blog | 06.02.2020 | Becki Cox

Talking periods, active travel and big data

On 20 January, the Scottish Government launched their #TalkPeriods campaign.

Designed primarily to help reduce the stigma that exists around menstruation, even amongst women, this campaign asks that we call periods, ‘periods’. Period! In this blog, University of Glasgow PhD Student Becki Cox explains why talking more openly about menstruation would result in a more inclusive built environment and how big data can help.

Research by ActionAid suggests that over a third of women in the UK have experienced ‘period shaming’, 37% of women would feel uncomfortable discussing periods with male friends and 47% of women would feel the same level of discomfort talking about them to their dad.

What is perhaps less apparent to society as a whole - but very much apparent to menstruating women - is the extent to which the built environment fails to cater fully for our needs. I am talking primarily here about the availability of free, safe and accessible public toilets.

My passion for this topic comes from two sources. First, my career as a transport planning professional, working in active travel and urban design, has given me valuable insights into why things are as they are. Second, my experience as a menstruating woman who relies entirely on walking, cycling and public transport has given me personal insights into the impacts that longer and less predictable journeys can have in terms of managing periods.

Of course, as with many design issues, what is good for women is good for many others; anyone with caring responsibilities, anyone requiring access to toilets for medical reasons, elderly people... In fact, just about anyone needing access to toilets at all.

Why does the planning and design system fail to provide adequately for everyone using public space? One factor is a historical data bias towards men - Caroline Ciado Perez writes extensively on the topic in her book Invisible Women. This bias then permeates into design standards, frequently authored and approved by men, which fail to capture the spectrum of human needs. We simply shouldn’t be relying on the presence of a menstruating woman at built environment consultations to make the point that women, particularly, need access to free public toilets. Whereas the criticism should rightly be levelled at the built environment professions involved, the issue is systemic enough to transcend individual disciplines.

The problems are exacerbated by a range of factors including reduced local authority budgets and increasing concerns of anti-social behaviour in public facilities leading to them being closed.

Big data, active travel and periods

I see two useful avenues for the use of big data in this area. First, we are seeing an increasing emergence of menstrual tracking apps, which are designed to help women track cycles, interpret symptoms, manage fertility and so on. Consequently, there is an increasing pool of big data relating to the physiological, sociological and emotional impacts of menstruation that can be analysed to better understand this historically marginalised area. Linking these with GIS-based apps such as Strava and MapMyWalk, we have the potential to examine the impacts of menstruation on women’s mobility through the built environment, and the choices they make over routes or travel modes.

The other upside of these tracking apps lies in helping to make the case for treating walking as a transport mode in its own right. It is generally accepted that public toilets should be provided on public transport (on trains, in stations, on long-distance coaches). Here, we have the tools to build the case for the provision of public toilets along active travel routes. This includes places where people walk to access shops, services, schools, work etc, as well as the more traditional public spaces in urban centres where toilet provision is slightly more likely.

Let’s #TalkPeriods

So how about we start by marrying these data sets together and begin to understand the extent to which the lack of guaranteed facilities is a barrier to women using walking and cycling as their primary transport modes. This opens up the conversation to a much wider population of carers, parents, elderly people and others who will require the same toilet provision.

Imagine if active travel networks were developed with an explicit focus on the provision of toilets along the route. Imagine if men (and women) felt comfortable to routinely bring up the issue of periods in their professional lives when talking about built environment design. Imagine if young male and female engineers and planners were equipped with tools and the narrative to discuss the importance of periods in planning and design.

Let’s call periods, periods, in our work as built environment professionals and academics. And let’s proactively bring the discourse much more into the mainstream when we’re talking about planning, design, place-making and most importantly, people using public space.

Becki Cox

Becki's PhD will develop an evidence base that identifies whether public realm investments enhance the social life of the city, utilising a mix of quantitative (big data) and qualitative methods to gain insight into people’s perceptions and actions.

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