How Can We Better Understand Mobility of Care?

How Can We Better Understand Mobility of Care?

Women are bearing the brunt of underrepresented datasets and a lackluster public transportation system. A new data-driven approach could change that.

Research continues to uncover the enormous differences in how women and men use public transit.

Compared to men, women are more likely to travel on public transit, travel off-peak, for shorter distances and in chained trips. Women are also more likely to make a trip that is related to care or household responsibilities.

The latter, known as mobility of care, referring to all the travel resulting from home and care responsibilities, has entered the transportation dictionary fairly recently. Consequently, many of these trip typologies haven't been sufficiently accounted for in transportation research.

Women on a daily bus trip

Although the statistics show that men are increasing their participation in care tasks, mobility of care continues to be performed by women. As a result, gender approaches to transport research and planning have become essential tools in order to develop more equitable transport systems that provide better solutions to gender needs.

This article explores the importance of mobility of care and the challenges people, particularly women, face in performing care-related trips with a public transportation system that's not adequately designed for such mobility patterns.

In order to paint the bigger picture of such challenges, data and gender analysis in transportation are essential to better understand mobility needs and behaviors, especially across men and women. This article observes a recent study that offers a novel, data-driven approach to understanding mobility of care patterns and how transit fare cards could play a more essential role in the near future of data collection in public transit.

To learn more, Sengerio caught up with Linsy Damashek, Senior Transportation Policy Intern at UC Berkeley Parking and Transportation as well as President at Telegraph for People, the student organization at UC Berkeley fighting for safe and vibrant streets for people.

Linsy led and taught on the “Introduction to Transportation and Mobility Planning” course at UC Berkeley which included the challenges concerning mobility of care and women in public transit.

What is Mobility of Care?

Mobility of care collectively refers to the daily travel required to complete care labor; examples include escorting others, grocery shopping, household maintenance, organization, administrative errands, and visits to take care of sick or older relatives.

The concept was pioneered by Ines Sanchez de Madariaga, Professor of Urban Planning at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and UNESCO Chair on Gender, who hypothesized that when care trips are collectively recognized, the total number of mobility of care trips could actually be closer to the amount of employment-related trips. However, many of the trip typologies that fall under the umbrella concept of mobility of care are commonly not accounted for in transportation datasets.

Madariaga pointed out that care trips are often overlooked, disregarded, or can fall under other headings when considering the purpose of trips, such as leisure, strolling and visits. The systematic underrepresentation of care trips boils down to the limited statistical data which fail to recognize various care trip typologies as legitimate reasons for travel, rather than as specific activities that constitute social and household stability.

Young girl entering a bus

Since the notion of mobility of care entered the world of transportation, more and more research has uncovered a vast amount of public transit users who make care-related trips. In 2017, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that in the United States

  • 45% of daily trips are taken for shopping and errands
  • 27% of daily trips are social and recreational, such as visiting a friend
  • 15% of daily trips are taken for commuting

While another study conducted in Montreal, Canada, in 2019 found mobility of care comprises 28% of adults’ daily mobility.

As a result, questions have been raised as to whether public transportation systems are tailored to the needs of its users — more specifically, those who perform mobility of care.

Graphics of trips by purpose
By appropriately categorizing leisure trips from care trips in a survey conducted in Madrid, Spain, in 2014, researchers found that up to 29% of the total trips were related to care and 33% of trips were related to employment. Source: Sanchez de Madariaga & Zucchini, “Measuring the mobility of care”

Gender Analysis as a Tool to Understand Mobility Needs

The major part of modern transportation systems are designed according to the principles of the functional city laid out in early 20th century urban planning designs. The functional approach of modern city planning, as noted in the Athens Charter, is constructed on the four principles: living, working, recreation and circulation.

Such assumptions, however, lean much more favorably toward the requirements of a male experience that typically relies on getting from the home to the workplace. On the other hand, the female experience, given the social role and gender responsibilities often ascribed to women, relies on a different use of the transportation system to be able to perform tasks such as escorting children to school, running errands, and grocery shopping.

By using gender as a way to analyze transport systems and behaviors, studies have shown that women have significantly different mobility needs than men, with trips falling under the category of mobility of care being overwhelmingly more frequent among women and other vulnerable population groups.

Women Travel Differently than Men

A study conducted across 8 different cities found that women make more non-commute trips than men and their travel distances are shorter. Other studies report women are also more likely to trip-chain, that is, engage in multi-purpose and multi-stop trips along their journey that often relate to care or household responsibilities.

Girl on bus listening to music

In addition, women that assume care and social responsibilities are more likely to work closer to home and opt for shorter commutes. This consequently has an effect on the distribution of job opportunities within a city which, when combined with the gender division of labor and workload imbalance with care responsibilities, exacerbates the gender differences in transport and mobility. As Linsy Damashek noted —

“Women often work closer to home, make more trip chains between home and child care or school and on to work, and are often accompanied by their children during their trips. Because they frequently have to do non-work related chores, they need more travel flexibility than men and typically have many more concerns for their safety during travel.”

In the United States, where 55% of public transit ridership is women, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) published its study “Understanding How Women Travel Report” in 2019 that elucidated the different aspects that influence how women move in the area.

Longer headways, late buses, no shows, and the absence of real-time information not only worsen women’s safety concerns, but render mobility of care trips more challenging. As reported in LA Metro —

“A late train can mean daycare fines, a pass-up can mean a missed medical appointment, and infrequent early morning or light night service can limit employment opportunities.”

Transit agencies have often relied on customer surveys as well as automated data collection systems to reveal how people travel through a public transit system and to improve safety on public transit. The results of LA Metro’s study is informing their so-called ‘Gender Action Plan’ while the Bay Area Rapid Transit has recently reduced its crime rate and also launched phase 2 of its “Not One More Girl” campaign, as part of the agency’s safety plan, that addresses sexual harassment and gender-based violence on transit services.

While the combination of surveys and automated data collection provide an important insight to women’s experience of how they move and what influences individual mobility choices, Shunman et al, however, highlighted the gap in the qualitative approach to data collection that could improve our understanding of mobility of care.

A Novel, Data-Driven Approach to Identifying Mobility of Care

In a recent case study, the authors argue that a shift towards an approach that utilizes trip data, in combination with demographic information (gender in this case), can provide disaggregated data about how people, especially women, use public transport systems to provide mobility of care.

Smiling girl on a bus

The researchers created a novel framework to identify and measure mobility of care trips based on transit fare card transactions, name-based gender inference, and geospatial analysis. This framework was then applied to ridership data from Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) that provides a transit fare card referred to as the SmarTrip card.

Given that users do not need to specify their demographic information when signing up for a transit card, the researchers used name-to-gender inference, a technique often used by marketing agencies on social media that associates a likely gender to the name associated with an account. By doing this, the researchers were able to split the ridership data according to gender.

In the study, the nearest bus stops to each point of interest were identified. The points of interest were the locations where mobility of care is expected to be conducted, such as daycares, schools, and grocery store locations. From here, the researchers were able to capture mobility of care travel patterns.

The workflow from this study represents an innovative way for public transit agencies that rely on a better knowledge base of mobility patterns and behaviors to develop more inclusive policies that provide a better response to gender needs.

Gender ratio deviation from 50% women during weekdays
Gender ratio deviation from 50% women during weekdays near daycares, schools, and grocery stores. Source: Shunman et al, “Can Mobility of Care be Identified from Transit Fare Card Data? A Case Study in Washington D.C.

A limitation of this study, however, is that registered users of WMATA’s SmarTrip card tend to be full-time employees who register their card in order to receive employer subsidies. Therefore, this study mainly analyzed mobility of care activities of transit users on a 9-5 work schedule while excluding others.

Rather importantly, in a WMATA customer survey, the percentage of women signing up for a SmarTrip card drops from 80% to 58% due to the lack of a transit subsidy, meaning there must be better incentives for people to pick up a fare card if transit agencies wish to access more representative gender-based analysis of data using the workflow mentioned in the study.


For transit agencies and the overarching transport authorities to transform the discourse on gender-based solutions, they need to utilize the data they have at their disposal to make better adapted infrastructure, more reliable schedules, and fare structure changes to accommodate women users.

The LA Metro study pointed out that although low-income women knew a monthly or weekly pass would save money, they felt that the up-front cost was often too high — especially when traveling with a child or accompanying another adult rider who may not be covered by a fare card. Consequently cash is often preferred for its flexibility.

To provide a real voice to a group of transit users that have been systematically underrepresented, transport professionals need innovative ways to incentivize a wider audience to adopt fare cards that ultimately feeds a more in depth understanding of mobility of care travel behaviors and patterns.

Scott Frankland

Scott Frankland is Head of Content at Sengerio. His spirit of inquiry leads him to the world of transportation and mobility to connect with the industry’s leading experts and shine a light on the hot topics.