Fifty-five percent of transit riders in the U.S. are women, yet women represent only 35 percent of the transportation workforce (US DOT, 2015). This is lack of representation is particularly acute at the leadership level – of the top 40 transit agencies, there are only 7 women in CEO/General Manager positions. Transit agency boards, whose decision making can have tremendous impacts on riders, fare little better where representation is concerned. In New York, for example, 52% of the MTA’s service area residents are women and 65% are people of color, but 78% of the agency’s board members are white men. This is concerning when transit agency boards have the power to approve or deny service changes, raise fares, and develop equity and Title VI compliance policies.
When leadership and staff are not reflective of riders they serve, how can they make choices that effectively meet the needs of these riders? This failure of representation has led to transit service throughout the U.S. that is built with the archetype of a male, home-to-work commuter in mind. This translates to a focus on peak-hour, direct services and expensive suburban rail. These service patterns don’t serve the off-peak, multi-destination rider, going from home to school, on errands, or to the doctor, among many other trips. Furthermore stop and station designs often fail to address the needs of parents traveling with kids, and the unique safety concerns that women face.
To better serve all riders, we need to diversify the transit workforce – from operators to leadership – so that more voices and ideas influence our transportation planning, engineering and operations decisions. Transit agency leaders should appoint women to positions of power, promote the ones who have been languishing for too long, and begin to value “soft skills” like organizing and communication through which planners learn about the way women use transit.