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GLOBAL: Why Women Are Missing the Bus (and Train and Taxi)

Dr. Shruti kapoor
Posted October 6, 2016 from India
Photo © Reuters/Mansi Thapliyal

In recent years, women-only transportation options have emerged to serve women tired of being harassed on their way to work. But Dr. Shruti Kapoor asks, why can’t our public transportation systems keep women safe?

“Women are scared to use public transportation in many major cities around the world.

Sayfty | US 

I never feel safe traveling alone in a cab in New Delhi. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is. I worry about the route my driver is going to take. I am on high alert, with my phone in my hand, reading all street signs to ensure we are heading in the right direction.

Like many women around the world, I am often careful about the mode of transportation I use and the places I go. My level of caution varies depending on whether I am in Delhi, or in my current home of New York City. But the lack of safe, reliable, and accessible transportation is a global problem and a critical barrier for women that affects our work and education.

There are many families in India, for example, who don’t allow their daughters or the women in the house to take up work outside thehome due to lack of safe travel options.

Women in emerging economies tend to rely most on public transportation—and they are also the most at risk.

Where Are the Danger Zones?

A 2014Thomson Reuters Foundation surveyof some of the world’s largest cities shows that Delhi has one of the most dangerous transportation systems for women—along with Bogotá, Mexico City, and Lima.

In Bogotá, women are at risk of harassment, groping, and theft on crowded buses. In Mexico City, 6 out of 10 women suffer from some kind of verbal or sexual harassment while traveling on public transportation.

As a founder of Sayfty, an organization working against gender violence, I hear stories from women all over the world.In Cameroon, for example, many rural women restrict their working hours for fear of sexual harassment on public transportation.

Even in a city like London, travel options can have an impact on the type of jobs and shifts available to women. Chayya, a London resident and regular on Sayfty'sweekly Twitter chat, always leaves work early to avoid the last train home.

The same survey that ranks Delhi among the worst cities for women’s safety on public transportation ranks New York City as the best. Having lived in both New Delhi and New York City, I can personally vouch for these results. I’ve taken the Subway in New York City late in the night, all alone, and never felt unsafe. Still, there is room for improvement. While I have personally never experienced any form of harassment when taking the Subway or the bus, 3 out of 10 women taking public transportation in New York City have.

In a study of women’s safety in US transit, professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris says, “The perception that a bus station, train car, parking lot of a 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.”

It is clear that women are scared to use public transportation in many major cities around the world and more must be done to change this.

Do Pink Cabs and Other Technology-based Solutions Keep Women Safe?

Due to the lack of safe public travel options for women, women-only trains, buses, and taxis are on the rise in major cities. With an increasing number of “pink” (women-only) services now available, though, one wonders if segregation can increase women’s safety while traveling. In my opinion, segregation is only a Band-Aid solution to the problem—it doesn't change a harasser’s mindset. Creating awareness and giving gender sensitization training to all is essential.

According to Chayya in London, gender segregation on public transportation simply validates the behavior of sex harassers. She feels teaching personal safety should be mandatory in all schools and colleges. Shamitha, a Canadian student and intern at Sayfty, doesn’t like the idea of segregation because it indicates that men who harass are unwilling to learn or empathize with women.

Private taxi services using smartphone technology, like Uber, Lyft, and Ola Cabs, are also doing roaring business. Many working women in India don’t mind paying extra to use an Uber (or an Ola cab) versus traveling in a public bus. It’s still an expensive option, however, for an average middle-class daily commuter in India. And after the recent case in India in which a court found an Uber driver guilty of rape, the safety of services like Uber in India are also in question.

Technology, however, is helping women stay safer by increasing harasser 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.

Where are Women In Transportation Planning?

When it comes to transportation planning and policymaking, women’s issues are often ignored. Governments focus mostly on building roadways and formal transit systems and do not address the role of walking and non-motorized needs in women's travel patterns.

“Unless we acknowledge real time needs of women, their safety, our transport system cannot be efficient,” tweets Abdul Shaheed from Fiji. Azra Khan, an employee of World Resource Institute, India, emphasizes the need to acknowledge and mainstream women’s needs and concerns at all stages of public transportation planning. Fasiha Farrukh, an activist from Pakistan, asks, “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.”

One reason for this gap—women are not at transportation planning and policymaking tables.

As Shruti Menon, co-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.

At the policy level, more women should be a part of transportation planning and research. This can easily be achieved through gender equity in employment and by making women more aware of the important human dimensions of transportation.

And while designing transportation projects, gender analysis should be conducted. Gender-specific indicators should be established, monitored, and assessed before and after a policy change.

Breaking unsafe travel barriers will not only allow women to travel for work; it will enable women’s financial empowerment and increase their presence in public space and in educational and economic activities.

A woman’s safety cannot be seen in isolation or fragments; all sections of her journey need to be safe. If my bus ride is safe but the walk from the bus station to home is not, I will avoid taking a bus. In the end, it’s about improving access to safe mass transit and public spaces.

To do this, greater community involvement is needed. It’s a pity that harassment of women on public transport is still seen as a minor offense and not sexual abuse. The transportation workforce needs gender sensitization, and transit agencies and police must respond better to increase public confidence and safety for all.

Whether I'm in New Delhi or New York City, I shouldn’t have to look over my shoulder before getting in a cab. I have as much right as anyone to move through my city without fear.

Comments 17

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  • Jensine Larsen
    Oct 06, 2016
    Oct 06, 2016

    Such an illuminating and rich piece. Thank you for all that you do!

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Oct 07, 2016
    Oct 07, 2016

    Jensine, thank you for taking out the time to read. What has your experience been with public transportation?

  • Alexandra Fercak
    Oct 06, 2016
    Oct 06, 2016

    Love the question you raise 'where are women in transportation planning?" Yes, in order for transportation to meet women's needs, we need to take a look at who is involved in transportation policy and planning.

    Thank you for an excellent essay and for pointing out these issues.

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Oct 07, 2016
    Oct 07, 2016

    Thank you Alexandra. It is important for us to be involved in the planning too if we want the system to reflect our preferences. 

  • Pooja Varde
    Oct 07, 2016
    Oct 07, 2016

    True. The issues you have pointed out are really grave and need to be addressed with utmost priority. Women aren't safe in the outdoors. In Mumbai, India, me and my family feel tensed if I happen to come home late from work. It also affects my work life as these problems tend to distract me from my work. I also tend to refuse jobs with rotational shifts thanks to lack of women safety!

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Oct 07, 2016
    Oct 07, 2016

    Pooja, thanks for sharing. That's exactly what I am talking about. What's your mode of transportation in Bombay? Do you use the bus or the local? What is a reasonable hour by which you need to get home? 

  • Pooja Varde
    Oct 07, 2016
    Oct 07, 2016

    I use local transport, that is, either the train, taxi, bus or rickshaw in Bombay. But traveling via these makes me and my mom nervous as its not totally safe. I am into research - Biotechnology, so in my last job I had to give in long hours and used to leave by 8.30 - 9 pm and was expected to stay longer! Due to which I quit! So I am currently looking for one with better timings and have to refuse most jobs with rotational shifts as they involve night shifts as well.

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Oct 10, 2016
    Oct 10, 2016

    Pooja, I am sorry that safe transportation is one of the reasons for making you feel unsafe. Sometimes I feel companies should also ensure that their employees have safe options of getting back home if they expect them to work late hours. It is a tough spot to be in. What do your other women colleagues do in such a situation?

  • Pooja Varde
    Oct 11, 2016
    Oct 11, 2016

    Really true Sayfty! Companies should provide transportation facilities to women in case of late hours but about 90% don't. In fact they treat this issue very lightly. They find no problem with it & mention that women have been travelling without any problems. So women have to take the risk of travelling alone. Most women simply leave in groups to avoid being alone.

  • Pooja Varde
    Oct 11, 2016
    Oct 11, 2016

    Some companies are really trying to do something about it and do provide transportation facilities to its women. I have worked with one company who had a pretty good service. So hopefully in future, other companies will learn from them as well.

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Oct 11, 2016
    Oct 11, 2016

    I know call centers who have odd hours provide pick up and drop offs. But that's about it. Maybe car services like Uber should look into typing up with companies to subsidies late night travels for women to ensure they reach home safely?

  • helen.ng
    Oct 10, 2016
    Oct 10, 2016

    This is such an interesting and eye-opening piece!! I completely agree with you in that most of the time, the government is only looking out for the good of the city as a whole, not the people in it - they want to build infrastructure that is sleek and modern, and will give their city a better name. However, this supposedly takes huge priority over meeting the needs of women who also take public transportation. In my experience, I was once cat-called on my way home in a relatively empty subway train. And because of that, I have always avoided taking any kind of train or taxi home, and instead, drive home, or have a good friend drive me home.

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Oct 10, 2016
    Oct 10, 2016

    Helen, I am sorry to hear you had an unpleasant experience while using the subway. Which city was that in? Has driving increased your cost and commute time? Is it a bigger inconvenience asking friends to drive you home? 

  • Sahra Ahmed Koshin
    Oct 16, 2016
    Oct 16, 2016

    I read with great interest. Such an informative piece. You are a great writer.

    With love from Somalia. 

  • Dr. Shruti kapoor
    Oct 17, 2016
    Oct 17, 2016

    Sahro, thank you so much for your kind words and for taking out the time to read. What has your experience been using public transportation in somalia? 

  • Sister Zeph
    Oct 18, 2016
    Oct 18, 2016

    Dear Sayfty I have been facing the same problem through out my life but honestly I never thought about its  solution, you have not only described the problem very clearly but have given the solution also, in Pakistan most women have to stay at home because of all these problems during travel and on roads. but we must find a solution, thank you for writing it and for your precious work to change lives 

  • allie shep
    Oct 29, 2016
    Oct 29, 2016

    I never cease to be amazed by the excellent articles here - you have so wonderfully described women's fears of using public transport. It is so sad because public transport should be safe for "the public", not just for men, and it is counter-productive for us to be driving instead. There are too many cars on the road - mainly driven by men who could quite safely use public transport but see their cars as extensions of their phallus.

    I personally have usually felt safe in London because there are always so many people using the tubes and buses (even at night) but elsewhere in the UK I have not been so lucky. I tend to drive if I am going on business, which sounds silly. I am alone in my little Suzuki Ignis when I could be with other people on trains and buses, and doing work at the same time, but I FEEL safer and that's what matters.

    After a colleague was assaulted (not raped, thank God) at a bus stop in Newcastle, I will not sacrifice my concerns. It is sad that so many women throughout the world HAVE to rely on a transport system which SHOULD be safe for everyone, but isn't. It's safe for men, but so often they are the ones who do not need or want to use it.

    Thank you for writing this article.