Understanding the Role of Public Transportation in Supporting the Care Economy in Washington, DC, USA
These examples illustrate the value discrepancies between infrastructure projects supporting predominantly male professions and roles versus those supporting predominantly female ones. This gender-blind infrastructure funding and design present intersectional barriers to women’s access to education, healthcare, and better jobs. Policymakers fail to utilize the available tools to increase gender equity and inclusion through practical infrastructure improvements. The disproportionately large representation of women across supporting professions and roles, thus, broadly reflects the unequal support for social versus physical infrastructure projects.
This paper will first explore the gendered nature of care and review examples of how the hidden gendered biases of ‘hard’ infrastructure expenditures further disadvantage women and disproportionately benefit men. Using a case study approach, the researchers then analyze Washington, DC’s public transportation infrastructure, specifically the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s (WMATA) Metrobus system. The researchers chose this example because of the system’s location in the national capital, where the researchers’ home institution also resides. The analysis of the case study materials illustrates the gender biases against care evident in the public transportation infrastructure of Washington, DC. By analyzing the hidden biases of physical infrastructure investments, the researchers lay bare their negative implications for women and children and identify potential intervention points. The paper concludes by identifying strategies that lend themselves to targeted improvements in the public transportation infrastructure of Washington, DC, and, by extension, of other cities.
2. Providing Care: A Review of the Gendered Nature of Care and Care Infrastructure
The critical nature of care services is vital to understanding who typically performs them in households and communities. Since care services are primarily unpaid, they do not have a standard market value. A ubiquitously popular measurement, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), estimates the value of final goods and services produced in an economy. GDP, however, does not quantify the value of care services in an economy, even though unpaid work heftily supports the work provided in visible markets.
While this dichotomy undoubtedly reflects entrenched gender biases, their less visible implications are more insidious. Such hidden biases are, for example, reflected in the ‘hard’ infrastructure bill itself and, more generally, in the physical infrastructure expenditures of municipalities and states.
3. Infrastructure and Care
5. Materials and Methods
Per WMATA by-laws, the Board, Riders Advisory Council (RAC), Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC), and its two subcommittees must produce publicly available agendas before each monthly meeting and require they keep meeting minutes. The by-laws also require the RAC and AAC to develop and submit monthly reports and annual work plans to the Board. Finally, the groups must conduct all meetings per Robert’s Rules of Order and be open to the public with dedicated time for public comment. The five groups held 292 of 295 (98.9%) scheduled meetings during the study period. WMATA’s Board of Directors did not meet on 26 March 2020, and the Riders Advisory Council did not meet on April 1 or May 6, 2020, presumably due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.
In examining the themes and patterns among select WMATA stakeholders, we identified considerable resistance to a staff-led effort to increase system ridership by allowing open strollers on Metrobuses. An initial review provided data on which meetings had relevant content regarding the open stroller pilot for a thematic analysis. To gain insights that may have been lacking from the public record, we requested interviews from relevant stakeholders inside and outside of WMATA. The six interviews provided invaluable context and nuance that were essential for gaining a well-rounded view of the open stroller policymaking process.
7.1. Resolutions and Recommendations to Address Gender Biases in Public Transportation
WMATA has several opportunities to address reducing gendered barriers to accessing its system. Metro leadership should incorporate gender into its other equity initiatives related to race, color, national origin, age, and disability status. By doing so, Metro might demonstrate support for gender equity at the highest levels of system leadership, allowing the agency to expand gender-responsive planning and operations. Metro should establish advisory groups responsive to the transit needs of women, girls, parents, and caregivers so they have a recognized forum to discuss relevant issues and update leadership on their priorities. For example, this can lead to full consideration of caregiver needs when designing buses, such as increased space to park strollers and shopping carts, hooks for hanging bags, and lower hand holds for standing passengers.
Concerning data collection and analysis, full gender equity support might mean collecting gender data in all surveys for later disaggregation and designing data collection tools sensitive to the mobility of care. The current Metro system presents the fewest barriers for suburban commuters and those with disabilities, as required by the ADA. By collecting more granular data, WMATA can better understand how riders use its system to accommodate their needs and increase ridership. It can also strengthen the foundation for a gender action plan.
7.2. Future Research
Feminism in the 20th century spurned scholarship in countless academic fields. For several decades, the discourse pivoted on the idea of women and men as polar opposites, in some ways replicating the divisions feminists sought, in part, to eliminate in the first place. More recent research, however, has widened its aperture to capture more than the gender binary. Recently, we speak of the gender spectrum, one that includes those who identify as female and male but also transgender and non-binary gender. This social evolution underscores the importance of continued research into the myriad implications for equity studies in infrastructure, transportation, and mobility. Gaps exist in both qualitative and quantitative examination of our public transit systems. This investigation’s case study approach is a powerful tool for uncovering the drivers and barriers of gender equity so that policymakers and decision makers can increase access for all members of society. By doing so, we can better support caregiving and reduce urban carbon footprints resulting from privately owned vehicle emissions.
Quantitative and mixed methods research will also continue to expand the mobility of the care knowledge base. There is no shortage of publicly available data and information whose analysis can help to fill significant knowledge gaps in the field. It is also crucial for this scholarship to move beyond the frontiers of transportation studies to other domains, such as sociology, public administration, economics, history, and public health, preferably in concert with each other.
7.3. Methodological Limitations
The authors recognize several limitations to our methodology. Most importantly, this study is limited to the review of publicly available secondary materials posted on WMATA.com. There were several meetings for which documents (e.g., meeting agendas, minutes, and recordings) did not exist or were not posted. Concerning our analysis of meeting transcripts, there were varying degrees of clarity, making it difficult to understand the proceedings. The same applies to the nature of transcribing meetings where group members may speak simultaneously. Additionally, we only interviewed six stakeholders, which comprised only a fraction (18%) of the total identified in the record. As a result, we missed additional and contrasting viewpoints.
Regarding gender identity, the researchers based our assumptions on the gendered pronouns some stakeholders used to refer to others without knowledge of the stakeholder’s gender self-identification. In cases where the team found no mention of pronouns, we determined gender identity by the stakeholder’s first name. They categorized those with traditionally female names as female and those with traditionally male names as male. None of the gender identification strategies accounted for trans or non-binary stakeholders. This methodology may have skewed the outcomes of our study. Finally, the researchers coded disability status through stakeholder self-identification of a disability or their membership or appearance during any Accessibility Advisory Committee or subcommittee meetings. Our methodology is, therefore, subject to bias.
On 6 March 2023, WMATA announced its new policy to allow open strollers on city buses, 20 years after the Chicago Transit Authority and 8 years after Seattle’s King County. WMATA launched its pilot phase in early 2020 after at least two years of rigorous debate. Through document review, interviews, and analysis, the researchers discovered several parts of the WMATA organization, including its Accessibility Advisory Committee, generated significant pushback to a revised policy to improve caregiver access to public transportation and increase system ridership.
The lack of attention to these issues is not a coincidence but illustrative of the hidden gender biases of “hard” infrastructure, including public transportation. Through the feminist economic lens, this is just one way that unpaid care services suffer neglect to the detriment of economic production. A sustainable economy requires that policymakers support the unpaid labor that absorbs, assimilates, buffers, restores, and reproduces the end and by-products of the production process through thoughtful, evidence-based planning of the infrastructure that everyone uses. The economy’s productivity is impaired without restoring the neglected services provided by unpaid labor.
Experts can restore these neglected restorative capacities, at least in part, through disaggregated data collection using tools sensitive to cross-cutting gender role differences to expose gaps and opportunities for bolstering care work and increasing equitable access to infrastructure services. They can also improve urban transit systems by increasing the participation of all transit system stakeholders, including women and girls. By doing so, urban transit agencies will increase ridership, bolster the economy, and reduce the use of privately owned vehicles. There are no downsides to improving transit access for all.
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