Women have historically helped transform the way we think about and use transportation. While they remain underrepresented in the transportation industry, making up 15 percent of the transportation workforce, they have made a significant mark throughout history and continue to encourage innovation and bring change to an industry ripe for development.
In the late 1860s to mid 1880s, decades before women had the right to vote, Emily Warren Roebling assumed the role of chief engineer of The Brooklyn Bridge project. At the time, this project was going to be the longest spanning suspension bridge in the world and Roebling had been serving as an engineering liaison to her husband who had initially been overseeing the project. When her husband fell ill due to decompression syndrome, Roebling stepped up to the role of chief engineer, bringing the iconic Brooklyn Bridge project to completion.
A few decades later, in the 1920s, when 20 percent of the entire labor force was female and even less within the transportation industry, Helen Mary Schultz of Iowa launched the first women-owned bus line, Red Ball Transportation Company. She made a name for herself in the industry as the “Iowa Bus Queen” providing city-to-city bus transportation when buses were steadily growing as a popular means of mobility in the United States.
As transit agencies in the U.S. began to shift their primary focus from construction of mass transit, including buses and rails, to successful implementation and efficiency of transit systems, Carmen Turner was sworn in as general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Not only was she the first Black female to lead a major transit agency, but also was a champion of civil rights and had previously spearheaded equal opportunity programs for the U.S. Department of Transportation. During Turner's tenure with the WMATA, the agency went through a crucial period of growth. Turner jumped through financial and political hurdles, successfully expanding the metro by 28 miles and 16 stations while serving as general manager, making public transportation easier and more efficient for passengers to use. To recognize Turner’s success, the American Public Transit Association named her manager of the year, recognizing her as a leader "who has done the most to advance the urban transit industry in the United States and Canada."
A female who transformed urban planning and transit
Not only have women impacted the growth and sophistication of mass transit, but also the way we think about urban design and mass transit planning today. Female philosopher and New York City dweller Jane Jacobsacutely observed the impact urban planning had on the city’s neighborhoods and communities. In 1961, she published one of her most influential books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, provoking people to focus on what a city actually is and why people want to live there instead of splitting it up into homogeneous sectors, transforming the idea of what a city should or could be. Instead of planning communities around transit, transit agencies shifted to planning transit around lively neighborhoods, which are filled with active sidewalks and alive with people and commerce, enabling a setting for human interaction and connection. Jacobs’ thoughts on urban planning propelled the federal government to take action and think differently about transit, which eventually led to the evolution of smart cities. Today, smart cities can be described as cities that use connected technology and data to improve the efficiency of city service delivery, enhance quality of life for all and increase equity and prosperity for residents and businesses. Over the past decade, using Jacobs’ philosophy as a catalyst, the Federal Transit Administration announced new initiatives that focus on supporting and improving the development of livable communities through public transit.
What the future holds for transportation
The future of transportation will continue to focus on liveable communities, ones that are secure and safe, equitably serving people of all races, ages, economic status and other demographics. The future will also integrate new technology in liveable communities to move towards smart urban mobility. The goal of smart urban mobility is to help transit agencies modernize their fare and data collection infrastructure as well as their end user technology to improve efficiency and provide sustainable service. This includes contactless payments, account-based automatic fare collection, mobile apps, automatic vehicle location, real-time passenger information, electronic fare validators and ticket vending machines. These systems will create a safer environment for transit riders, minimizing contact and allowing for easily accessible programs for riders to access documents, plan trips and use hybrid commuting options.
As we continue to implement new technologies, move towards smart urban mobility and develop more sophisticated transportation infrastructure, it’s crucial that female voices remain at the forefront of the decision-making process. Female transportation leaders today continue to leave a monumental mark on the industry. New female voices include Polly Trottenberg, deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, who is helping to implement the largest transportation bill in our nation's history. to improve safety, equity and sustainability of U.S. infrastructure, and LA Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins, who is working to build a progressive and inclusive metro for Los Angeles.
While women remain underrepresented in transportation throughout history and still today, they continue to make a measurable impact, paving the way toward an exciting new age for the transit sector.