Mobility Car-Free How to Build a City for Women – and Why Cars Take...

How to Build a City for Women – and Why Cars Take a “Back Seat” in Feminist Urban Planning

Lauren McAskie
I love talking to passionate CityChangers from around the world, hearing their stories and what drives their activism, then writing up guides for others to get inspired by. There's only one thing that could top a car-free city for me, and that's one made out of chocolate... but a girl can only dream. In the meantime, I'll work on making the first come true.

Have our cities really been built with gender bias in their design? How did this happen, what does a “feminist” city really look like, and how can a female perspective in urban planning be imperative to creating liveable, sustainable and happy cities?

Every day we make choices about how we travel. You may prefer to drive, ride your bike, or simply walk to get from A to B. But have you ever stopped to wonder how gender inequality in urban planning has affected your own urban mobility patterns in daily life?

It may not be obvious from first glance, but in reality, the huge lack (or if not total absence of) female perspective in urban design around the world means that women are often disproportionately disadvantaged when it comes to city travel.

We spoke to feminist organisation Punt 6 – a group of co-operative female architects, sociologists and urban planners based in Barcelona who work towards developing techniques and tools to include women both as subjects and experts in urban planning and everyday life – to understand more about the differences between a city designed for men and women, and how gender inclusivity can be present in all aspects of urban design.

What Is a Feminist City – and Why Are Cars Not a Part of the Vision?

To explain “feminist urbanism”, we need to look first at the infrastructure, architecture and values of our cities and understand how these have all been heavily influenced by patriarchal, economic and capitalist mandates.

Firstly, let’s take a look at one of the main culprits of a male-oriented city- the car. In Europe, 57.5% of men travel by car daily compared to 45.8% of women. Women tend to use public transport and walk more frequently, and therefore the fact that we have large homogeneous urban areas dedicated solely to the use of cars means that women and the way they travel are disproportionately accounted for in city spaces.

Urban Anthropologist Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman told Apolitical that “Building cities around cars subordinates the non-driving modes of transport women are more likely to use than men, therefore making cities more dangerous and difficult to navigate with children or others to care for.”

Gender expert Sara Ortiz Escalante from Punt 6 elaborates that “generally speaking, men have more linear travel patterns; sometimes driving only to and from work at set times of the day. Women on the other hand have more complex and diverse patterns of mobility, as many tend to combine unpaid childcare and domestic work with their paid jobs – and therefore have entirely different patterns of behaviour and needs.”

“Cities are based on a model that follows a pattern of mobility of a certain group of people, and this group is mostly men – who have a full-time job, and the privilege to drive and own a car”, she continued.

Cities are typically designed in order to maximise economic output by only facilitating the mobility needs of those following these time schedules – with everything in between this having been considered a non-priority by urban planners in the past.

“Planners often don’t go into the neighbourhoods and consult people. They plan from their desks and through a map – and so they create cities that do not consider the complexities of everyday life and doesn’t appreciate the expert knowledge of the people who live there.”

Vienna Pioneering the Way Forward in “Gender Mainstreaming”

So how can infrastructure be redesigned to shift away from car dominance to accommodate the mobility needs of women? Well, the answer lies in what is called “gender mainstreaming”, essentially meaning the incorporation of an equal gender perspective at all stages and levels of policies, designs, projects and programmes. 

One of the most progressive cities in this field is Vienna, Austria. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s when the Viennese government, amongst other things, carried out qualitative analysis in the form of a photography exhibition in collaboration with Punt 6 to show how women use the city differently that the need for change in urban design became clear. 

As a result of the process, the City Women’s office was set up which, in 1999, conducted a large-scale survey on gendered transportation use resulting in a long-term focus on improving pedestrian access – including widening footpaths to providing better street lighting in city areas.

Now equal gender perspective is a necessary legal requirement for any of the city’s new plans for infrastructure.  Prior to this law traditional traffic planning did not consider pedestrian traffic a main priority for the system – most of which are women, children and the elderly. Whereas now, gender perspective is applied by asking pedestrians what their needs are throughout the infrastructure planning process, addressing their concerns and initiating co-decision procedures to give a voice to the less authoritative.

The question is, however, how can other cities follow in Vienna’s footsteps to make ‘gender mainstreaming’ a key part of the process to move towards more car-free city designs.

Making “Gender Mainstreaming” Mainstream…

We asked Sara Oritz Escalante how cities can aim to apply a feminist perspective throughout all aspects of infrastructural planning. “There are three key pillars of feminist urban planning that we talk about”, she said.

  • The first is putting people’s every-day life at the center of urban planning. This means putting domestic and care work at the forefront and considering economic needs afterwards. This will facilitate an understanding that in daily life we do things at different times and in different spaces. We must aim to find a balance between different spheres of life and not place so much importance on corporate needs.
  • The second is to create cities that are safe for women and children. We have to understand that the physical configuration of a city is only one aspect. If we have safety at the core of urban planning, particularly for these more vulnerable groups, then all the other important considerations of design will flow from this.
  • The final pillar is that women should be considered in the diversity as experts of their cities and neighbourhoods. Public participation and community engagement of women is key, and they should be involved in every phase of planning. Those who inhabit the neighbourhood are the experts, and we should be learning to normalise this. We cannot design any kind of shared or car-free space without integrating peoples’ participation in the entire process.

Women’s experience as a part of this is a must, because they are the ones who have been historically excluded from planning. They understand the complexity of how their neighbourhoods work. Gender perspective is only important when understood in cohesion with considerations of racism, disabilities and age. If we only had women’s perspective, then we would end up with the same problem of only having one point of view – our plans must be comprehensive.

To Sum Up…

Perhaps we still have a long way to go before we can call all cities feminist ones. While Vienna leads the way for gender equality in urban planning, there is still a lot that other places around the world can learn from its advanced gender mainstreaming in city design. If women continue to be included as experts in the field, and their needs and perspectives are considered throughout every stage of planning, then from this will follow happy, enjoyable and cohesive cities and transportation – something that every urban inhabitant wants to see from now and into the near future. 

Further resources: an urban assessment guide from a gender perspective (summary of car reducing measures to create feminist cities on page 110).

Check out this article by one of our CityChangers Katja Diehl about sustainable mobility and gender.

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