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Urban Mobility Solutions: To Truly Prosper, Indian Cities Must Make Travel Safe for Women

A passenger wearing face mask takes a train at a Delhi metro train station. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

A passenger wearing face mask takes a train at a Delhi metro train station. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Urban mobility plans and investments largely continue to remain gender-blind and to make roads and public places safe, India must strengthen the relationship between gender and mobility.

In December 2012, a gruesome gang-rape and the eventual death of a 23-year-old woman while travelling on a bus in Delhi shook the world. Seven years later, in a similar incident in Hyderabad, a woman was gang-raped and burnt to her death while changing her mode of commute. While these incidents have highlighted the issue of women’s safety on Indian roads, a deeper scrutiny into the need for safe urban mobility systems – like public transport, last-mile commutes and transit points (depots, stops, stations) has so far been missing.

Urban mobility plans and investments largely continue to remain gender-blind, today. Over the past decade, it has become increasingly clear that gender-neutral mobility decisions play a major role in fuelling atrocities against women on our streets. To make roads and public places safe, India must strengthen the relationship between gender and mobility. Here are a few steps that could help bridge this gap:

Ensure equality of access to mobility

Typically, the term ‘gender’ refers to the roles that society considers appropriate for both sexes, thereby developing a social hierarchy for various day-to-day activities. In terms of transport, although it is widely accepted that women and men have different mobility patterns, there is a lack of clear understanding of women’s behaviours and needs to commute. Globally, women carry out around 75% of unpaid care work during their everyday trips, characterizing their mobility as ‘mobility of care’.


This includes trip-chaining, traveling at off-peak hours, and at a slower pace, mostly to take their kids to schools, buying household items, visiting doctors, and so on. For this, women largely rely on public transport and spend more on transport services than men.

Women who are financially dependent on others (for ticket money, etc.), mostly end up curbing their needs to commute. For example, a woman might avoid or delay accessing medical facilities or other essentials in time, in an effort to save up available resources for an emergency commute. Such conditions could lead to a gender-specific inequality of access to mobility.

To address this challenge, it is important to adopt gender-sensitive public transport policies such as subsidized or free commute for women, increased frequencies of transport at locations often visited by women, and so on. For this, the first step would be to collect gender-segregated mobility data.

Comprehensive qualitative and quantitative data from women across socio-economic backgrounds, considering formal, informal, and active modes of transport, can give a clear understanding of mobility through the eyes of women and help policymakers develop equitable access to mobility services.

Provide safer public transport

Personal safety and security are the main factors influencing women’s mobility patterns. Traveling before dark, avoiding crowded transport, being harassed while walking to transit stops are a few of the many concerns women constantly think about while planning their trips. While they use public transport more than men, women are most vulnerable to violence, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse in public transport.

A recent survey by cab aggregation company Ola says that 91% of women across 11 Indian cities think public transportation systems are unsafe. Harassment, violence and subsequent trauma not only affect women’s mobility but also limit their access to education, employment, and health care facilities.

To address this, many cities have come up with ideas like gender-segregation in transport services (special buses for women, women’s-only compartments in trains). Although these solutions work to a certain extent, they are not long-term. For example, the reliability of women’s-only buses in cities like Mumbai and Delhi is always argued. Plus, these approaches are against the principles of equity.

Instead, policymakers need to make women’s safety a prerequisite for an effective transport system. This shall include operational factors like proposing bus routes to destinations frequently visited by women, providing real-time transport schedules, developing on-demand stops at late night and wee hours. Along with this, an awareness campaign that includes a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment, strict laws, easy reporting mechanism, and an audit system will ensure effectiveness.

Similarly, while designing streets for women, the prerequisites should comprise a better level of service of footpaths – vigilance infrastructure like streetlights, CCTV cameras, and in the words of Jane Jacobs, an urban design that ensures “eyes on the streets” to make movement safer and maintain security at all times.

Additionally, and most importantly, including gender specialists and women transport professionals in the policymaking process can contribute to an increased awareness of women-specific needs among public transport stakeholders.

Consider all identities of women

Women have many identities. They include women with limited mobility, expectant and new mothers, school students and women with diverse sexual identities. All these identities have different needs and expectations from a city. However, due to a lack of understanding of these identities among policymakers, they are often excluded from transport policies.

Evidence around the world says that transgender women face hostility and violence while accessing toilets in public spaces. In 2014, the supreme court of India issued a judgment that all public spaces need to have a toilet for transgender women. But such toilets are still rare at transit stops, as are breastfeeding rooms. The key to addressing these challenges is to have ample women’s representation while making policy and design decisions around mobility. If cities offer safer mobility for all women, they are safe for everyone.

Lastly, mobility cannot be gender-neutral. For urban transport to be successful and sustainable, addressing challenges faced by all identities of women is the key. Transport policies need to integrate their safety, security, comfort, affordability, convenience and equality of access. Safe mobility services can also act as an enabler in inspiring women to participate in the workforce and close the socio-economic gap between men and women. To facilitate this, investments in transport infrastructure cannot continue to be gender-blind.

As per McKinsey Global Institute, Indian women contribute merely 18 % of the national GDP, one of the lowest in the world with only 25% of labour force participation. A dedicated investment in advancing women’s equality can add USD 12 trillion to global GDP. In India too, to drive prosperity through an equitable and sustainable development model, making urban mobility systems safer, easy-to-access and comfortable to women, is critical.

The author of this op-ed is Rohit Tak, Manager, Urban Transport and Road Safety, WRI India Sustainable Cities. Views are personal.

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