At first glance, street canyons, footpaths, underground stations, and playgrounds appear to be open spaces that are universally accessible to all of a city’s inhabitants. A lift can seemingly be used just as equally as a four-lane inner-city ring road. But is this actually the case? As different as cities all over the world are, they are greatly similar in one aspect: the male* view, patriarchal relations, and a mode of production and life that is geared towards the male* and white* “ordinary citizen” all take physical form within the urban landscape. This affords privileges to the few, while negating the needs of many others.
Janna Aljets is an active member of the climate justice movement whose primary interest is in combatting coal, cars, and the patriarchy. She has been instrumental in establishing “the transformation of the automotive industry and the mobility transition” as a key focus area of the Brussels Office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. This article first appeared in LuXemburg, translation by Gráinne Toomey and Ryan Eyers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
In viewing the capitalist city of today—along with its traffic and the (im)mobility of its inhabitants—from a feminist, intersectional perspective, the dominance of the car becomes readily apparent. It is the “car-centric culture”, the focus upon and privileged status of the car, that leads to the systematic neglect of the mobility requirements of women*, as well as of marginalized demographic groups, in favour of an outdated model of gender norms and city planning. In other words: the patriarchal, racist, and classist power relations that permeate our cities and transport systems culminate in the dominance of the car. An intersectional and sustainable concept of city and transport planning must take this context into consideration.
The Car as an Expression of Hegemonic Masculinity
It is undisputed that our current transport system is built around the car as the most important mode of transport. But car-centric culture extends far beyond the alignment of infrastructure with car use or the dominance of the automotive industry. It is also a question of gender. The car is emotionally loaded like almost no other consumer product, and is successfully marketed as a symbol not only of freedom and independence, but of strength, domination, power, and technology––all concepts that construct and perpetuate notions of masculinity.
The image of car drivers as male and passengers as female still lingers today, along with the idea that tinkering with or polishing your car is the sole preserve of proud dads and “real men” who understand technology. Or, as Dan Albert (2019) puts it: “Driver’s ed made teenagers into citizens; auto repair made boys into men.” Reckless male behaviour while behind the wheel is also reflected in accident statistics, with men much more likely to be the cause of serious and fatal accidents. The same is also true of “trivial offences” such as intoxication, speeding, or parking violations (German Federal Statistical Office 2018). Margarete Stokowski (2019) brilliantly analyses the connection between the heated discussion around speed limits in Germany and wounded masculinity: “Whenever there are discussion about restrictions to activities that are supposedly more “male”––whether eating meat, setting off fireworks, or driving fast––squadrons of politicians and journalists are always at hand to declare that entirely unreasonable motives driven by a hatred of pleasure are castrating a God-given human liberty.” It’s almost funny––if it wasn’t so sad.
In the context of this car-centric culture, engines should be noisy and dirty or, if they are electric versions, need to pack real horsepower. Cars are now increasingly built to resemble miniature tanks that dominate the streets. Cyclists and pedestrians are forced to squeeze past them apologetically, since roads have been built for cars––and cars only. The SUV trend, which has proven so lucrative for auto manufacturers, has pushed this dominance to the brink. In a sense, it is reminiscent of the tendency among men towards “manspreading” (where a man adopts a sitting position in public spaces with legs spread wide apart) and “mansplaining” (a patronizing explanation from a man who assumes he knows more about a subject than a female counterpart). In all of these contexts, space is encroached upon, without consideration of those who lose out, whether that be other human beings, less able or disadvantaged people, or the environment. Here, the right of the stronger party is expressed as unconditional, and is propagated and by and large accepted by society. Or, as seen in an advertisement for the Ford Mustang: “Just don’t think about your kids.” This catastrophic trend, which has pushed up accident statistics as well as the profits of car manufacturers, can also be compared to a kind of arms race. If there are more and more two-tonne tanks on the road in the form of SUVs, driving a normal-sized car no longer seems safe. The need for a bigger car for maximum security increases the danger for everyone else on the road in turn.
That growing numbers of women* are now driving large and environmentally polluting cars, and that it is often men from marginalized groups who strive to acquire an enormous car as proof of status, points to the contradictions of, but does not refute the argument in its essence: the display of hegemonic masculinity is, after all, not just about acting out “natural”, biologically determined characteristics, but is related to societal expectations of behaviour and notions of social dominance and symbolic power. These devalue not only femininity but also other forms of masculinity and simultaneously create the pressure to both conform and compete.
How Road Traffic is Steered by "Real Men"
It is not only the emotionally loaded fetish for cars, however, that makes the transport sector an industry dominated by men. The sector appears to be a bastion of masculinity, where on the executive floors white men can still enjoy their own company (in addition to travelling first class on airplanes and trains), and where other perspectives are barely visible or taken into consideration. The dominance of this privileged white-masculine perspective is exemplified by the German Federal Ministry of Transport, where, since its inception, not a single female minister has held office, and where the other senior position holders are almost entirely male and white (German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure 2020).
The gender gap in the manufacturing industry is striking, and is clearly underscored in the relevant statistics: in the automotive industry, women* make up approximately 14 percent of employees, a number that falls far below the average of other industrial sectors. The proportion of women* then continues to drop as levels of pay or qualification rise, and attempts to find any in the boardroom will in the majority of cases prove fruitless.
The proportion of women* varies according to individual branches of the industry: the proportion of women* working at car manufacturers in the year 2008 lay at only twelve percent, this number lay between 12.2 and 18 percent in the auto supplier industry (IG Metall 2010). Separate wage brackets for women and low-income earners, which designated different (i.e. worse) pay levels for these groups, existed until the 1980s. (German Trade Union Confederation 2013).
Despite otherwise being a relatively rare presence nowadays, this masculine exclusivity continues to predominate in other areas of the sector too. Traffic and city planning in municipalities and administrative bodies therefore falls largely under the purview of men, and in political parties, few women* initiate conversations on the topic. So-called transport experts are almost always men*, while at specialist conferences the few women present simply nod along in corroboration. For these reasons, it’s no wonder that the subject of transport still seems to be the sole preserve of men.
What Is the Effect of Hegemonic Masculinity in the Transport Sector?
Having more women* and stakeholders* from marginalized groups in positions of power does not guarantee a form of traffic and city planning that takes gender into account. But when these perspectives are not represented on advisory boards and expert panels, transport planning will inevitably be dominated by the transport and mobility needs of gainfully employed men*. Modern town planning remains rooted in Fordist bias: it designs and administers cities oriented towards male sole earners and their patterns of consumption and production. This reproduces and strengthens images of gender and ways of living that have in fact been undergoing radical upheaval for some time.
The road layouts of many cities more or less originate from the long commuting distances between home and work that are travelled once a day by an implicitly male working population––preferably in a private car, on a city motorway. These routes were tailored to the idealized 1950s model of family and mobility conceived of the city according to the principle of being “car-friendly” and “boundless mobility for free citizens”. Roads lead to work, to the presumed centre of the productive economy, and ruthlessly cut through areas in which people reside and live.
The work that is undertaken by women* within the framework of this model and that is constructed as “female”, and the routes taken by female workers, are less linear and even less predictable. Care provision work such as looking after children and the elderly, shopping, doing the school run may comprise multiple routes within a single day that are often highly complex and should, in an ideal scenario, be located within the direct vicinity of residence (school, kindergarten, doctor, supermarket etc.). Care workers are therefore much more reliant on safe, short-distance footpaths and bike paths and a well-developed public transport system. They also have particular needs, including when it comes to using transport: parents are often on the go with buggies, which require wider footpaths, flattened kerbs, and easier methods of getting on and off public transport––and the same applies for people with disabilities (Murray 2018). In a male-only perspective of town and transport planning, where priority is placed on faster routes for cars rather than decent interconnections and an accessible range of transport options within residents’ immediate living environments, these needs are overlooked.
A Feminist Rethinking of Transport
How, then, can transport and mobility be transformed from a feminist and intersectional perspective? While toxic, hegemonic masculinity is based on the idea of being stronger, and thus on exclusivity, the focus of a feminist and intersectional approach must be on inclusivity and in taking into account people who are socially disadvantaged or less physically strong. Mobility means the opportunity to participate in society. From a democratic point of view, this opportunity should be available to everyone and represent a part of public services that benefits society. The following are four principles to guide a radical shift in the transport sector:
- Mobility for everyone: Up until now, cities and towns have been built for, and built around, the strongest transport stakeholders (usually those with the highest income); they should now be accessible for all people. Freedom of movement for the few should no longer encroach upon the mobility of the many. Regardless of the gender, income, or skin colour of its passengers, transport options should be safe, affordable, accessible to those with disabilities, and environmentally friendly. These aspirations clearly point to collectivized modes of transport as well as improved infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. These modes of transport use up significantly less space and resources, and produce less noise and air pollution. In addition, they generally enable cheaper mobility for a great number of people. The same cannot be said of the standard mode of transport: a private car with a combustion engine.
- Safety for everyone: The transport system has until now catered towards the young and the fit, as well as the wealthy. But the elderly, children, and those with physical disabilities have different requirements when it comes to safer mobility options. Not for nothing is cycling infrastructure a key indicator of a just, safer, and more inclusive system of mobility. The more optimized and safer cycling infrastructure is, the more women*, children, and seniors will use bikes (El País 2019). In addition, women and people of colour live in particular fear of assault or harassment in public spaces: dark underground garages, poorly lit train station entrances, and underpasses can all be frightening places for some. Public transport itself, too, can often be a stressful experience––so to avoid making a privately-owned car the only safe place of refuge (one that people need to be able to afford), ideas for making public spaces safer for everyone are necessary.
- Focus on relationship-building: The transport routes required for care provision work need much more attention. A “mobility of care” is a concept of mobility that is complex, multi-functional, and divided into smaller-scale aspects. Mobility in this context refers to the cultivation of relationships, since contact with and between people is essential. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that many women* and older people want cities to create more public spaces for leisure (BBC 2019). Creating simple and inviting areas with benches or parks is a way to ease and enable care work and relationship building––and also rescues these spaces from being closed off for private use. If spaces in towns and cities are gobbled up for commercial use and car parking spaces, it renders these kinds of social encounters within the community impossible.
- More patience: A more inclusive approach to transport requires an injection of patience. This means more tolerance for people who cannot, cannot yet, or can no longer walk quickly, who cannot see or hear well, or who are simply unfamiliar with an area. This may lead to longer times for crossing at traffic lights, wider cycle paths, accessible labelling, lifts, or many other solutions. But it also means limiting the alleged right of those who are faster and stronger in an active and targeted manner.
A feminist and intersectional approach to the mobility transition needs to advance the cause of those who are most affected by car-centric culture and/or who are already working on alternatives––for instance parents, cycling activists, environmental defenders, children, and the elderly. Greater collaborative organization at the grassroots level is required, with potential new alliances a welcome prospect. However, radical changes are also needed within established institutions in parties, NGOs, and ministries, as well as in local politics. Until women and marginalized communities are given a seat at the table and space to speak, gender-sensitive and intersectional transport planning will not be possible.
The (masculine) dominance of the car in our cities must be curtailed. The effect of this curtailment would be different for each city, since planning and the implementation of change must be undertaken together with the people who live there. These guiding principles could result in benefits for all inhabitants, since an alternative approach to transport planning means enhanced access, fairness, tranquillity, space, fresh air, safety, and meeting places available for everyone.
Albert, Dan, Are We There Yet? The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless, New York: Norton, 2019.
BBC, “What would a city designed by women be like?”, 2019, www.bbc.com/news/av/world-50269778/what-would-a-city-designed-by-women-be-like.
El País, “Las mujeres necesitan más los carriles bici que los hombres para pedalear”, 2019, https://elpais.com/sociedad/2019/11/18/actualidad/1574106321_138788.html.
German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (2020): Organigramm, www.bmvi.de/SharedDocs/DE/Artikel/Z/organigramm-anhang.html.
German Trade Union Confederation, “Gleiches Geld für gleichwertige Arbeit”, 2013, https://frauen.dgb.de/++co++54aeb962-31c0-11e3-8336-00188b4dc422.
IG Metall, “Frauenbeschäftigung in der Automobilbranche. Entwicklung und aktuelle Situation”, 2010, www.igmetall.de/download/0157928_langfassung_automobilindustrie_10032010_483a2e0bcf73d4f229df5aaa968426f65a73ea53.pdf.
Murray, Christine, “What would cities look like if they were designed by mothers?”, The Guardian, 27 August 2018, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/27/architects-diversity-cities-designed-mothers.
Statistisches Bundesamt, “Verkehrsunfälle. Unfälle von Frauen und Männern im Straßenverkehr”, 2018, www.destatis.de/DE/Themen/Gesellschaft-Umwelt/Verkehrsunfaelle/Publikationen/Downloads-Verkehrsunfaelle/unfaelle-frauen-maenner-5462407177004.pdf?__blob=publicationFile.
Stokowski, Margarete, “Fragile Rollenbilder. Männlichkeit am Limit”, Spiegel Online, 22 January 2019, www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/tempolimit-und-gender-maennlichkeit-am-limit-a-1249258.html.