Women use public transport more than men, but still seem hesitant to give up their cars, climate survey shows

By Nea Prättälä, Maja Roginska and Carmen Niethammer

Combatting climate change is a top EU priority, and as the EU climate bank, the European Investment Bank (EIB) has been conducting large-scale climate surveys since 2018 across Europe, China and the United States, to inform the debate about people’s attitudes and expectations regarding climate action.

Studies have shown that gender-responsive climate investments can strengthen climate and environmental outcomes, create business opportunities and be financially more effective. For example, companies with greater gender diversity on boards are 39-60% more likely to reduce the intensity of their energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and water use.

To better understand how the attitudes and expectations of women and men differ regarding climate action, we dove deeper into the 2021 EIB Climate Survey results and this is what we found:

Women more likely to adopt sustainable travel, but…

In Europe, women are more likely than men to adopt sustainable travel. They also make 80% of travel decisions. Research suggests that if men would begin travelling as women do today, emissions would be reduced by 18%.

Overall, there is a lack of regular EU-wide gender data on transport choices, but individual regional studies illustrate consistent trends: More women than men use public transport — which is more environmentally friendly than single-occupancy vehicles — and cycle or walk. A 2013 study in Germany, for example, found that regardless of their life situation1, women consistently used public transport and walked more than men, who drove more. Among single households, nearly twice the number of men (43% vs. 23%) use private cars as their main transport. A 2016 study in Spain found that 13% of women’s trips were conducted via public transport compared to less than 3% of men’s trips. German research from 2019 found that 29% of women, vs. 23% of men, would sell their car if it did not meet certain emission standards, indicating that women are more concerned about the environment. And in another 2022 study, 17.3% of men said they considered cars’ carbon emissions “irrelevant”, whereas only 9.7% of women said the same.

Despite all of these findings, according to the most recent EIB Climate Survey data, more women are hesitant to give up their cars than men in the majority of countries surveyed.  Surprisingly, Luxembourg — the first EU country with free public transport — is the country in which the greatest proportion of women (56%) consider that giving up their car would be the hardest choice in contributing to climate action.2 This is higher than the average proportion of all rural respondents across the European Union (51%).

Why women may want to hold on to their cars

Given the regional studies cited above about women and sustainable transport, the high proportion of women still hesitant to give up their cars is worth examining.

Research points to two main issues that could explain why some women are still holding on tight to their steering wheels: Security concerns in public transport and disproportionate care responsibilities in the household.3 4 5

Security concerns

According to the European Institute on Gender Equality, “women are more concerned than men about their security while travelling. For example, women prefer not to travel at night, when lighting is poor, for fear of physical and/or sexual assault. Similarly, overcrowded public transport can increase the risk of sexual harassment,” influencing the travel choices women make.

Country-level data suggest that women are comparatively less willing to give up their cars in the majority of countries where a large share of people identify public transport as a conduit for gender-based violence and harassment. The 2016 Eurobarometer survey on gender-based violence found that 27% of respondents (both women and men) in France, 10% in Luxembourg and 9% in Belgium identified public transport as the most likely place for such violence to occur6, compared with only 1% of respondents in Estonia, Portugal and Malta. This points to a possible correlation between perceived poor security on public transport and the willingness of women to give up their cars.

As women’s mobility choices are influenced by a broad range of factors and differ by country, these parallels should only be interpreted as correlational. Still, women’s perception of security influences how often and when they use public transit or walk. Their greater exposure to harassment in public transport constrains their ability to commute as they like.

Care responsibilities and time poverty

In addition to security concerns, disproportionate care responsibilities in the home and a shortage of time can dissuade care givers (often women) from choosing greener forms of transit, according to several studies.

The latest annual Eurostat report on progress with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals within the European Union found that the share of women left out of the labour force due to care responsibilities was 21.7 percentage points higher than the share of men left out of the labour force for the same reason. Among people in part-time employment, 46.1% of women stated family responsibilities as the reason vs. 11.7% of men. The added burden of care responsibilities can cause a time poverty that results in women opting for cars over public transportation or other alternatives.

A study conducted on the use of free-floating car-sharing services illustrates how women’s more typical travel patterns constrain their ability to use such services. Missing child seats, long distances to the nearest vehicles and the challenge of transporting large items (such as a stroller or car seat) alongside children were identified among the barriers. Also, whereas men more often make trips from point A to point B, which is more convenient for car-sharing services, women are more likely to combine care duties such as grocery shopping, picking up children and completing other errands in one trip chain.

These care responsibility constraints apply also to public transit. On a trip with multiple stops, the passenger has to wait for public transport several times during the journey, adding to the travel time, especially if the travel systems are designed in a radial system from and to the city centre, while care trips are often between districts rather than into the city centre.

Urban mobility design is therefore not gender neutral. As women typically have more favourable attitudes towards green forms of transport such as cycling, walking and public transit, more deliberate measures can go a long way to ensure that people with care responsibilities (women or men) have the opportunity to choose these forms of transport.

Putting women at the centre

The success of sustainable transport plans and mobility strategies depends on the recognition that women and men often have different travel needs. Putting women at the centre of the planning process can result in a win-win situation for everyone: more secure public transport systems (for all passengers), higher labour force participation and economic/fiscal returns, and a maximising of environmental benefits by decreasing the use of private vehicles.

Some European countries have already adopted deliberate measures to improve women’s security on public transport. These measures include ensuring last mile connectivity, removing vegetation near bus stops, eliminating dark access ways to bus stops, introducing women-only taxis, training transport professionals to intervene and manage situations of sexual harassment, and information campaigns for passengers.

Some governments have included gender-mainstreaming strategies into their national development plans. Possible measures to integrate gender considerations into transport policy include

  • integrating gender-based commuting habits into transit schedules, acknowledging travel hours and patterns, bus-stop proximity to key facilities (schools, daycare) and increasing flexibility of fare structures to acknowledge dependents and trips with multiple stops;
  • integrating gendered needs in transport design features, including having adequate space for prams and bicycles and non-barrier access (with transit facilities, design features should also recognise that women need more sanitary facilities than men);
  • implementing surrounding initiatives, such as reducing the need for multiple stops in one trip through e-commerce and delivery options.

Organisations interested in incorporating a gender-inclusive perspective into transport projects, plans and policies can learn more about the Gender Analysis Toolkit for Transport recently published by the International Transport Forum.

Comprehensive solutions

Climate change strategies require comprehensive solutions that simultaneously tackle a broader set of issues, taking into account various gender roles. For example, promoting programmes or policies that will allow care responsibilities to be shared more equally is likely to help women save time and to lead to an increase in the use of more environmentally friendly public transport solutions. Broader involvement of men in care and community-related initiatives may encourage them, too, to opt for more climate-friendly alternatives.

Contemporary sustainable cities must continue to broaden the range of available transport options, such as pedestrian zones, bicycle and e-scooter lanes, and “mobility as a service” solutions that pool several options under a single service provider. This can reduce the use of private cars and also take pressure off public transit. Mobility strategies that serve the needs of different demographics will be key to mobilising people to drive — or cycle — cities towards carbon neutrality.

(1) Life situation encompassing: single household; household without children; household with children; and single parent household

(2) Specific question asked: “Among the following list what would be the hardest for you to get used to? a) Stop eating meat; b) Give up flying; c) Give up owning a car; d) Give up video streaming; e) give up buying new clothes (never worn)

(3) There are differences in how men and women see mobility — this is why that's important | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)

(4) Women and transport (europa.eu)

(5) Rethinking public transportation for women’s safety and security —  ICLEI Sustainable Mobility

(6) Specific question asked: “In your view, is violence against women more likely to occur… at home; in the workplace; in school and university; in public places; in public transport; online; somewhere else (max. two answers)

Nea Prättälä is a trainee within the EIB’s Social Policy Unit of the Environmental, Climate and Social Office (ECSO). Maja Roginska is a senior transport economist in the Bank’s Strategic Railways Division. Carmen Niethammer is a senior gender specialist in the Social Policy Unit at the Bank.