Modernizing Rail, and a Note on Gender

Modernizing Rail starts in 15 hours! Please register here, it’s free. The schedule can be viewed here (and the Zoom rooms all have a password that will be given to registered attendees); note that the construction costs talk is not given by me but by Elif Ensari, who for the first time is going to present the Turkish case, the second in our overall project, to the general public. But do not feel obligated to attend, not given what else it’s running against.

I made a video going into the various breakout talks that are happening, in which I devoted a lot of time to the issue of gender. This is because Grecia White didn’t have enough time at last year’s equity session to talk about it, so this time she’s getting a full session, which I have every intention of attending. The video mentions something that fizzled out because of difficulties dealing with US census UI, which is a lot harder to use than the old Factfinder: the issue of gender by commuting. So I’d like to give this more time, since I know Grecia is going to talk about something adjacent but not the same.

The crux is this: public transit ridership skews female, to some extent. US-wide, 55% of public transit trips are by women; an LA-specific report finds that there, women are 54% of bus riders and 51% of rail riders. The American Community Survey’s Means of Transportation to Work by Selected Characteristics Table has men at 53% of the overall workforce but transit commuters splitting 50-50; the difference, pointed out in both links, is that women ride more for non-work trips, often chaining trips for shopping and child care purposes rather than just commuting to work.

In the video, I tried to look at the gender skew in parts of the US where transit riders mostly use commuter rail, like Long Island, and there, the skew goes the other way, around 58-42 for men. In Westchester, it is 54-46. In New York, which I struggled to find data for in the video, the split is 52-48 female – more women than men get to work on public transit.

But an even better source is the Sex of Workers by Means of Transportation to Work table, which (unlike Selected Characteristics) details commute mode choice not just as car vs. transit but specifies which mode of public transit is taken. There are, as of the 2019 ACS, 3,898,132 male transit commuters and 3,880,312 female ones – that’s the 50-50 split above. But among commuter rail riders, the split is 533,556 men, 387,835 women, which is 58-42. Subways split about 50-50, buses skew 52-48 female.

In the video, I explain this referencing Mad Men. Commuter rail is stuck in that era, having shed all other potential riders with derogatory references to the subway; it’s for 9-to-5 suburban workers commuting to the city, and this is a lifestyle that is specifically gendered, with the man commuting to the city and the woman staying in the suburb.

This impacts advocacy as well. In planning meetings for the conference, we were looking for more diverse presenters, but ran into the problem that in the US, women and minorities abound in public transit advocacy but not really in mainline rail, which remains more white and male. I believe that this is true of the workforce as well, but the only statistics I remember are about race (New York subway and bus drivers are by a large majority nonwhite, commuter rail drivers and conductors are the opposite), and not gender. Of course there are women in the field – Adina Levin (who presented last year) and Elizabeth Alexis are two must-read names for understanding what goes on both in general and in the Bay Area in particular – but it’s unfortunately not as deep a bench as for non-mainline transit, from which it is siloed, which has too many activists to list them all.


  1. keaswaran

    One slight confound is that the gender ratios of the general population aren’t 50-50. Last I checked, most east coast cities (including New York) had more women than men, while most west coast cities had more men than women. It’s possible that the numbers I had seen were for singles rather than for adults overall, and there could well be differences between center city neighborhoods and suburbs that wouldn’t have shown up in the data I was looking at.

    • Alon Levy

      The commuter population is pretty consistently around 52-48 or 53-47 male in the geographies I’ve looked at, which do not include mining-oriented Interior Western cities.

  2. Frederick

    The takeaway seems to be: mainline rail is considered passé among American transit advocates.

  3. Keikyu Motorman

    *In the video, I tried to look at the gender skew in parts of the US where transit riders mostly use commuter rail, like Long Island, and there, the skew goes the other way, around 58-42 for men. In Westchester, it is 54-46. In New York, which I struggled to find data for in the video, the split is 52-48 female – more women than men get to work on public transit.*

    From what “mom” friends have hinted to me, part of it due to the legacy of single income couples, but for others, it’s the fact that a lot of women end up in teaching and health care, so they’re more likely to drive to work. Other women have expressed a desire to be close to home because they’re for all intents and purposes the emergency contact for their children at school in case anything happens. It’s easy to go rush and pick up the kids when you’re 15 minutes away by car versus 30 minutes by train then 15 minutes by car not including any issues waiting for a train.

    Those issues exist for other women, but suburban women just earn enough or have husbands that earn enough to mitigate those problems.

    • Alon Levy

      Sure, but men’s and women’s jobs are a geography-independent issue and yet at the highest level, women ride public transportation more than men. The inversion on American commuter rail is pretty unusual.

      (If anything, I think the issue with gendered jobs goes the other way. Yes, teachers and health care workers often drive, but factory workers and workers in the trades drive even more.)

      • Lee Ratner

        Workers in the trades could be at two or three locations on a given day and need to carry tools and materials, so driving really does make sense for them.

  4. borners

    I’ve been recently comparing Interwar England’s Metropolitan railway suburbs (modern tube line with same name) to more recent Japanese legacy private rail suburban development. Unsurprisingly, Metroland didn’t do shopping malls or attach supermarkets to stations, shops were usually on the nearest main road. The planning system was still permissive in the 1930’s, but then I realised that the male commuting suburbanites were unlikely to do shopping especially in a pre-supermarket era. And then rethinking the Japanese TOD experience older stations do have a similar surroundings especially the car-oriented exburbs (outside the last orbitals of Tokyo for instance).

    That said Metroland is still miles better than anything England has had since outside Eastern and Central London high-rise infill. Ebbsfleet stations in Kent is an abomination as is Milton Keynes or Oxfordshire. Metroland street layouts assumed people would use buses, bikes and their own feet.

  5. adirondacker12800

    public transit ridership skews female
    Women make less money.
    difficulties dealing with US census UI
    Download all the data and you can analyze it anyway you want.
    is that women ride more for non-work trips
    Women are poorer. Carfree people don’t have the choice of driving. Not traveling to work is the epitome of not-commuting.

  6. Lee Ratner

    Is there anything on BART ridership compared to New York commuter rail ridership?

    • Alon Levy

      I do not know. The census classifies BART as rapid transit and not commuter rail, so I can’t just grab sex by means of transportation to work. And the ecological evidence doesn’t really work precisely because the transportation construction of Long Island does not exist in the Bay Area (or even in, say, Boston).

Leave a Reply to Sassy Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.