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Cutting back on traffic in cities will mean putting an end to a long-standing love affair — between men and their cars.
As city leaders look to reduce air pollution and hit ambitious net-zero targets, many are investing millions into green mobility infrastructure and implementing plans to ban cars from city centers.
Those measures will only work if cities can get the public on board, and experts warn that local authorities are overlooking a major factor: the role that gender plays in how people move around.
“Men and women travel in different ways — and this is true throughout Europe,” said Linda Gustafsson, gender equality officer for the Swedish city of Umeå. “Men drive cars to a higher extent, while women use public transportation or bike or walk.”
Of course, some men favor public transport and some women prefer to travel by gas-guzzler, but research shows that on average men and women do tend to travel differently.
A 2020 study commissioned by Sweden’s innovation agency found that while women and men make roughly the same number of trips in a day, men travel longer distances and tend to favor their cars. Women tend to include more stops into their journeys — to combine family, work and social responsibilities — and are more likely to choose alternatives to cars when they’re available.
If men traveled like women, the study suggested, Sweden’s emissions from passenger transport would decrease by nearly 20 percent.
Other studies point in a similar direction: A 2019 Eurobarometer survey commissioned by the European Parliament found that, while the car is the preferred mobility option regardless of gender, women are more likely than men to walk or use public transport. Another recent poll found that women cycle more often than men in cities with safe cycling infrastructure, like in the Netherlands and Denmark.
With women already more likely to opt for sustainable mobility options, the real challenge is to convince men to change their mobility habits. But doing so is more easily said than done.
Most cities were designed by men and designed to accommodate cars; in many places, taking the car is still the easiest option. Car ownership has also long been a symbol of material wealth, social status and independence — and tightly bound up in ideas of masculinity, said Ana Drăguțescu, coordinator for sustainable mobility and transport at ICLEI Europe, a network of local authorities that promote sustainability.
“When we talk about the car’s place in urban planning and transport planning we talk about it as a rational thing,” said Malene Freudendal-Pedersen, professor of urban planning at Aalborg University. “But there are actually a lot of emotions caught up in that car.”
Flipping the script
Some cities are already taking steps to change those dynamics — but it isn’t easy.
Inspired by the findings of Sweden’s 2020 study on men and women’s mobility patterns, the city of Umeå launched a project to tackle car use in its industrial district, Västerslätt.
The neighborhood, like many industrial areas around Europe, is “built for cars, and men in cars,” said Anna Gemzell, development strategist for the municipality.
Its sidewalks are narrow and there are few pedestrian crossings; cyclists have to contend with heavy car and truck traffic and don’t have easy access to secure parking for their bikes.
“In the city, it’s understood that cyclists have the right of way. Cars stop, drivers nod and let you cross. Here, cars go a lot faster. They own the street,” said Gemzell.
When the city interviewed people who commute to work by car, many said the area was too difficult to reach by public transport. But they also admitted they were unlikely to use public transport even if it was available.
“Some people [in the interviews] say that, ‘Oh, you don’t go by bus. You just don’t, as a man,’” said Gemzell. “Even if we improved bus traffic, we’re not sure that that would help.”
Rather than pump more money into new infrastructure and hope that people would use it, Umeå set out to actively incentivize car users to make the switch. It partnered with local employers to offer perks to employees who changed their commuting habits; some companies even went so far as to grant an additional week of holiday to employees who frequently cycle to work.
“We can build hundreds of kilometers of bike lanes,” said Gemzell. “But if no one uses them, then it’s a waste of money.”
What do men want?
The Brussels region has come to a similar realization and started to specifically target men in its ad campaigns to increase bike use.
“We wanted to target those who had never thought about cycling and those who didn’t know many people who would inspire them to do so,” said Sofie Walschap, manager at Bike for Brussels, the initiative to promote bike use in the capital region. “And that group includes way more men than women.”
As part of the initiative, the local administration launched BrusselsFit, a campaign that touts cycling as a way to get fit and rebrands the city’s cycle paths as “the largest gym in Brussels.” Its promotional video features a middle-aged white collar employee who, tired of working out in soulless gyms and spending his time stuck in commuter traffic, hops on a bike and regains a sense of freedom.
The campaign, whose posters also predominantly feature men, went hand in hand with major investments in sustainable mobility, including expanded bike infrastructure. “We’ve done the work,” said Walschap, “so there are no more excuses.”
Targeted, positive messaging can help to counterbalance more “punitive measures” like speed limits and car-free zones, said ICLEI’s Drăguțescu.
The difficulty is figuring out what kind of initiatives will work, she noted, as many cities haven’t collected data to help them understand how men and women move through cities differently — and what is keeping men, specifically, in their cars.
“We’ve had movies that ask ‘What Women Want,’” she said. “When it comes to mobility cities need to try to understand what men want … That’s the only way to draw them towards public transport or cycling or walking.”
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