Article from the DLRmagazine 175: Study shows gender gap in the design of modes of transport

"Shrink it and pink it" simply isn't enough

A glance through the aisle in a tram
If there is neither space for pushchairs and wheelchairs nor sufficient storage space for bags and luggage on buses and trains, it is primarily the female passengers for whom this has consequences.

Adobe Stock/Malte

Did you know that women face a significantly higher risk of injury than men in traffic accidents of similar severity? And that they tend to express greater dissatisfaction with public transport than their male counterparts in various countries? Findings such as these, documented in scientific literature, prompted researchers Laura Gebhardt and Sophie Nägele of the DLR Institute of Transport Research and Mascha Brost of the DLR Institute of Vehicle Concepts to investigate further.

The disparity between men and women, known as the gender gap, manifests itself in various aspects of daily life. Perhaps the most recognised instance is the gender pay gap – a well-documented phenomenon indicating that women still earn less on average than men in comparable professional positions. Such gaps can be identified and measured thanks to scientific studies and observations. In their study 'Please Mind the Gap', DLR researchers Laura Gebhardt, Sophie Nägele and Mascha Brost reveal that a gender gap also exists in the design of modes of transport.

Different tasks, different needs

Whilst most men work full-time and commute to work in the morning and return home in the evening, women are statistically more likely to work part-time and undertake additional care responsibilities. As a result, their journeys tend to be shorter but more complex, simply due to the combination of professional work and caregiving duties. These distinct roles lead to different demands in terms of the modes of transport used. For example, the lack of space for pushchairs and wheelchairs or sufficient storage space for bags and luggage on buses and trains primarily affects female passengers. For many women, the lack of such elements renders utilising public transport more difficult or even impossible.

"Data and studies have shown that public transport is used more often by women. They are also less likely than men to have access to a car and are more willing to forego driving," says Gebhardt. She adds: "To target this main user group, the needs and requirements of women must be taken into account when designing mobility services. Merely applying the 'shrink it and pink it' approach – essentially, just painting it pink and make it smaller – simply isn't enough."

Comparable research in the field of software design shows that usability improves for everyone when the needs of women are taken into account. "The same almost certainly applies to the design of modes of transport," says Sophie Nägele. The impact is clear: initiatives aimed at facilitating boarding for women with pushchairs also enhance overall accessibility of buses for everyone. Similarly, everyone feels safer in well-lit underpasses.

Safe for everyone?

Hand straps in busses and trains
The average German woman is 1.65 metres tall and therefore cannot easily reach handholds placed at a height of 1.90 metres.


In Europe, crash restraint systems such as airbags are tested almost exclusively with crash test dummies based on the physical characteristics of men. Consequently, these systems are primarily evaluated for their efficacy in protecting male occupants during accidents. However, considering the physical differences between men and women, including differences in muscle and fat distribution, this approach poses a significant safety concern for women.

Local public transport also has considerable room for improvement, for example with regard to safety in the event of accidents and abrupt driving manoeuvres. A directive from the European Council mandates that vehicles carrying more than nine passengers must feature handrails positioned at a height between 80 to 190 centimetres. The average German woman is 1.65 metres tall and therefore cannot easily reach handholds placed at a height of 1.90 metres. As a result, many women use lower support options to support themselves, such as seat backrests or other lower objects that were not initially designed for this purpose. This makes them less stable on average and increases their risk of injury during braking or acceleration manoeuvres.

Disregarding gender differences can sometimes lead to unhealthy behaviour. According to a study conducted in 2011, 41 percent of surveyed women stated that they have avoided or reduced their liquid intake when travelling by train, even when thirsty. The reason for this was to avoid having to use the public toilets available, due to poor hygiene conditions.

Next in line – from observation to action

"My hope is that when people read our study, they will experience the same eureka moment that we did," says Gebhardt. She explains that at the moment, the transport system is primarily designed and constructed by and for men. This leads to women's safety, functionality and sanitary requirements not being sufficiently taken into account in the planning and actual design of transport vehicles and systems. The study conducted by Gebhardt, Nägele and Brost is therefore directed in particular at policymakers and stakeholders involved in the design of modes of transport.

We need more gender-specific data studies to reveal blind spots.

Laura Gebhardt, DLR Institute of Transport Research

"We are talking about a group that makes up half of the population, not a small minority," says Brost. Gebhardt's wish for the future: "We need more gender-specific data studies to reveal such blind spots. We can and should use this knowledge as a basis for addressing the gender gap."

Laura Gebhardt

Mirko Goletz

Laura Gebhardt is a geographer and sociologist who leads the 'User-centered design of transport modes' research group at the DLR Institute of Transport Research. Her research primarily focuses on investigating the mobility needs of different demographics and deriving design implications for transport modes accordingly.

Sophie Nägele

Sophie Nägele is a psychologist specialising in researching the transport design requirements of various user demographics. She is a research associate at the DLR Institute of Transport Research.

Mascha Brost is an engineer. One focus of her research is the design of vehicles for more sustainable mobility. She is group leader of the Road Vehicles and Digital Systems group at the DLR Institute of Vehicle Concepts.

An article by Stefanie Huland from the DLRmagazine 175


Editorial team DLRmagazine

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