For many people, the way we travel is hard, unhealthy, and it hurts the planet. Dr Caroline Shaw draws on lockdown experience to examine some ways we could make transport easier, safer and more environmental. 

Living through Covid-19 alert levels 3 and 4 showed me something amazing. It showed me that travelling through a city on a bike could be damn fun and totally freeing. It showed me that our cities could be quieter, less polluted places, filled with bird life, where kids could hang out on the streets. It showed us all that how we move about and live in our cities can actually make us happy, our days more pleasurable, our lives easier. Something that matters to all of us.

Right now, back in Level 1, how we travel means we don’t have much fun. For many people, the way we travel is hard, it is unhealthy, and it hurts the planet. And they don’t like having to do it. However, the solutions are all around us and we don’t need anything as drastic as a global pandemic to implement them.

We all know that one big solution is to do more of what we are already doing: walking and cycling and taking public transport, and less driving. So far that has proven harder than it should be to change at the scale and speed we need. One of the reasons for that is that we haven’t been looking closely at different groups of people and how to support their travel needs. Different people have different lives and they have different ways to get about because of that.

So that is what we did. Knowing men and women tend to live different lives, and do different work, we asked how women and men in New Zealand might travel differently, and what that might mean for how we improve our urban environments.

We found men and women do travel quite differently and it matters

First up the women. Women cycle less than men, but overall travel in more environmentally friendly ways. Women walk and travel by public transport more. They also travel fewer kilometres each day (on average six kilometres less each day than men, which over a year adds up to a return trip from Wellington to Cape Reinga).

We also found women take more short car trips than men. This is because they do more trips related to unpaid work, such as ferrying children around and shopping. These tend to be quite local to where people live. This is important because short car trips can be easily replaced by walking and cycling, making this travel better for the planet and women also.

What about the men? We found that men drive further every day than women. They are more likely to cycle but are less likely to walk and take public transport. So overall their travel is less environmentally friendly than women’s. Part of the reason for this is that men work further from home so they need to drive further. But this isn’t the whole story. Even in a place like Wellington with good public transport, we found men are less likely to use public transport than women. Commuting is the perfect trip to be done by public transport or cycling as it is regular and predictable, but men were still more likely to drive to work. And even for the same type of trip that women take men are more likely to use a car. For example, if you look at shopping trips taken by single-person households (so they should have similar shopping needs), men are more likely to use a car to go shopping than women. Men seem to just prefer to drive a car.

So what do the findings mean for getting those urban environments we all need?

First up, it means when people design and implement policies to support easier, more active, more climate-friendly ways of travelling, different solutions for men and women are needed.

What do women need?

To encourage women to take more walking and cycling trips we should focus on making neighbourhoods (where women travel most) welcoming places to walk for the types of trips that women take. This means creating low-speed shared spaces, removing parking, adding trees and small gardens. Making all our neighbourhoods look like the small shared space at the bottom of Cuba Street, and feel like the month of lockdown when people and nature reclaimed all the space usually occupied by cars. It means councils working to create small neighbourhood hubs with useful shops and cycle lanes that link up the places women travel between (e.g. schools, libraries, supermarkets, pools). Making sure cycle lanes are wide enough for women to travel comfortably with other whānau. Promoting and supporting e-bike purchase and use, as e-bikes allow women to easily travel with bags and children.

What do men need?

Men need more high quality public transport and networks of cycle lanes going to where jobs are located (which may not always be the central city). We also need to acknowledge it has become normal and desirable for men to drive cars. People in the car industry have worked for years on making sure cars represent “freedom” and “fun” and are a key part of masculine identity. It’s a strong story. So people working to improve our urban spaces, our planet’s health and people’s health are going to have to counter this, both by making it harder to drive cars in cities and helping men to understand that there are fun, freeing, and healthier alternatives to driving. E-bike manufacturers, there is an opening here for you!

We should all be able get to where we want to go and feel good about it

For many years I never cycled for transport. Then I tried it for a few months and hated it. I hated the buses blowing diesel at me, hated the people screaming abuse at me for taking up space in a lane, and hated people passing so close I thought I would be knocked off my bike. I felt like I was risking my life every day as I went to and from work. And that just didn’t seem worth it. I went back to driving, walking and taking the bus.

We know, from research, that this is most women’s experience of riding a bike around New Zealand cities, and it doesn’t need to be. We can create a transport system where when you get on a bike to ride to work or the shops, it’s as effortless as, well, riding a bike.

Transport matters to all of our lives, and it can be better for us all. To create cities we want to live in, supported by healthy and environmentally friendly transport systems, then we need to address women’s and men’s transport needs differently. On yer bike, mate.

Dr Caroline Shaw is a public health medicine specialist and epidemiologist at the University of Otago, Wellington. She researches transport, climate change and health.

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