Building better cities for women – Women Mobility Survey results

By Darren Proulx

Research shows our behaviour is heavily influenced by our built environment. A neighbourhood with narrower streets, trees and smaller shops closer to home encourages us to walk more often. Adequate lighting, more street facing windows, more people around and fewer and slower cars make people feel safer.

women bike montreal


Jane Jacobs highlighted the need for allowing differing levels of privacy and social connections was vital to the wellbeing of a city and its people. Offering people the ability to balance their social contacts and privacy according to their own level of comfort is closely related to building a balanced urbanism that fosters improved safety for women. Building a complete neighbourhood ensures that their is a community that its residents can participate in. Because of the space required for car oriented urban development and street designs, they often only permit social interactions when you are outside of your car, which often tends to include the few steps between your car and your destination whether it be work, home or shopping. This means in cities that have been built around the car you often have to put in considerable effort to seek out those social interactions.

rue Laurier Montreal retail street benches

Designing our cities and streets around people permits the potential for social interactions along a walk in your local neighbourhood. Allowing men to get outside of their bubble and interact with more people in their own neighbourhood can help their mental health and reduce their insecurities, stress and anxieties. A city built around people invites more people out onto the streets at more times of the day, increased windows from more stores and increased visibility, all of which serves to enforce a self-regulating social framework and creates a more comforting environment for women.

retail street parklet rue beaubien montreal .jpg


This can be seen in communities like on Laurier Avenue in Montreal. With it’s combination of low vehicle volumes, many small retail stores, restaurant, services and public seating it creates an engaging, vibrant and inviting experience for everyone including women. Good urbanism that fosters safety for women starts where everyday life unfolds, at the street level with the street and walls. This can be influenced with its street and building designs and Slow Streets can help you get there. I was once told a story from an acquaintance that when she walked around Montreal with a group of females they were never harassed whereas in their extremely automobile oriented hometown the incidences increased dramatically.

Slow Streets recently conducted a Women Mobility Survey asking women directly how they typically got around, where and how often they were harassed and what design features made them feel safer. We will dive into some of the initial results here. We received over 600 responses from 6 continents, 31 countries and 195 cities. Most of the responses are concentrated in North America, South America and Europe.

The majority of responses were from those aged between 21 and 40 years old.

age brackets

The majority of responses were from white females.

race responses

The responses by income bracket are more evenly distributed with more responses at the high and low income brackets.

income bracket chart

The most common primary way of getting around were by personal automobile, public transportation, walking and cycling respectively.

Modal Chart

Walking was used a primary way of getting around the most frequently, followed by transit. Cycling was the mode that was the least frequently used, with the most responses stating never. Clearly more work needs to be done to improve conditions for cycling.

Walk, bike, transit mode share chart

Only 15.36% of respondents reported that they absolutely felt safe in their cities. Only 40.63% stated they absolutely felt safe to walk alone in the daytime. this reduces by half in the nighttime (22.91%). Only 24.06% stated they absolutely feel safe enough to cycle in their city. Clearly there is some work that needs to be done.

We asked where and and how often people experienced harassment.Verbal harassment is the most frequent on public streets.

verbal harrassment by location chart

We also asked whether people experienced physical harassment as well. Physical harassment is the most frequent on public transit. This highlights the need to improve safety on public transportation, perhaps by increasing frequency as described later.

physical harassment by location chart

We also asked what would make the respondents feel safer for three categories.

Top 5 ways to improve public streets:

  1. A lack of lighting
  2. Speed of cars
  3. Specific types of people
  4. A lack of people
  5. Lack of protected cycling lanes
  6. Interactions with cars

From this it becomes clear that slowing down the speeds and interactions with vehicles is important to improving the safety for women on our public streets. Creating safe, comfortable and inviting street environments will also assist in attracting more people. Having adequate lighting would be a part of the solution to create an inviting environment.

Top 5 ways to improve public spaces:

  1. A lack of lighting
  2. Specific types of people
  3. A lack of people
  4. Lack of businesses nearby
  5. Cleanliness
  6. State of repair

From this list it becomes clear that adopting the power of 10+ activities would assist in inviting people into spaces. Building a complete community to surround the public space is important to bring mixed uses at all times and introduce “eyes on the streets” at all times. Finally having a good maintenance and upkeep program is vital for making women feel safe to stay in public spaces. Having adequate lighting would be a part of the solution to create an inviting environment.

Top 5 ways to improve public transportation:

  1. Low service frequency
  2. A lack of lighting
  3. Specific types of people at stations and stops
  4. A lack of people
  5. Long walking distanaces
  6. Overcrowding

What’s really interesting to note is that women are saying that more frequent service is something they would prefer to improve their safety. This is over shorter walking distances. This reinforces the new wave style of connective transit network designs being promoted by the likes of Jarrett Walker. Therefore improving frequency at the expense of a slightly increased walking distance would not only improve safety for women but also improve the overall reliability and usefulness of the transit network.  Higher frequency would also mitigate overcrowding. Transit stations are often designed with hostile architecture with bare bones feature and elements, this would have to be changed to create a more welcoming environment for women. Having adequate lighting would be a part of the solution to create an inviting environment.

Slow Streets has the ability to draw more in-depth insights from these results and offer consultation services to improve cities specifically for the safety and wellbeing of women.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s