Gender-sensitive Public Transport: Time to Walk the Talk

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By Sara John*

Public transport forms the backbone of an efficient urban mobility system of a city, spearheading its development and modernisation. The creation of economic opportunities and improved access to markets and services can be achieved through efficient mobility within a city. As more people have access to cities, there would be more jobs and economic activities, which, in turn, boost the economy. Public transport plays a key role in the agglomeration of people in cities and is more effective as it transports more people and decongests roads.

The social and economic impact of public transport reinforces the need for increased investment in the sector. It is equally important to mull over the relationship between gender and public transport, which is often overlooked while planning and designing transport policies and investing in public transport. The gender-neutral approach to public transport fails to ensure gender equity.

Women and Transport

The World Development Report, 2012, vouched that maintaining gender disaggregated data is the first step towards gender sensitive urban transport planning and policy making. Census 2011 data on ‘Travel to place for work[1]’ revealed gender differences in the use of public transport. The report said that 45 per cent of women do not commute to work and prefer to work in places near home or at home. This was more prevalent in rural than in urban areas. The dual role of women at home and workplace is one of the reasons attributed to their preference to work in places near home or at home.

While commuting to work, most women opted to walk or use public transport that are slower modes of transport compared to private modes of transport, which are used more by men. This can be attributed to the differences in the social and economic roles of men and women. The findings of many studies categorically state that women are more dependent on public transport than men are. However, in developing countries, many women are forced to stay at home, due to lack of safe public transport.

Women’s participation in workforce declines with the distance to the workplace. Safety and protection from harassment is the primary concern for women, while men consider speed as the decisive factor in choosing mode of transport. Lack of safe public transport disproportionately affects women as men have better access to various modes of transport. Additionally, social and economic factors do not restrain men unlike women.

A survey conducted by Action Aid UK in 2016 reveals that 84 per cent of women who faced harassment in public spaces belonged to the age category of 25 to 35 years, which comprises mainly working women and students. The survey cogently indicates that safety reasons can hobble the participation of women in the workforce and affect their educational possibilities. This is more pronounced in rural areas.

Special Services for Women

Mumbai, the city that never sleeps, is known for its suburban rail system that provides a faster mode of transport for men and women. However, overcrowding, lack of proper infrastructure and inefficiency in the use of technology to ensure safety has made it unsafe and inconvenient for women, despite assigning special coaches for women.

The unfortunate incident of a woman’s rape in the ladies’ compartment of a moving train in Kerala is just one incident, which proves that assigning special coaches and transport services for women will not help in changing the status quo. The gruesome gang rape incident in a moving bus in Delhi and many such cases indicate the inadequacies in the public transport system in the country. To quote Kalpana Viswanath, CEO, Safetipin, [2]“The defining characteristic of violence against women is its normalisation and ordinary and continuous nature.”

Women Working in Transport Sector

It is a known fact that employment in the transport sector across the world is biased towards men. This could be one of the reasons why women’s concerns are not adequately addressed in transport policies. Violence against women transport workers makes the sector less attractive for women; there is fear and social stigma associated with working in the sector. It is appalling that concerted efforts are not taken to ensure the safety of women transport workers. The example of London Underground[3] that won an equality award for promoting female employment in the organisation shows that targeted interventions can make a difference and overcome gender bias.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) ranked India 121 out of 131 countries in Female Labour Force Participation[4] in 2013. As per the India Spend report of 2016, only 27 per cent of Indian women are in the workforce. The report also stated limited mobility as one of the key reasons for the dismal participation of women. Laws discriminate against women by preventing them from working beyond a certain time, citing safety reasons. The Central Government has taken a progressive stance in 2016 by approving the Model Shops and Establishments Act, which allows women the freedom to choose to work at night in shops and establishments. Some of the states have made amendments to the Factories Act, 1948, allowing women to work in nightshifts.

Progressive laws safeguarding the interests of women, better infrastructure and efficient use of technology to ensure safety of women in public transport and public spaces are requisites. However, they will not yield the desired results, if they are not implemented appropriately.

It is estimated that India can increase its GDP[5] by 16 per cent, if women can participate in the workforce on a par with men. Transport acts as the bridge between the domestic space and economic opportunities for women. The need of the hour is to address gender-specific issues in planning, designing and implementing public transport policies, paving the way for gender-inclusive public transport services. It is time to walk the talk.

*This article is written by Sara John (Senior Project Associate, Centre for Public Policy Research). Views expressed by the author are personal and do not reflect that of CPPR.


[1] Applicable to the category of ‘Other Workers’ i.e. those engaged in some economic activity but who are not cultivators and agricultural labourers or engaged in household industry

[2]SafetiPin is a social enterprise providing a number of technology solutions to make our cities safer for women and others.

[3] https://unhabitat.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/GRHS.2013.Thematic.Gender.pdf

[4] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/labour-participation-rate-of-women-in-india-visibly-low-says-world-bank-study/article18075087.ece

[5] September 2015, The Power of Parity: How advancing Women’s Equality can add $12 trillion to Global Growth, MCKinsey Global Institute

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1 Response

  1. May 10, 2018

    […] the main challenges cities across the world face is enabling seamless mobility for their dwellers. Studies show urban mobility is incremental to the economic opportunities an individual can attain, thus […]

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