The subway train you ride to work, the sidewalks you navigate to the grocery store, and the bus you rely on to get to class on time may seem gender neutral.
But gender data tells a different story.
Consider a subway system without reliable elevators and escalators, prompting people with strollers—often women—to navigate crowded stairways to catch their train. Or a street with minimal lighting, forcing late-night commuters to take longer routes home to avoid darker, less safe paths.
When public officials design cities without fully accounting for the ways women, men, and nonbinary people move differently through public spaces, the impacts can range from inconvenient to fatal. Fortunately, gender mainstreaming in city planning is gaining momentum worldwide, prompting officials to understand and respond the varied needs of populations in their communities—a task they can’t undertake without good gender data.
Making Public Spaces Work for Women
Few cities have gender mainstreamed urban planning as intentionally as Vienna, Austria. Since the 1990s, city officials have used gender data from time use surveys to inform gender-responsive urban planning. Equipped with information on how women spend their time and use public amenities, the city launched infrastructure projects from installing street lighting to improve pedestrian safety to constructing ramps in high foot traffic areas to accommodate people with strollers.
But women in Vienna had distinct needs beyond safe infrastructure. Global time use data show that women spend as much as two to ten times more time than men on activities like caring for children and the elderly, cleaning, and completing other household tasks. This held true in Vienna, and in response, city officials designed a women-centered apartment complex—the Women-Work-City—featuring an on-site kindergarten, pharmacy, and doctor’s office, all near public transit. The design process is the data-to-policy ideal come to life: public officials collected sex-disaggregated data, analyzed this information for insights, and designed public policies and programs in response.
Non-inclusive public spaces can impact not only women’s day-to-day wellbeing, but also their long-term economic and educational outcomes. Data2X Big Data Challenge grantee Girija Borker, a PhD candidate at Brown University, has explored how safety issues on public transportation in Delhi, India can lead women to enroll in lower quality universities. Using an algorithm developed through Google Maps data, a survey of 4,000 students at the University of Delhi, and crowd-sourced mobile application safety data, Borker’s research charts how public safety concerns disproportionately guide women’s higher educational choices in a way not experienced by men.
Borker found that not only are women willing to choose a lower quality university over a program in the top quintile to take a safer route to class, women also absorbed more travel costs, spending the equivalent of double the average annual college tuition to take costlier but perceived safer routes. Here, gender-responsive transportation planning is not merely a matter of convenience, but a key factor in women’s safety, mobility, and educational prospects.
A Global Charge for Local Planning
Local progress on urban accessibility and inclusivity can still take place in a global framework. Sustainable Development Goal 11 calls for city planning centered on inclusion, safety, resilience, and sustainability, prompting global organizations to take up this charge with a gender focus. UN Women’s Flagship Programme Initiative, Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces, garners commitments from over 25 cities to champion a gender-lens approach to urban planning and particularly to address sexual harassment in public spaces. Gender data is central to these efforts, uncovering rates of sexual violence in public, generating insights on women’s mobility patterns and preferences, and steering municipal budget and auditing practices.
For communities committed to meeting the mobility, transit, and infrastructural needs of different populations, gender data takes out the guess work of making cities work for women.