinds of people and interests for whom those decisions are targeted. One and the same, it turns out -- and by way of executive summary let us say that it boils down to: (a) policy decisions and investments made primarily by males and (b) for people (mainly males) who either have or desire to have access to their own cars. No great mystery to that, eh?

The result, as we all know so well, has been a transportation system which pays more attention to vehicles and their requirements then to the full range of people and their very different kinds of requirements.

So once we figured that one out, we began to call out in publications, international fora and our direct advisory work for radical revisions in the entire planning and policy process/paradigm, making the point that it is now time to take it back to the drawing board and put at the core a very different metric than the old one (that is all those men and all their cars), namely women of all ages and stations in our society.

Look, it could not be more simple. Women make an excellent metric. If we design our systems to offer quality service to women in all their varieties and situations, we are going to get an entirely different kind of transportation system. And a better one. If we take into account the full range of their life cycle economic situations, travel constraints, the daily obligations at different periods of their lives, and even their, temperament and values characters, we are going to come up with a set of planning criteria and transportation arrangements that will not only serve them better, but will serve society as a whole a lot better.

With this in mind, from the first day on World Streets, under the posting entitled "Sustainable Transportation Anyone?: It is high time for Plan A", we put the basic design criteria for women right at the top of our list of fundamental building blocks for the new strategy.(You can see all that at Here is how it reads:

Strategy 5. Design for women:
Our old mobility system was designed by, and ultimately for, a certain type of person (think about it!). And so too should the new mobility system: but this time around it should be designed to accommodate specifically women, of all ages and conditions. Do that and we will serve everybody far better. And for that to happen we need to have a major leadership shift toward women and, as part of that, to move toward full gender parity in all bodies involved in the decision process. It's that simple.

So, if we can now start to put women as the fundamental metric for sustainable transportation, we are going to get a different and better system.

But that is only the first half of our commitment and campaign.

2. The leadership role of women: (Hold onto your hats. Think Norway)

Our transportation arrangements do not only have to be planned with women in mind ("thank you very much"), but by them -- and, while they are at it, for us all. (And I hope this sounds very simple.)

What about just a bit of parity?

Surface parity, while a start, is unlikely to be sufficient.

We can observe that all too often women who do get into key roles very rapidly begin behaving like or reflecting the behavior and values of men. Examples would be very dangerous ... but try to think of women in such powerful positions who HAVE acted differently to the males in previous or similar positions of influence and power.

It’s just that the worldviews and values of our sector at the top are in general, very male! And this is precisely what we need to change to realize our very different future.

Broaden the skills base of the deciders

The forced, high-priority network expansion that full gender parity requires can open up another priority need that also requires significant rectification. Specifically it can help us to increase greatly the range of backgrounds and skills we bring into the various decision fora. This therefore gives us a golden opportunity to rectify some of the debilitating historical inadequacies in the sector that have led to its underperformance in so many areas.

Of course, as we look to bring in more women we need of course to bring in more expertise in the entrenched professional skills such as transport planning, traffic management, engineering, financial planning, technical modeling and the usual array of “hard skills” which have the front stage in the sector. But that is not enough.

But to get the job done right we also need greatly enhanced competence in such areas as environment, climate, land use, public health, cities, rural areas, community relations, demographics, local government, social services , behavioral psychology, education, childcare, job creation, poverty reduction, communications and all those other key areas of our daily lives which thus far have not received the necessary attention in the transport discussions and decision-making process. And in these, we need both women and men to enhance our understanding of these mission-critical issues and to inform policy and practice in the sector.


Now, is it that I really believe that women are for some reason better, smarter or more noble than we Y chromosome-encumbered males? That’s not the point. Rather it is my experience that women often have a different view of the world in many respects. It is this differentness that we need to bring in and profit from.

However to give this full scope we need to go beyond the usual token representation. We need their strength. And we need their numbers. A scattered handful of females does not appear to suffice to force the change. Put enough women into a forum and they will keep us on our toes. I promise. (The key being the ”enough”.)

There is an analogy with our recent experience with the expanding role of cyclists in some of our cities. If there are none out there on the streets, few people even think about it. If there are a few, this makes no great difference. But once there is a strong quorum, strong presence, this starts to change everything. And not just for the cyclists. There is ample proof in this in city after city where this transformation has started to take place.

One important wrinkle on this is provided by a singing phrase of the Gender and Built Environment collaborative program at who advise us: “Don't treat women equally”. Hmm. Something I think that is important for each of us to think through for ourselves.

Now what?

However it works out, I would hope we do not need yet another law to make this happen. But we will need a high profile public commitment by leaders and a growing culture which accepts that there is simply no other way of going about this. (And if that doesn't work, well there is always the law. No reason to be excessively timid about this.)
On August 26th 1920, almost 89 years to the day, the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution formally passed into the law, guaranteeing the right of women's' suffrage. A long journey that get its symbolic start when Abigail Adams in 1776 asked her husband, one of the framers of the Constitution and one of our first president to "remember the ladies". To which he responded that men will fight the "despotism of the petticoat".

It then took something like 134 years for this oversight to be rectified. We don't have, and we don't need, that much time to do what we should be doing in our bit of daily life. We can start to get our end of the job done in 2010. If we do it together.

Eric Britton, Editor

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