Missing women in urban spaces: From ‘women only’ to ‘women focused’ solutions

#GenderAnd: Low numbers of women commuting in public spaces reeks of deep constraints to women’s mobility — be it concerns of safety, or attitudes that say women need not work or step outside their homes unless necessary.

Updated: February 28, 2018 10:40:12 am

Picture any road in Delhi, Mumbai, or Bangalore in the morning. Say at around 9 AM. The roads are bustling, men and women heading to work, study or finishing chores. How does the scene change as evening dawns or later, closer to midnight. With each passing hour after sunset, the number of women in buses, trains, or walking on the road starts decreasing. The Census (2011) data for cities (tier I, II and III) shows that women form only 22 per cent of all people travelling for work across India. Bangalore is at the upper end of the spectrum, with women forming 26 per cent.

Delhi is at lower end, with this figure falling to 15 per cent. Such low numbers of women commuting in public spaces reeks of deep constraints to women’s mobility — be it concerns of safety, or attitudes which perpetuate the notion that women need not work or step outside their homes unless necessary. The result, women’s options is limited whether on jobs or education. The choices are based on distance, rather than income or quality of education. Brown University’s Dr. Girija Borker (2017) found that female students at University of Delhi preferred lower ranked colleges with safer commute options, over higher ranked colleges and facing harassment while travelling.

Safety, or the lack thereof, is the single biggest factor constraining women’s mobility. Action Aid UK (2016) found that 79 per cent of women in major Indian cities reported being harassed on streets. Street harassment – be it catcalling, tailing cars and violence has often meant families are fearful of women walking a few kilometres from their homes unescorted.

Overcrowded public transport also contributes to insecurity. About 82 per cent of Delhi’s women rated buses as the most unsafe means of public transport (Centre for Equity and Inclusion, 2009), while 80 per cent of Mumbai’s women reported being harassed at railway platforms and trains (We the People Foundation, 2012). In Delhi, 75 per cent of public service vehicles including buses, autorickshaws, taxes, and school vehicles do not have a functional GPS (Government of Delhi, 2017).

Inconsideration towards women’s concerns in designing urban transport infrastructure compounds matters. Policymakers and urban planners are unable to account for the way women experience unlit roads, dark alleys, or blind corners. The common approach of placing street lights only at intersections or major roads, may deter women from walking on dimly lit streets. Obstructed footpaths, or narrow walkways also restrict women’s mobility disproportionately.

Aside from safety, the major constraints to women’s mobility are also rooted in the nature of their transport needs. Given household and work responsibilities, women typically combine multiple tasks necessitating several short trips, i.e. trip chaining, rather than taking a unimodal, long trip from origin to destination. Women are more likely to be accompanied by minors/dependents, and carrying packages. In addition, women’s ability to pay for transport is lower than men. Census 2011 data shows that across major Indian cities, women walk or take the bus to get to work, rather than a train or a private vehicle. Thus, women spend more time travelling, using cheaper modes of transport, leading to an inferior transit experience.

Cities around the world, have used a number of innovative approaches to ease women’s mobility. Vienna was one of the first cities to develop infrastructure-based solutions. After setting up the City Women’s Office in 1990, till date Vienna city planners have completed more than 60 projects for widening sidewalks by a kilometre, improve street lighting and hiring female architects to design social housing, making it easily accessible by public transport.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) works closely with METRAC, an NGO, to conduct gender safety audits of public transport since 1989. As a result of the feedback received during these audits, TTC started three new programmes: the Request Stop Program which allows bus passengers to be let off between stops at night; creation of well-lit Designated Waiting Areas on subway platforms monitored by station operators and CCTVs, and a Safe TTC mobile application allowing passengers to report harassment discreetly.

Seoul took up the ‘Women’s Friendly City Project’ in 2007 and went through comprehensive urban planning including: designated parking lots for women, CCTV cameras, streetlights, sidewalk ledges with lower height, and lowering height of handles in buses and subways. They also increased women’s representation in decision making bodies dealing with designing urban spaces.

However, in India provision of women-only transport services have dominated and are perceived as a quick fix to the problem. For instance, in the Delhi metro, the first coach of every train is reserved for women (out of the total 8). This has certainly contributed to the fact that about 25 per cent of the metro’s total ridership comprises of women. When one steps out of the “cocoon” of the ladies’ coach, there is little provision for safety, particularly in commuting to and from the metro stations. Further, given that 86 per cent of female commuters prefer to use the reserved compartment (Borker, 2017), women routinely face overcrowding in their compartment. They often have to make their way through a swarm of men across the platform to reach their compartment at the end of the train, no mean feat during the rush hour.

Therefore, there is a need for our authorities to go from “women-only” to “women-focussed” solutions, reinforcing women’s right to public spaces. Some ideas suitable for Indian cities, include:

Make women a target beneficiary group for the government’s flagship Smart Cities program. Urban authorities should be encouraged to submit plans that show how women’s mobility is being eased through technology and designs.

City municipal authoriies can be tasked with creating a forward-looking gender mobility plan, with safety audits & surveys to understand women’s needs. These plans should address women’s travel needs and patterns, specifically trip-chaining, safety and presence of dependents and packages. The focus should not only be on a single part of the journey, but the entire ecosystem from point of origin to destination. Improve infrastructure for pedestrians by clearing encroachments on footpaths. Complement footpaths with ramps based on regular audits of the city infrastructure.

Josep Ramon Ferrer Escoda, a smart city expert based in Barcelona says that, “Indian cities should foster initiatives led by women. Incorporate women in the design of public transport and public spaces, by incorporating women in relevant departments and developing citizen engagement initiatives where women can provide feedback to the city council”. He also suggests that technology and crowdsourcing initiatives should be harnessed to increase security. For instance, a crowdsourced map of street lights can be developed, which highlight areas which need increased street-lighting.

Improve level of service on public transport by introducing time-tabled bus services, city-specific mobile application to register harassment and a ‘request stop program’ for women at night (as in Toronto), so that women can alight from a bus closer to their destinations. Apart from this prioritising maintenance of lighting and CCTVs at stations and bus-stops and regualarregular gender sensitisation trainings for staff operating public transport services – such as bus drivers, conductors, and support staff could also be useful The implementation of these solutions requires a political will, starting from the Central government to local authorities who should be incentivised to collect gender disaggregated data to measure the impact of their initiatives. But most of all women’s mobility and the reasons it continues to be so restricted needs to become centrestage.

#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage fo Gender across intersections. You can read our entire reportage here. 

Mitali Nikore is an economist, focusing on infrastructure development. The views expressed are her own