Does Transit Matter? Connections between transportation systems & homelessness for women in Canada

August 14, 2020
Gender matters when it comes to tackling homelessness and housing need. This is the first blog in a series that brings a gender-based lens to the housing challenges facing women, girls, and gender-diverse peoples in Canada right now.
This series draws on scholarship from The State of Women’s Housing Need and Homelessness in Canada, a comprehensive literature review led by the Women’s National Housing and Homelessness Network, in partnership with the COH, the CAEH, and Keepers of the Circle
By Alicia Versteegh, Kaitlin Schwan


Access to reliable, affordable transportation can decrease poverty, encourage economic and social participation, and facilitate access to crucial support services. In cities, public transit systems are usually the only method of travel for those experiencing homelessness or living on a limited income. Expensive fares, reduced service routes, and high fines disproportionately impact persons of low socio-economic status. Because over 2.4 million women and girls in Canada survive on low income, usually employed in minimum wage and precarious work, women are severely impacted by failures in the transportation system. Women in rural and northern areas also face significant barriers due to lack of accessible transportation. Small communities generally have fewer employment opportunities when compared with cities, making it difficult for women without access to a vehicle to seek out employment opportunities for themselves. Additionally, gaps in mental health, addiction, legal, and other services can push these residents into urban centres, increasing vulnerability to homelessness when faced with unaffordable housing and long waitlists for subsidized units in cities.

Insufficient transportation also perpetuates violence against women, specifically Indigenous women, who experience violence at almost three times the rate of non-Indigenous women. British Columbia’s Highway of Tears, appropriately named for all of the women, mostly Indigenous, who were murdered or have gone missing on Highway 16, is an alarming example of the link between poor transportation and women’s safety. In the absence of transportation to attend school, work, appointments, or visit family, women with limited resources must find other ways to travel, including hitchhiking, which can put them at risk to violence and victimization. Furthermore, and particularly in remote communities, lack of transportation options can trap women in violent relationships. In the three territories, where violent crime against women is higher than the rest of Canada, many women must fly out of their communities to escape abuse, an option that is not available without appropriate connections to a support service. The repercussions of physical isolation and unreliable transportation are significant; women who cannot access services for intimate partner violence are less likely to leave their abusive relationships.

Research indicates that the transportation needs of women are often more complex than those of men because they are generally responsible for work, as well as domestic chores and childcare. These duties require some women to make multiple trips daily, creating a greater dependency on public transportation or a vehicle. Research also shows women are more likely than men to face harassment when using public transportation, resulting in fear that can discourage and limit their movement. Unfortunately, these unique needs are not always considered in transportation policy or infrastructure. Given the significant connection between transportation and well-being, affordable and dependable public transit must be recognized as a basic need when considering social housing and shelter locations so that women have equal opportunities to access employment, education, child care, recreation, and other social services.

The Role of Transit in Homelessness and Violence Prevention for Women and Girls

Research demonstrates that access to safe and affordable transportation can mediate and prevent experiences of violence, housing insecurity, and wellbeing in the lives of women and girls. This means that we need to take transit seriously when we think about preventing homelessness for women and girls.

Both globally and domestically, there are many promising transportation initiatives focused on reducing violence and improving equity in the lives of women and girls experiencing marginalization. Two excellent examples include:

Highway of Tears Initiative
  • In 2016, British Columbia Transit, First Nations Communities, the provincial government, and families involved with the Highway of Tears Initiative collaborated to create the Highway 16 Action Plan. The five key elements of the plan include a $4.2 million contribution over five years from the provincial government for transit expansion, a community transportation grant program, installation of webcams and transit shelters, First Nations driver education, and additional connectivity. Since initiated, roughly 18,000 passengers have used the service. In 2018, the project was awarded the Safety and Security award from the Canadian Urban Transit Association, as well as the Premier’s Award for Partnerships.
ORCA Opportunity Program
  • The ORCA Opportunity Program in Seattle, Washington, provides free public transit to students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools, as well as students at Seattle colleges on city-funded scholarships, regardless of income. In 2017, the Seattle Department of Transportation surveyed a portion of the 2,700 high-school students who had received free ORCA cards and 80% of students stated that having the ORCA card improved their school attendance, and nearly 40% said that they would not use the transportation system if they did not receive the free pass. Additionally, those surveyed indicated that the ORCA cards made it easier to get jobs and participate in social activities.


For more details and analysis, read our chapter on Transportation in The State of Women’s Housing Need and Homelessness in Canada.