Is the train schedule sexist?

Read on for a summary of Leslie Kern’s talk on “How Cities Fail Women”. This includes key themes, actions and ways that you can learn more about how to build a feminist city.

While we do not have a recording of Leslie’s talk, we committed to sharing key themes from the session with you. Here are some of the things that we captured as important takeaways:

  • Cities fail women in a variety of ways: safety, housing, jobs, mobility, care work.
  • One of Leslie’s arguments is that gendered exclusion is built into cities. For example, city planning practices and policy-making, infrastructure design, transportation, etc.
  • Leslie’s work has been animated by the question: who is the city for?
  • Everything from the height requirements to reach something, the strength that it takes to push open a revolving door, the temperature of an office building - these are set to some idea of normal for a male body.
  • City builders, including architects and chief planners, have historically been, and are currently, largely male-dominated positions.
  • Rather than a city for everyone, we have made a man-made City, and this isn’t a new concept – it goes back to the 19th century.
  • Transportation is another example. Leslie posed the questions: is the train schedule or bus route sexist? Her answer is ‘yes’, there is a sexist impact. Decades of research have shown that women’s mobility and men’s mobility through the city look quite different. Women are less likely to have a 9-5 commute. Also, their journeys aren’t linear but circuitous and they often involve ‘trip chaining’. For example, they might drop kids off at daycare, then go to check on a loved one, then pick up dinner all without returning home.
  • There is hope: it isn’t inevitable that men will only design spaces for men, and we don’t need to bulldoze cities!
  • What if we focus on having different people in the room? Focus on the people, places and activities that have been the most marginalized? Critically evaluate what we use urban spaces for? Take into account and think about how to support the different kinds of labour like care work that we need for human flourishing? Emphasize the needs of excluded or ignored groups? Considered special interest or marginalized groups at the forefront in decision-making?

What can we do about it? What are some practical ways we can apply these learnings?

  • Leslie provided several tangible examples of how we can build more equitable cities:
    1. Shift curriculum for urban-related professions to include more diverse views
    2. A paradigm shift in how we engage the community around development:
      • Shift from viewing it as a burden to a more inclusive and cost-effective process in the long run. Getting it right the first time saves costly fixes later.
      • Go beyond traditional, one time engagement. Making people come to a meeting on a specific date/time will not give you a diversity of views
      • Go to where people are at. Ask local agencies how their clients want to be engaged.
      • Shift thinking of community participants to co-creators in our changing and growing city
    3. Undertake safety audits with community members, planners and developers. Physically go into spaces and experience them in a holistic way instead of looking at sets of drawings at a desk. Ask where are there opportunities for change?
    4. Address challenges holistically instead of in isolation of other intersecting issues. Consider gender, race and colonialism (e.g., climate crisis, active transportation)
    5. Collectivism is an important way to get voices heard. Become a chorus together, creating solidarity across many different groups.
    6. Leverage learnings from the pandemic and don’t go back to the ‘old way’ of doing things (e.g. closed streets for pedestrians, etc.)

  • Leslie also highlighted several innovative and evidence-based examples of tackling gender inequity:
    1. Los Angeles, C.A.: Gender Action Plan to support gender equity in public transit. Based on the recommendations from the 2019 Understanding How Women Travel study.
    2. Quito, Ecuador: Quito Cuentame (“tell me” booths where women can report experiences of sexual harrassment)
    3. United Kingdom: Rail to Refuge UK intervention for domestic violence. Train operators cover the cost of train tickets for anyone escaping abuse who needs to find refuge accommodation.
    4. Scotland, U.K.: “Don’t be that guy” campaign. Encourages men to look first to themselves when considering how to tackle questions of violence against women.
    5. Barcelona, Spain: Policy changes to address safety for women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities at the street/block level.
    6. Stockholm, Sweden: Ban on sexist and racist advertising in public spaces, like bus shelters.
    7. India: Mysafetipin. A digital tool that collects data from women who experience fear and harassment in urban areas. Helps other women make informed decisions about trip routes, etc.

Do you want to learn more on this topic? Here are some books referenced by Leslie:

  • Feminist City: Claiming space in a man-made world (Author: Leslie Kern)
  • Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men (Author: Caroline Criado Perez)
  • Making Space: Women and the man-made environment (Author: Matrix)

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Thank you to everyone who joined us for this five-part speaker series in 2022/2023. Together, we explored topics related to how we can make city infrastructure and services more equitable and accessible for all residents. The speaker series has now concluded. If you have any questions, please contact the Planning division at

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