Home View from Underground Transit: The Gender Difference

Transit: The Gender Difference

by Sarah M. Kaufman

Today’s post is a guest piece by Sarah M. Kaufman. Kaufman is the Assistant Director at the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, where she researches, advocates for and educates about cutting-edge technologies in transportation. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Planning, teaching Intelligent Cities, a course about policy and planning for the future of digital urban life.


The way gender affects transit usage is not just about manspreading.

Manspreading vs. bags-on-seats has dominated recent discussions about gender on transit, but it’s time to move the conversation on to larger issues that take up plenty of room on their own.

Specifically: Second Avenue Sagas readers responded several weeks ago, via Twitter poll, that they feel safe riding the subways late at night. In the same week, The New York Times discussed a rise in reported sex crimes on the subway: 738 in 2015, up from 620 in 2014.

This starkly different perspective highlights how riding the New York City subway varies by gender. Experiences in transit are as diverse as New Yorkers, and it’s time to call attention to the different ways genders approach transit in New York City.

Women seeking to go somewhere must choose between safety and cost, a choice found all over the globe. Here in NYC, women outnumber men on public transportation – of people taking public transportation to work, 52 percent are women and 48 percent are men, according to the American Community Survey. Women are also the predominant victims of subway-based crimes, specifically robbery, forcible touching (340 cases reported in 2015), public lewdness (223 cases) and sexual abuse (130 cases), according to The New York Times. These issues are exacerbated by the fact that women tend to travel at atypical commute hours, as they dominate fields like health, retail and education, which often do not comply with the traditional 9-to-5 workday.

When possible, women prefer another, safer mode, rather than waiting in desolate subway stations or at dimly-lit bus stops. Depending on their economic well-being, women may opt for dollar vans, taxis, livery cabs, Citi Bikes, Lyfts, Vias or Ubers. Women outnumber men in the relatively inexpensive dollar vans (ridership is 63% female, according to Eric Goldwyn), but use taxis less frequently than men do (34% female) and are vastly underrepresented on the comparatively costly Citi Bike (24% of rides are taken by women).

The cost of personal safety is not the only complication facing women on transit. Across the United States, women bear much of the burden of dependent care, including children and elderly relatives. This work involves bringing dependents to school, doctor’s appointments and the grocery store. These are arduous tasks, at best, on transit, where caretakers are suddenly aware of frighteningly close platform edges, the hearing loss incurred at some curved stations, the need to advocate for a seat, and the state of subway elevators. (A milestone of NYC parenthood: convincing your toddler that although the elevator is soaked in urine, he must hold it in until reaching a proper restroom.) Riding the subway while transporting another, less able-bodied person is a responsibility more frequently carried out by women, and presents a more complicated experience than that of a single commuter.

As a result of these household responsibilities, women are likely to do more trip-chaining – e.g. taking the subway from work to the grocery store, walking to school, taking the bus home with kids and arms full of groceries – which is more time-consuming and expensive. These responsibilities are increasingly being distributed between men and women, but typically remain on the shoulders of women, both in time and cost.

The positive side of trip-chaining in NYC is the breadth of mobility options (specifically, 28 of them), which makes it easier to travel around New York than many other cities. New York’s multimodalism is due in a large part to smartphones (carried by nearly 70% of New Yorkers, according to industry experts), which let users tap into a range of travel options. (Many of those options don’t require cash, building in a measure of safety from theft). The combination of nearly-ubiquitous smartphones and dozens of travel modes makes New York a vastly improved travel city for women.

Other cities around the world are already attempting to address these safety concerns. Women-only rail cars and buses have been instituted in Tokyo, Delhi, Jakarta, Mexico City and other major cities. Unfortunately, they do not tend to offer protection on platforms or at bus stops, or get to the root of the problems of unwanted touching and violent behavior.

In New York, specific improvements on the subway are needed to make it a viable option for women taking part in the city’s 24-hour economy. Here’s a brief wish list for female transit users:

  • Accelerated buildout of cell phone service in stations
  • improved elevator functionality and cleanliness
  • Emergency call functions for On The Go kiosks
  • Increasing transit police presence on crowded trains
  • Training station agents to assist with station security throughout stations, looking out especially for women.

While readers of this site are right to prioritize an expanded subway system and reduced crowding on trains, these nearer-term transit improvements will make all New Yorkers safer, more comfortable and able to travel more efficiently.

You may also like


Roger April 13, 2016 - 2:27 am

So in a nutshell, gender resegregation…..

kevdflb April 13, 2016 - 3:00 am

“Accelerated buildout of cell phone service in stations
improved elevator functionality and cleanliness
Emergency call functions for On The Go kiosks
Increasing transit police presence on crowded trains
Training station agents to assist with station security throughout stations, looking out especially for women.”

Interesting, none of those even hint at “gender resegregation.”

Michael Shafland April 13, 2016 - 12:32 pm

You clearly have some reading comprehension issues, Roger.

Roger April 13, 2016 - 2:42 am

And honestly I don’t understand why having cash in your pocket is “unsafe”. A pickpocket does not have X-Ray machines that can see through your pocket. How does having some cash in your pocket make you more unsafe? If they didn’t grab any cash they grab your credit card and phones. Not much “safer”.

I hope the author is not in the same camp as the likes of Larry Summers that want to stigmatize and eventually ban cash..(http://www.valuewalk.com/2016/.....llar-bill/) At least today cash is safe from the credit card skimmers at gas pumps, safe from cyberattacks, safe from NSA surveillance and data brokers, and relatively safe from negative interest rates if central banks do start charging negative rates on your bank deposit…

Finally, for whatever new fare payment technology MTA would be using after Metrocard is phased out, please allow riders to pay their rides by cash. It is not just for the hundred thousands of the unbanked people in NYC, it is also a human rights issue of the digital age.

Miles Bader April 13, 2016 - 3:22 am

whatever new fare payment technology MTA would be using after Metrocard is phased out, please allow riders to pay their rides by cash. It is not just for the hundred thousands of the unbanked people in NYC, it is also a human rights issue of the digital age.

It’s hard to tell what you mean here. Do you insist on a per-ride fair-instrument (paper tickets, tokens, etc)?

Is a higher-tech analog of the Metrocard, e.g. a stored-value contactless card that is purchasable anonymously with cash from a vending machine accepable?

Bronx Resident April 13, 2016 - 4:08 am

The mass transportation system should be built with all users in mind.

I feel for anyone who must carry heavy/large objects like strollers or those with limited mobility. Our system was not built with these people in mind and still largely fails to deliver.

In regards to crime on mass transportation, I would argue that women are more likely the victim of sexuality relate crimes (e.g. forceful touching), and men more likely the victims of crimes which may seriously injury or kill (women are not more likely to be robbed on mass transportation than men in NYC). Women have been brought up to fear, despite being much less likely to be seriously injured or killed than men. At least in the United States, and specifically NYC. It’s an odd cultural mismatch. I am not trying to downplay the seriousness of those that are victimized, but the real issue here is that poverty and disinvestment in our urban communities has bred social problems which lead to crime on mass transit.

BoerumBum April 13, 2016 - 8:57 am

Sarah thank you for your piece (and Ben, thank you for inviting her to post), I found the new perspective welcome. Prior to reading your article, I’ve thought of subway cell phone service as simply a luxury, to allow one to pass time while waiting for the train (or, occasionally, to check to see if a delay is related to transit disruptions… though the websites where that information is disseminated are rarely updated in a timely manner, but I digress).

It was good to hear another perspective and realize that subway cell phone service can help to bring a measure of security to those who might otherwise opt to use more expensive transit options.

Thank you again for your piece. I would welcome additional opinions from you, and/or other guest writers.

MDC April 13, 2016 - 2:06 pm

Yes, as a male transit user in NYC, whose wife and daughter sometimes use the subways by themselves, and don’t always feel safe, I appreciate Sarah’s perspective as well.

AST April 13, 2016 - 9:01 am

‘desolate subway stations’ — Gee, we’ve been told they’re too crowded.

‘New York’s multimodalism is due in a large part to smartphones’ — Gee, again. I never knew I wasn’t supposed to use 2 modes before I had a cell phone!

Dt-Bk April 13, 2016 - 9:40 am

If you travel outside the traditional 9-5, like the author suggests that many women do due to the fields they are in (retail, healthcare, and education), the subway stations can be desolate, especially outside of the core Manhattan stations.

JB April 13, 2016 - 1:54 pm

I’d say that it’s mainly just local stations and far-flung outer borough stations (e.g. in the Rockaways that are ever desolate. Most other stations have an acceptable crowding level at all times.

Vicki April 13, 2016 - 9:06 am

I wondered how they got to “28 distinct modes,” and it turns out to include travel between cities (passenger airplanes and cruise ships) and cargo transport (“passenger air” and “air cargo” are shown separately, as are intercity trains and cargo trains). Yes, there are a lot of ways of getting around the city, but do we really want to count “fly to Chicago”?

bigbellymon4 April 13, 2016 - 9:52 am

I liked this article and the perspective it brings about the gender relations concerning transit, but I have issues with the solutions:

1. Cell phone build out is already moving at a pace faster than anticipated (planned all stations to have coverage by 2018-19, moved date closer to 2017). Transit Wireless is moving at a pace they didn’t see, let it run its course.

2. The elevators are just plain no good from the start. The cleanliness part has to do with homelessness, so fix that, fix the cleanliness.

3. The On the Go kiosks were meant to provide information, while the Help Points provide the Emergency/information help needed. Let the Help Points do what Help Points do.

4. I agree, but funding. (That one word rejection, ouch) Yes, police presence is needed, but the challenge is placing them among riders will be difficult (especially during rush.)

5. The token booth clerk job needs to be removed anyway. They need to be positioned on the platform with the necessary equipment that they use in the booth (not sitting, but standing and walking around on the platform). This will not only help riders, but it will help them to have a more active role in the system (after all, is that what they are paid for?).

Just my two cents.

Michael Shafland April 13, 2016 - 12:42 pm

You make some fair points, but I offer a gentle rebuttal/

2. Homelessness getting fixed is not a reasonable expectation for the near future. Cleaner and safer elevators are.
3. The author is calling for increased safety options in the subway. Can’t really say I see the point in your objection, other than we might have to rename the On the Go kiosks?
4. Funding is certainly an issue (or rather, THE issue) for any transit improvement, but I think the author is arguing for these safety issues to be taking more seriously and prioritized higher by the (mostly men) making budgetary decisions within and for the MTA.

bigbellymon4 April 13, 2016 - 10:31 pm

2. True, but how are we going to get clean and stench-free elevators? (The reliability part is part of the MTA laundry list of issues)

3. On the Go kiosks are being rolled out in major stations with cell coverage, if not stations with cell coverage/Help Points. Triple the protection?

4. Let me rephrase: The removal of the token booth job and positing those people on the platforms will help increase safety and make the job a more active one where they are “watching over” the passengers on the platform as they wait for a train.

John Buckholz April 13, 2016 - 9:57 am

One wonders at the motive behind some of these knee jerk reactions. In recent weeks I’ve waited 20 minutes for a rush hour F; been unable to board two successive C trains at Jay; sat on a packed 6 train at 12:30 PM on a Sunday while it stalled at 59th.

I’ve also gotten off at E. Broadway when the station was totally deserted, at 20 minutes to midnight.

I know firsthand that being a man is an insanely tough burden to shoulder, but why is it so hard to acknowledge that woman sometimes, occasionally, have valid reasons for concern?

pete April 13, 2016 - 10:27 am

F train drivers or conductors often never show upto work at 179 street. The train that never ran due to a missing staff member, is driven away by the next departure’s crew.

tacony April 13, 2016 - 10:17 am

Other cities around the world are already attempting to address these safety concerns. Women-only rail cars and buses have been instituted in Tokyo, Delhi, Jakarta, Mexico City and other major cities. Unfortunately, they do not tend to offer protection on platforms or at bus stops, or get to the root of the problems of unwanted touching and violent behavior.

I would not see this as an area where these international cities are ahead of us. Gender segregated rail cars were common in the US (and Western Europe) in the 19th century. Railroads had “ladies’ cars” for women who were traveling alone, back when most felt that a woman traveling without the protection of her husband or her father couldn’t “defend herself,” with the underlying implication here that men inherently couldn’t control their urges to forcibly touch and harass women, and so genders must be segregated. Thankfully we no longer accept that.

The H&M (today’s PATH) briefly did have “women’s cars” on rush hour trains when they began operating, and the IRT was asked to do the same but never implemented them as it was already starting to be viewed as an anachronism. Women began being seen as men’s equals in regards to public accommodation.

I would argue that the fact that we don’t have women-only rail cars anymore is a sign that we don’t put up with men harassing and abusing women. This is a good thing.

Kyle B. April 14, 2016 - 10:16 am

I second your thoughts. Having a women-only car is, thankfully, an anachronism here in the US. Spoken from experience in Mexico City.

Having a “safe” zone makes the other zones feel inherently less safe, not only for women, but for anyone unfamiliar or anxious about using the system, including tourists, and also creates an issue if you’d like to travel together as a couple or group of men and women.

Rita K April 13, 2016 - 11:19 am

On April 12th, President Obama and many others spoke of the inequality of pay for women. This is an excellent article which points to another aspect of gender differences in society.

Billy G April 16, 2016 - 6:09 am

Yes, sex pay equality is definitely very important.

Men should expect not to get underpaid for their work to fulfill some pinko’s view that “equality of outcomes” is somehow actually fair and equitable.

Urban single college graduate women who have no children earn more than urban single college graduate men who have no children. We should dock those women’s paychecks and pay the men so they’re all equal!

JJJJ April 13, 2016 - 12:13 pm

I brought this up on this post:

I was called sexist.

The fact is, as Sarah pointed out, gender affects how you experience the subway.

As I stated before: “Why would you give half a shit about expanding the system if riding it every day is uncomfortable and theres no way in hell youd ride alone past 7pm?”

Nyland8 April 13, 2016 - 12:49 pm

A couple of things come to mind. When the train pulls into the station, and people exit and enter, if I’m seated, I always try to make myself small, so the adjacent seat(s) doesn’t appear to be too uninviting. But being a big guy, it takes more than a little effort to do so, and it requires deliberately using adductor muscles to the point of straining. That said, I certainly have no objection to my legs being held together by the legs of people on either side of me, which is effortless, although I can understand why some folks think they shouldn’t even be in contact with the people in adjacent seats. But it’s a subway. Coming into contact with others when it’s crowded, standing or seated, is simply going to happen. That said, I have often yielded space to anyone who expressed an interest in an adjacent seat, and I’ve never seen anyone – even those who appear to be the worst man-spread culprits – try to keep anyone from sitting next to them. Women who asked to squeeze in are always accommodated, so the key thing is to not be bashful, and simply indicate that you want to sit. It virtually always works.

Another thought is about more transit police on crowded trains. The LAST thing we need on truly crowded trains is any more people – cops or otherwise – and police certainly don’t want to have their guns and other gear rubbing directly up against crowded standing passengers. In those conditions, you simply CANNOT put a cop in every car, on every rush hour train, and having a cop in the second car does NOTHING to deter a groper in the eighth car, or even the third. What CAN help is if a woman loudly protests being groped, and points the culprit out to her fellow passengers, many of whom, like myself, would never tolerate that activity, up to forcefully escorting that person from the train at the next stop.

When the train is quite crowded, I have, on several occasions, shaken sleeping vagrants who are taking up 3 or 4 seats, and made them sit up under threat of removing them from the train. On one occasion – a crowded northbound 1 Train out of 96th Street – I had to grab a tramp by the ankles and drag him onto the floor and out the door because he refuse to comply. I reason that they would rarely recover in time to be any danger to anyone before I slip back in the door and the train moves on. It’s a rude and violent awakening, but I always hope it makes them think twice about sleeping across multiple seats during rush hour. Most of the time they just growl when I make them sit up, and by the next stop, every seat is taken so they can’t lay down anymore. If they really need to sleep horizontally, they’re forced to leave the train to do so.

Women should remember that 99.7% of men are more than happy to come to their aid if they think they need to be escorted, or are under some sort of threat. All of my female friends have been told that if they know they expect to be arriving at either of my local subway stops late at night, I’m more than happy to meet them there at any hour of the night – even 2 or 3 AM. I’d much rather suffer the discomfort of being awakened at that hour, than the horror of hearing one of my female friends had been victimized – and I suspect most men feel the same way.

Chivalry isn’t dead – it just sometimes has to be resuscitated by request.

Quirk April 13, 2016 - 2:41 pm

Why are able bodied men sitting down anyway?

Quirk April 13, 2016 - 2:43 pm

Especially during rush hour and for a couple of stops. Someone please explain

bigbellymon4 April 13, 2016 - 10:39 pm

The couple of stops is just laziness. Plain and simple. And also, chivalry is sort of leaving the minds of men if it is not taught by the fathers and previous generations of men. Some men have it, other don’t.

AG April 14, 2016 - 6:31 pm

Can’t have it both ways… Chivalry comes from a time when women not working and not competing in fields with men. You can’t confuse boys or girls that way. Society now teaches them both that their is no difference in the genders. “Girls can do anything boys can do”. So you really expect them to give up their seat when they become and adult?

Nyland8 April 14, 2016 - 11:56 pm

Regarding “chivalry”, it’s interesting to look at old photos of subway passengers from 80+ years ago, and see men were no more likely to be standing up for women than we do now. It was not at all unusual at the time for able bodied young men – often in suits, and with hats on – to be sitting reading the paper while women were standing and holding on to the leather straps – which reminds me that we still use the term “straphangers”, despite the fact that the straps haven’t existed for decades.

AG April 15, 2016 - 11:01 pm

I never took note of that. Interesting

BoerumBum April 13, 2016 - 3:18 pm

Standing people are in the way. Sitting people are out of the way. If there’s a seat; take it. If someone needs the seat you’re in; give it. It’s not that hard.

Quirk April 13, 2016 - 4:08 pm

basically a TLDR;

bigbellymon4 April 13, 2016 - 10:35 pm

Here is my issue with that statement: Some men have jobs where they are on there feet most of the day, if not all. There feet are tired, so they sit, or they could have had stressful day, and what the catch a few zzz’s on the ride home. A young man myself, i sit on the ride home, especially after cross-country practice. Other times, there might be a handful of seats open, yet i don’t sit. It all depends on the situation.

Fbfree April 13, 2016 - 7:54 pm

‘Unfortunately, they do not tend to offer protection on platforms or at bus stops’

Women only cars do extend to protection at platforms, at least in Mexico City where sections of the platforms are women only. There’s no physical barrier, but there isn’t much of one in the rail cars either. There is however an ability to gauge the behaviour of anyone violating the women-only area and time to respond.

Duke April 13, 2016 - 8:44 pm

I’ve read about the disproportionately male userbase of Citibike before. The article linked in this post is attributing it to a lack of willingness among women to bike in city traffic. The last time I read about this they concluded that women are less willing to bike to work or to social events because 1) women are more bothered than men by the prospect of showing up to these places sweaty from the physical exertion of biking, and 2) dresses and skirts can be unwieldy to ride a bike in.

In other words, society’s skewed standards of personal beauty create a barrier to women bicycling.

As for subway commuters being 52% female and 48% male, this is probably simply reflective of the fact that the city’s overall population is 53% female and 47% male.

Stephen April 15, 2016 - 10:30 am

Great piece!

One bit of context for the Citi Bike numbers: while there is an under representation compared to the general public, there is an OVER representation compared to other bike riders.

We should certainly be doing more to get women comfortable riding on NYC streets, and it’s demonstrated that bike share helps!

Rob April 17, 2016 - 12:35 pm

I think the under-representation of risk-averse people on Citibike is due to the lack of a complete network of protected/separated lanes. And even most of the separated lanes suffer from ‘mixing zones’ where drivers bully unprotected cyclists with their motor vehicles.

“Interested but concerned” people who want to ride will only start out if they know they can go practically their entire trip with separation/protection.


Leave a Comment