Public transportation is a contentious subject in Los Angeles. In a city shaped by the automobile, the bus and subway systems are not only insubstantial in scope but limited in response to the needs of its 3.9 million residents, whose demographics vary widely across its 503 square miles. Those systems have often been treated as a last resort.
A 2019 study commissioned by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) and conducted by Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) showed those feelings of reluctance are disproportionately felt by women. According to Changing Lanes: A Gender Equity Transportation Study, women are far more likely to report poor sidewalk conditions, perceptions of danger at night, and other concerns.
Working in coordination with Toole Design Group, Cityfi, Investing in Place, and UCLA-affiliated researchers, KDI collected data in three separate corners of the city with high proportions of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) residents and women workers living in zero-car households: Sun Valley in the north, Watts in the south, and Sawtelle in the west. The 74 travel interviews and 412 community surveys the initiative conducted within those neighborhoods focused on scales of mobility rarely considered in public transportation design. “Transportation plans start the second you’re out the door,” said Naria Kiani, senior planning coordinator at KDI’s Los Angeles office. “In the spaces between their homes and the nearest bus or train station, we learned that there was a common lack of crosswalks, street lighting, signalized intersections, and bus amenities.”
These impediments to pedestrian navigation, which Kiani describes as “infrastructure deficiencies,” have made the use of public transportation feel more dangerous than it might otherwise. “We learned that safety is a huge part of the calculus women have to consider when traveling,” Kiani said. “And because they take more trips than men for household and caregiving responsibilities, that fear of safety is multiplied by public transportation systems that do not consider their unique requirements.”
In addition to gender inequities, the report states, “BIPOC women face racial barriers to safe and accessible transportation, maneuvering factors like historic underinvestment, racist housing and zoning practices, and economic disenfranchisement.”
Despite the varying densities and wealth distributions of the neighborhoods involved in the study, it reported that women were more likely than men to use multiple transportation modes in a day and have long-duration grocery store trips, meaning that they disproportionately navigate a public transportation system that was not designed for them. “We’re the ones carrying the bags of groceries, riding with our children, and running errands, and that’s just during the day,” said Los Angeles City Council president Nury Martinez at a press conference in front of City Hall this past July. “For those who can’t afford a taxi or their own car, this program can be the difference between walking two blocks in the dark and ten feet to one’s doorstep.”
Finding solutions to these problems requires navigating the city’s densely interwoven public entities, including the Bureau of Street Services, the Bureau of Street Lighting, and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. By tracking down these entities and their claims to the city in a comprehensive diagram, referred to as a “responsibility matrix,” Changing Lanes was able to suggest a path forward for implementing citywide improvements, from the repair and widening of sidewalks in anticipation of women traveling with strollers or dependents to increasing street lighting and placing bus stops near active businesses to create a visibly and actively safer transit system.
Following the publication of Changing Lanes, the next steps will be guided by the same community outreach that led to the initial data collection. “My desired outcome for the next phase is for the city to work with low-income communities of color to consider the suite of implementation strategies that would best work for each neighborhood,” Kiani said. “This would allow countless women to reach their full potential through a public transportation system that provides greater and more efficient access to jobs, education, and recreation.”