Every year, International Women’s Day is observed on March 8 to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This year, the theme set by some international organisations is Pledge for Parity. One of the five pledges is “to help women and girls achieve their ambitions”. One key way to do that would be to ensure safe, reliable and affordable public transport systems. This would give women access to essential services and play a key role in enabling them to achieve their ambitions.

Since the Delhi gang-rape of December 2012, increased attention has been paid to women’s safety in public spaces and on transport networks thanks to the recommendations of the Verma Committee and the establishment of the Nirbhaya Fund (even though it lies unused). While women’s organisations had highlighted this challenge over a decade ago, the government is only now beginning to recognise its importance. Despite this attention, though, there's a long way to go.

So what do we need to know in order to achieve gender parity in public transportation systems?

1. Our cities and transportation systems are not gender-neutral
According to the Global Report on Human Settlements, women’s travel patterns are different from men’s and are characterised by persistent inequalities. Though women assume a higher share of a household’s travel burden and care-taking responsibilities, they have inferior access to public means (buses, trains) and private modes (two-wheelers, cars, carts) of transport.

Women’s travel is characterised by trip chaining – combining multiple destinations within one trip. For example, travel to and from work could also include a trip to the market, a pick up or drop-off of children to school. This also often makes it more expensive for women to get around, since they may have to pay numerous single fare tickets during such chained trips.

A study in Sanjay Camp, Delhi, revealed significant differences in travel patterns between men and women.

2. CCTV cameras don’t capture it all
The defining characteristic of violence against women is how normal it has become, its ordinary and continuous nature, how it controls women’s everyday lives through a continuous sense of insecurity. Daily acts of violence, such as sexist cat calls are not linked to brutal forms such as rape – and often do not enter crime statistics. Thus, while the policy emphasis has largely focused on installing CCTV cameras in public transport vehicles, they may not capture the daily experiences of violence such as being been stared at or touched inappropriately.

3. There are four inequities underpinning women’s travel:

  • Mobility of care lays emphasis on recognising, measuring and valuing the travel associated with care and home-related tasks. While these are predominantly performed by women, integrating care concerns into transport planning will become more significant for both sexes as the participation of men in these tasks increases. This aims to rebalance priorities in the transport agenda in order to focus on employment-related mobility, with an equal consideration for care-related mobility.  
  • Time poverty is broadly defined as the lack of time for leisure and rest after accounting for the time spent in productive and care-taking responsibilities. In transportation, this is a result of the poor access to services and often forces women to look for work at shorter distances from their home. 
  • Forced immobility implies restricted travel, “latent demand” or the trips that were not made. Restricting women’s travel at night is one such example. This could be a consequence of violence and insecurity in relation to transport, culture and perception of gender roles, and transport options.  
  • Forced mobility is the opposite aspect, caused by poor services and infrastructure. For example, inadequate water and sanitation infrastructure in urban low income communities forces women and girls to undertake long and risky trips for essential functions such as accessing water and defecation. Women and girls tend to perform the latter function in darkness, after 10 pm or at 4 am, facing the threat of harassment or violence.

4. There are specific barriers that impede women’s employment and growth in transport authorities
Transportation is largely considered a masculine profession. For example, conversations with senior level officers revealed that women constitute close to one-third of the employees in the Delhi Transport Corporation and the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation. This has been due to lower applications received from women, or them not meeting height, education or licence criteria. In Mumbai, according to a World Bank report, women constituted only 12.5% of the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport Undertaking Committee and 1% of its engineers in 2010. When BEST attempted to induct women bus conductors, all of them asked to be shifted to desk jobs.

That Transport authorities should set gender parity is a goal both within the organisation and that of its transportation system.

5. Precedents in other countries
In 2007, Transport for London introduced its Gender Equality Schemes, a requirement under the United Kingdom’s Equality Act 2006. Transport for London identified accessibility (including availability, vehicles, integration of services and infrastructure), safety and security, affordability, information and employment (i.e. equal pay, recruitment, retention, flexible working and workplace culture) as the five major intervention areas. These were arrived at after research and consultation with 140 organisations and individuals. Transport for London’s initiatives are considered one of the most comprehensive efforts by transport operators to respond to the needs of women’s riders.

This International Women’s Day, as we pledge to help women and girls achieve their ambitions, let us first understand how women’s mobility is rendered invisible, constrained or forced so that safety is not pursued as a simplistic goal that can be addressed by technological solutions alone.

Sonal Shah is an urban planner and works on transportation and urban planning projects, policies and research at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements.