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Integrating Women’s Concerns in Public Transport

Since December 2012, there has been increased attention to women’s experience of public transport. While the demand to make public transport safer for women is rightly emphasized, there is a need for a holistic approach to “engender public transport” i.e. making men and women’s concerns an integral part of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation (UNESCO 1997) of public transport. Drawing from various research studies in India and globally, this article highlights the differences in men and women’s travel patterns, met and unmet needs in bus-based public transport and suggests key areas of intervention.


Why gender in sustainable urban transport?

According to the UNDP, six out of ten of the world’s poorest people are women and this has marginally changed since 1995, when women constituted 70% of the poor (UNDP 2014). However, urban development is assumed to be gender neutral i.e. providing equal access to men and women, which does not acknowledge that physical infrastructure projects (roads, transport services etc) may have dissimilar and unequal impacts on the two groups (Khosla 2009).

Gendered differences in travel patterns

Modal shares

The predominant mode of travel for low-income women in developing countries is walking. In a study conducted by Srinivasa (2008) among low-income populations in Chennai, the percentage of poor women walking was quite more than that of men. Even when there was a lack of bicycle facilities in Chennai, bicycling rates for men were eight percent compared to one percent for women. Similarly in Sanjay camp in Delhi, it was observed that nearly twice the number of women walked to work as compared to men. Though 21% people used bicycles, out of which two percent women constituted pillion riders (Anand and Tiwari 2006). The difference in cycle use is largely explained by women’s higher concern for safer riding environments and their inferior access to personal means of transport. Women’s limited access to basic carts or load-carrying bicycles, results in frequent strain injuries, neck and back pain due to excessive head loading (Deike 2013). Further socio-cultural perceptions such as women’s dressing or being perceived as a “madam” also tend to constrain women’s choice of cycling as was observed in Pune (Parisar and University of Pune 2009).

While bus transport modal shares vary from 25% in Mumbai to 37% in Bhopal (DIMTS 2012), women are more dependent on public transport than men, especially when they are from lower-income groups. In Mumbai, it was observed that women made 45 % more TRIPS by bus than train, which increased to 67% for households with incomes less than `5000 per month. Unfortunately, the off-peak and peripheral public transit routes on which many women depend for their travel to shopping or social facilities have much less priority than the radial commuter corridors going straight to the city centre. In many Indian cities like Bhopal, informal systems carry more passengers (20%) than the formal public transport system. Due to the unregulated nature of this sector, it is characterized by affordable but poor quality of vehicles, unverified drivers and conductors, unpredictable schedules and a lack of accountability.


Women’s travel is characterized by TRIP chaining i.e. combining multiple destinations within one trip. For example, they might travel to and from work, but on the way go to the market, pick up or drop off children to school etc. This also often makes it much more costly for women to get around, since they may have to pay numerous single fare tickets during such a chained trip.

Since women are overrepresented as informal workers, their destinations may not be concentrated in the Central Business District or in one or two¬ main areas, but dispersed (GTZ 2007). In Vishakapatnam, it was observed that while 39% of all TRIPS were for work, only 11% of women’s trips versus 62.7% of men’s trips were for work. In fact, half of the women’s trips were for religious purposes.

A study of a low-income settlement in Delhi showed a gender dimension to the shelter-transport-livelihood link i.e. women are much more affected than men with respect to access to employment, education or basic services when these amenities are located far away from their residences. For example, relocation of squatter settlements to the periphery of Delhi led to an increase in female unemployment by 27% compared to just five % for men.

Travel distances, times and cost

Women tend to take more and shorter TRIPS at varied times, particularly during afternoon off-peak hours. In Delhi’s Sanjay Camp, 75% of women worked within a 5km radius whereas 75% men worked within a 12km radius. Lower income women use slower and inexpensive modes of transport to manage transport costs.

Safety, security and accessibility

Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that the ratio of the crime rate in cities with a population of more than one million to that of the national average is 21:19. The proportion of Indian Penal Code crimes committed against women has increased from 8.8% in the year 2007 to 9.4% in 2011.

While increased attention to women’s safety has mobilized some action by bus transit authorities across India, these efforts need to be tied into a holistic agenda to promote women’s use of public transport by making it safer, accessible, affordable and convenient; and ensuring equal employment within the agencies.

Studies across cities reveal that access to public transport is characterized by poor infrastructure such as poor or absent streetlights, unusable pavements and lack of public toilets. Due to these conditions, a majority of the women faced harassment on the roads and around bus stops In Delhi. In contrast, in Mumbai, a study by the World Bank revealed that most of the women surveyed felt safe at all stages of the journey, except during boarding and alighting and within public transport vehicles during the peak hours.


There is limited gender disaggregated data available on employment in transport bodies, though anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that few women are employed in the transport industry. In 2010, women constituted only 12.5 % of the BEST Committee and one % of its engineers. When BEST attempted to induct women bus conductors, all of them requested to be shifted to desk jobs (World Bank 2011). Promoting gender equity within bus authorities and as a service mandate still remains elusive.


Way Forward

India has a gender inclusion strategy in urban transport at the national level, which aims to ensure women’s representation in the planning and design of transport investments, information dissemination and considering women’s needs for better route planning, provision of special buses, increased off-peak hour services etc. However, these have yet to be translated into city specific policies and programs. An approach towards integrating gender in public busbased transport in India is suggested. It includes gender disaggregated measurement, planning, implementation and evaluation of:

i) Service planning and operations

a) This includes collecting baseline data of access to different modes of transport, the cost of transport, TRIP characteristics (modes, frequency, length of trips, w for trips), and transport quality and experience.

b) Women’s trip chaining travel patterns, destinations as well as off-peak hour travel must be considered in determining fares and route planning of feeder services.

c) In addition to reserved seats, women doors must be explored especially in peak hour travel. While women-only buses have been withdrawn in a number of cities for not attracting ridership, they have been critiqued for poor frequencies and not addressing those women who may travel with male members.

d) Flexible services like “Request a Stop and Hail and Board” must be considered after dark so that women, elderly and the disabled can alight closer to their destination.

ii) Public transport infrastructure

This includes safety audits of bus terminals, shelters / stations and streets. Apps like Safetipin and Harassmap have evaluated safe and unsafe places in different cities across India. However, there is a need for a common platform to collate disparate mapping efforts and in translating evaluations into improved streets and public spaces.

iii) Public transport vehicles

This includes low floor buses for some percentage of the public transport fleet, minimizing the vertical gap at bus shelters when boarding or alighting, ensuring sufficient width of gangway (to allow both waiting and passing through) and doors (to permit simultaneous boarding and alighting) amongst others.

iv) Employment, technical capacity and perceptions

  1. This includes target driven measures to increase women’s employment, retention and growth in public transit agencies, such that it atleast reflects the city’s demography.
  2. Verification of drivers and conductors must be undertaken along with defining standard operating procedures on how to address harassment. This will have to be supported with regular gender sensitization trainings.
  3. Further, technical capacity will need to be built in public transit agencies to emphasize the importance of including gender as a separate category of data collection, analysis, planning and evaluation. Since electronic ticketing machines do not capture this information, periodic sample surveys can be undertaken to fill this data gap.
  4. Finally media campaigns, videos on buses and radio must be used to sensitize co-passengers.


v) Communication and feedback system

a) Increasingly emergency telephone numbers and complaint numbers are being displayed in buses. However, there is a general lack of information pertaining to routes and schedules, real time information about bus arrival, or an effective communication and feedback system. (Women) passengers tend to be unaware of existing or new safety initiatives undertaken by bus authorities.

b) Global Positioning Systems can be used to provide real time information on bus location and times at bus shelters.

c) Increasingly CCTV cameras are being installed in buses, stations etc. From 1999-2001, around 255 million USD were spent to install CCTV cameras in town and city centres, car parks, crime hot spots and residential areas in the United Kingdom. However, studies revealed that they were most effective in reducing crime in car parks, small and insignificant in city centres and public transport. Thus the efficacy of CCTV cameras in reducing crime must be evaluated before it is replicated at a city-wide scale.

The measures above indicate some areas of intervention for integrating gender within bus-based public transport in India. However, they must be supported by a robust institutional structure where the police, municipal corporation and transit authority work with civil society organizations (across income groups). Transport for London (TfL), the agency responsible for operating London’s public transport network and main roads, created a Women’s Action Plan (2004) and Gender Equality Scheme (2007-2010) to promote equality within its public transport system. TfL held consultations with 140 women’s groups in London and prioritized five broad areas of concern. These were accessibility (i.e. availability, vehicles integration, barriers to travel and infrastructure), real and perceived levels of safety & security, affordability; information and employment (i.e. equal pay, recruitment, retention, and flexible working and workplace culture). TfL’s initiatives are considered the most comprehensive efforts by transport operators to respond to the needs of women’s riders

(Sonal Shah, is an Architect-Urban Planner. She is MSc in Urban Planning, Columbia University)

[First published in Traffic Infra Tech]

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