Women's Safety in Public Transportation

Dr. Shruti kapoor
Posted September 13, 2016 from India

“Women regardless of the level of economic development in their community or nation, have less access to better and faster transportation resources, display different or more complicated patterns of travel and are more influenced by fear of attack or harassment than are comparable men” (Encyclopedia of Transportation: Social Science & Policy, 2014).

According to a 2014 Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of some of the world’s largest cities, Bogota, Mexico City, Lima and Delhi have the most dangerous transportation system for women. New York has the best. Having lived in both Delhi and New York I can personally vouch for these results. I never feel safe traveling in a cab alone in Delhi, no matter what time of the day. In New York City I’ve taken the subway late in the night, all alone, and never felt unsafe. The poll clearly highlights that women are scared to use public transportation in some major cities and there is a need for more action.

Women are careful about time, mode and place all the time. Their travel patterns differ from men because of care-taking responsibilities at home. Lack of safe, reliable and accessible transportation is critical for women because it affects their access to work, education and opportunities. In emerging economies women tend to be more reliable on public transportation. According to professor Loukaitou-Sideris, UCLA “The perception that a bus station, train car, parking lot of particular neighborhood is dangerous forces many women to alter their travel patterns. This limits their access to the most basic of rights – to move freely in the public sphere”.

In Cameroon, sexual harassment at night is a big concern for women (especially rural women), thereby restricting their working hours. Most women prefer to travel by day and public buses and taxis are usually overcrowded making women more viable to harassment. Does preventing overcrowding keeps women safe on public transportation? Is that a viable solution?

In Bogota, buses are not safe. Crowded buses increasing harassment, groping, and stealing. According to the same Reuters survey, Bogota, the world’s 16th largest capital was ranked as the most unsafe city for women to travel alone in the night. Delhi, the second largest capital with 25 million people ranked second.

While in Mexico City 6 out of 10 women suffer from some kind of verbal or sexual harassment while travelling on public transportation, in New City only 3 out of 10 women experience the same. I personally have never experienced any form of harassment when taking the subway or the bus. I’ve now lived here for 4 years.

It’s a pity that harassment of women on public transport is still seen as a minor offense and not sexual abuse. Due to lack of safe public travel options, trains, buses and taxis for women only are on the rise. Private taxi services like Uber, Lyft, Ola Cabs are doing roaring business. The demand, exceeds the supply. While many working women in India don’t mind paying extra and using an Uber (or an Ola cab) vs. traveling in a public bus, it’s still an expensive option for an average middle-class daily commuter in India. Though after the recent rape case, the reliability of services likes Uber in India are also in question. Across the world, data collection methods and the planning based on it do not recognize gender differences in travel patterns and needs. Limited understanding of women’s needs and concerns in public transport impacts the solutions put in place. Most of the infrastructure including public transportation is not gender sensitive. According to Kriti Makhija, a resident of Delhi, society, government and companies have conveniently overlooked this aspect. No questions are ever raised on why the data lacks this information? When it comes to transportation policymaking, women’s issues are often ignored. The focus is mostly on building roadways and formal transit systems rather than addressing the role of walking and non-motorized needs in women's travel patterns. Abdul Shaheed from Fiji says, “Unless we acknowledge real time needs of women, their safety, our transport system cannot be efficient”. Azra Khan, an employee of World Resource Institute, India reiterates the need to acknowledge and mainstream women’s needs and concerns at all stages of public transportation planning. Fasiha Farrukh an activist from Pakistan argues, “When policy makers don’t know what makes female travelers uncomfortable, how can they come up with solutions?” According to Karuna a resident of Delhi, “this is a huge lacuna that only the NGOs monitor”.

How many women serve in these agencies in decision-making capacity?

At the policy level, let’s first start with inclusion. More women should be a part of transportation planning and research. This can easily be achieved through gender equity at employment and by making women more aware of the important human dimensions of transportation.

While designing transportation projects, gender specific analysis should be conducted, one must include gender indicators, monitor and assess before and after the policy change. As Shruti Menon, founder of Make Room India, rightly points out, there is a need for gender equality in planning, procurement, operation and evaluation of public transportation in all countries.

With increasing number of “pink” (women-only) services one wonders if segregation and technology-based solutions can increase women’s safety? In my honest opinion segregations is only a band-aid solution to the problem, it doesn't change the harasser’s mindset. Solutions need to be inclusive. Technology is helping women stay safer and increasing accountability. Today, we all have a powerful tool in our hands, the phone, we are quick to snap a picture, tweet or record a video of a harasser. While we are creatively using technology to raise awareness and keep ourselves safe, we still need to address the root cause of harassment and violence. Creating awareness and giving gender sensitization training to all is essential. What is also needed is a collective conscience to change mindsets. According to Chayya a resident of London, gender segregation on public transportation simply validates the behavior of sex pests. She feels teaching personal safety should be mandatory in all schools and colleges. Shamitha, a Canadian student, doesn’t like the idea of segregation because it indicates we are unwilling to learn or empathize.

Safe public transport options help increase presence of women in economic activities. In the absence of safe options, women tend to change their travel behavior. Women will occupy more spaces if travel options were safer and convenient for all. Chayya always leaves work early to avoid last train home. Travel options even in a city like London has an impact on the type of job and shifts she does. There are many families in India that don’t allow their daughters or the women in the house to take up economic employment due to lack of safe travel options. Breaking unsafe travel barriers will not only allow women to travel for work; it will also open up access to better education facilities for them. According to Dilipsing Bayas, we should adopt a demand driven approach. Increased percentage of women in economic activity will further create demand for safe infrastructure. Mobility enables women’s financial empowerment, their access to safer transport options is absolutely critical.

Women’s safety cannot be seen in isolation or fragments, all sections of the journey need to be safe. If my bus ride is safe but the walk from the station to home, unsafe, I will avoid taking a bus. In the end, it’s about improving access to mass transit and public spaces for all. What is needed is greater involvement of the community to understand individual needs, gender sensitization in the transportation workforce and better response on the part of transit agencies and police to increase public confidence and safety for all.

This story was submitted in response to Share On Any Topic.

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