In June this year, the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal announced that his government would make public transport-- both buses and metro free for women. While the proposal for the metro ride is facing hiccups, Delhi’s public buses are now free for women. The Chief Minister flagged off this scheme on the occasion of Bhai Dhooj. The women travellers in Delhi were given pink slips to avail free rides in DTC and cluster buses.
The announcement for free transit for women was made in June of this year. Since then, the opinion around this scheme has attracted divided views from politicians, experts, and even the public at large. So, is there any merit in the free transit scheme for women, or is it merely a political stunt, as many of the opposition party put it? Let’s answer this question by looking at the background of mobility in our cities first.
The Per Capita Trip Rate or PCTR, as it is known in technical terms, is an average of trips performed in a city by the inhabitant. In a city, there will be people who will make multiple trips in a day like going to the office, shopping, picking up kids from school, etc. There will also be people who will not perform any trips like small children, older people, etc. PCTR is an average of all such trips. PCTR for Indian cities, including Delhi, is around 1 to 1.2. It means that on average, a person in a city performs one trip in a day. However, the PCTR in progressive countries around the world is between 2 to 2.4.
The main reason for our low trip rate is that women in India travel much less, but mainly it is due to low workforce participation rate. About 27% of women who are above the age of 15 are employed at the national level, but in the case of Delhi, this number is only 12%. Urban areas are often seen as an ocean of economic opportunities, but it is not the case at least for women in Delhi.
One of the main reasons why women don't get access to opportunity is mobility — safety and security, and affordability are the key reason why women travel so less in our country.
Women safety in public transport
The 2014 study by Thomas Reuters Foundation ranked the Delhi transport system as 4th most dangerous in the world for women. One may argue about the ranking, but the fact of the matter women's safety is a significant issue in our country. The horrific incident of December 2012 remains in people's memory. Therefore, creating a safe transport system will surely allow more women to have access to opportunities.
One way to improve safety is to get more women in the transport system. Estimates show that among all the bus users in the country, only 15% are women. In Delhi, women travellers form only a third of the public transport user segment. We also need to remember that these are averages. Therefore, it is not rocket science to visualize the feeling of safety when a woman is alone on a bus. Thus, getting more women on public transport will surely improve safety and security.
The high cost of public transport
The other significant deterrent to the use of transport by women is the cost of transportation. It's a common sight that men take up the cars in the family unless they are more than one. Also, two-wheelers are not a mode of transport for women in Delhi. Therefore, they are lest to perform their trips either on public transportation, paratransit, or walking. Public transport system like Metro or Buses is suitable for long-distance travel, except that they are costly. The recent research by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found that Delhi Metro is the second most expensive metro in the world in terms of the percentage of income a commuter has to spend to use it.
Women travel shorter distances but make multiple trips, often referred to as trip chaining. They pick or drop kids, go to market, move to the office, all in one journey. Thus, they end up paying more for transport even though they may have travelled the same distance. Therefore, the high cost of transportation impacts their mobility and often forces them to either skip trips or use the unsafe mode of transport.
The free public transport for women, at least buses now will surely allow many more women to access opportunities which they couldn't before.
The question on the viability
A lot of people questioning the scheme are raising the issue of viability as the plan is expected to cost Rs 140 crores to the Delhi Government. To me, this is the least of a problem. Why? That's because progressive cities around the world taxing private transport to scale up public transport and Delhi can do it as well. Therefore, Delhi can quickly subsidize public transport not only for women but for all by generating revenue from conventional sources like parking, registration, etc., and also by looking at other measures like congestion charging, vehicle quota system, etc.
Like it or hate it, Delhi Government's free transport for women scheme is probably the boldest move by any state government in the country. If it can sustain it with an improved quality of service, it could revolutionize the way we live in our cities, not only in India but around the world.
The author is the Founder Trustee of Raahgiri Foundation and Associate Director at Nagarro.