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Transportation and Mobility

LA’s Transportation System Is ‘Failing Women’

An LA Metro bus with an electronic sign reading DASH B makes a stop.
A new study commissioned by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation found major inequities for women and girls when it comes to navigating the region.
(Courtesy LADOT)
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Harassment. Sexual Assault. Lack of access to cars.

For women and girls trying to get around in Los Angeles, there’s no question significant challenges remain. A just-released city study analyzing gender equity in transportation reaffirms what many already experience: navigating Los Angeles is often more complex, dangerous and inaccessible for women.

As the authors note:

“Despite major strides in recent decades, women continue to face sharp disparities stemming from their socio-economic status in society. Women continue to be responsible for larger shares of household and care-related duties and are overwhelmingly the victims of harassment and sexual assault compared to men.”
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So what can be done? The study, commissioned by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, recommends a “holistic, systematic effort” to rectify decades of inequity.

What Did They Study?

To make LADOT’s system truly gender equitable, changes will need to be more than adjustments or add-ons to existing budgeting and operations.
— From the study

Researchers focused on three L.A. neighborhoods: Sun Valley in the San Fernando Valley; Watts in South L.A.; and Sawtelle in West L.A. and found dozens of inequities. Those communities were chosen partly, according to the study, “due to their high proportions of BIPOC residents and women workers living in zero-car households.”

The study states:

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"Across all neighborhoods, the project team identified a consistent pattern: the Los Angeles transportation system is failing women. For BIPOC women, this failure is even more pronounced. In addition to gender inequities, they face racial barriers to safe and accessible transportation, factors such as historic under-investment, racist housing and zoning practices, and economic disenfranchisement."

The LADOT report seeks to build off a 2018 report from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority that found women face outsized burdens and risks in transportation, and their needs "have not been critically accounted for."

Researchers collected data through community surveys, interviews with commuters and a series of in-person working groups. Officials acknowledged some limitations with the data, noting that the results from the small sample size and their non-random approach to sampling “may be hard to generalize to the overall population of Los Angeles.”

The authors recommend LADOT invest more resources to collect larger samples of data moving forward.

The Findings

The report outlines a variety of transportation-related barriers faced by women in the neighborhoods that were studied, including safety concerns, lack of trips for recreation and distance from key destinations.

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Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Women face more barriers to travel, including a lower rate of access to driver’s licenses, smartphones and computers than men
  • Women are more likely than men to be caregivers for children and elders. Because of this, “women’s mobility is also a determinant of the health and wellness of their families and other dependents,” the authors wrote.
  • Women are more likely than are men to report transportation as a barrier to recreation trips
  • Women are more likely than men to be concerned about their safety on public transit. The study notes that “respondents that identify as Latinx, Black, or Asian, are more likely than those that identify as White or other to feel unsafe.”
  • Women are more likely than men to use multiple transportation modes and “trip-chain,” or make multiple stops during a non-commute trip.
  • Women are less likely than men to use “active transportation” — modes such as bicycles and scooters.
  • Respondents in Sawtelle “were more likely to find all their daily destinations within their neighborhood than were residents of Watts and Sun Valley.” Women in Watts and Sun Valley reported less access to their daily destinations within their neighborhood compared to men.
Stock: Pedestrian Vision Zero
(Al Kamalizad for LAist)

Officials also noted “stark disparities in public assets” in the neighborhoods studied. Watts and Sun Valley have median household incomes of about $34,400 and $47,700, respectively. Those communities had “fewer crosswalks, limited signalized intersections, and sparse bus amenities,” compared with Sawtelle, where the median household income is just over $76,000.

What Is The City Doing About This?

The study's authors make it clear that there’s a lot of work to be done. Perhaps the biggest factor in how successful those efforts will be is how much money LADOT and other departments are given.

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“To make LADOT’s system truly gender equitable, changes will need to be more than adjustments or add-ons to existing budgeting and operations,” the study states. “It will necessitate a fundamental reshaping of processes.”

LADOT has had a rough road in improving street safety in recent years, which is also apparent in the three neighborhoods that were studied. Despite launching a program in 2015 aimed at reducing severe and fatal crashes, communities of color continue to experience high, disproportionate levels of traffic violence. Last year, while the overall number of traffic deaths fell slightly from previous years, more people were killed by drivers in Central and South L.A. The number of people killed by drivers while walking rose nearly 15% in South L.A. from 2019.

Stock: Pedestrian Vision Zero
(Al Kamalizad for LAist)

Community advocates and some city leaders have criticized the level of funding allotted to LADOT for safety upgrades, which they say pales in comparison to the level of need to actually save lives.

The study notes that while the majority of those killed or seriously injured in crashes are male bodied, “the number of female-bodied and [children killed or seriously injured] victims was above the citywide average in all three neighborhoods.”

“To the extent that women’s travel needs imply additional travel time in general or additional time spent as a vulnerable road user, their gender may be associated with an elevated risk of injury or death in a crash,” the study states.

The Recommendations

  • Close the data gap by improving how it is collected. The study found current practices have “mirrored the gender imbalances of transportation design, under-representing women and over-representing heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender men.”
  • Improve “inclusive infrastructure,” which could look different based on neighborhood density and distance to key destinations. For example, the city could focus on increasing active transportation in high-density communities with destinations close by, but in areas with lower density, better transit and access to cars could be the solution.
  • Enhance existing transit service and create new options to “better meet the needs of women.” That could include weekend service tailored for women caregivers in low-income neighborhoods for recreational trips, such as to parks or beaches. The study also suggests LADOT develop pilot programs for nonprofit vehicle-sharing in low-income, BIPOC neighborhoods.
  • Enact new programs to make it easier and more desirable for underserved communities to use public transit and other mobility options. One idea: hiring local women as “community ambassadors” to help transit users, “particularly in low-income BIPOC communities where increased police presence may not necessarily lead to increased levels of safety.”

One recommendation that stood out: expanding access to cars in underinvested communities.

On the surface, that appears to run counter to the city’s goals to reduce our reliance on automotive travel. But while driving less might work for some Angelenos — for example, people who can work remotely, get groceries delivered or easily get to where they’re going via public transit — the study found there are pitfalls for others, including low-income women and their families.

“In communities lacking reliable public transportation, cars are an essential means of accessing economic opportunities and critical destinations like schools, health clinics, day cares, and grocery stores,” the authors wrote. “Equitable approaches to increasing car access should improve access to driving among those who most stand to benefit, while managing the driving of the heaviest polluters.”

Officials note that the work to reverse this trend of inequity “must prioritize resources in low-income communities of color, which have been subject to generations of disinvestment.”

In other words, the city should focus on equity in making improvements. As the study says:

“By addressing gender equity in neighborhoods already well serviced by transportation options and quality infrastructure, LADOT would risk squandering resources, deepening existing divides, and inhibiting residents in high-need communities from accessing the benefits from this study… Once high-need neighborhoods have been made more equitable, LADOT can implement gender-equity initiatives across the entire city.”

You can explore the 78-page report for yourself on LADOT’s website.

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Ryan Fonseca explores the challenges communities face getting from point a to point b and the potential solutions down the road, sidewalk, track and bike path. 🚴🏽‍♀️ 👨🏿‍🦽 🚶‍♂️ 🚇 🚙 🛴 🚌