July 11, 2013

Rethinking Gender Equity in Transport Planning

I imagine every woman does this. Every time she enters a subway station, a bus or a bus-stop, a cab alone or with children, she looks around almost on autopilot; she is infinitely and finitely aware of her surroundings, the people around her, the density of the crowd she’s in; the instinctive need to protect herself is alive; to protect her body, her emotions, her physical space, her children. I know that I am constantly aware, not overtly but in a subtle but now almost inbuilt manner. If I am seated, I tend to relax but the game is on as soon as I have to exit the automobile. The vulnerabilities one feels are covered in a layer of toughness and constant awareness. And vulnerabilities abound. When I started writing this piece, I was relatively ignorant of the imbalances in the manner that public transport systems are constructed around the world; and especially of the lack of sensitivity towards women that use them.  My immediate thought about women and public transport was that of the reserved bogies for women in Bombay’s locals…..and then I realized that talking about transport and gender can’t be that basic and segregation oriented. It has to be a broader and more encompassing discussion.  This led to some research and I was amazed at how much literature there is about how differently women and men use public transport and even think about it.  Unfortunately, very little of this research informs transport planning across the world. Traditionally, transport planning models do not consider women’s travel patterns, particularly differences in relation to trip purposes, frequency and distance of travel, mode of transportation used, and mobility constraints to access other services such as health.  We do however build remarkably cold, efficient, uncomfortable and purely utilitarian transportation systems across the world. And, we do that with remarkable consistency. The World Bank estimates that the most predominant mode of travel for women in rural areas remains walking; in urban areas, women tend to rely more on public transportation than men[i]. A 2002-03 study of Brazil's household expenditure showed that women (65%) used public buses, informal and intermediate modes of transport (such as taxis) more than men (42%).[ii] A survey in Nigeria showed that the decision to acquire a car is made solely by the husband in nearly 60% of households and in rural areas; men are three times more likely to use a car than women. Other findings include the fact that women spend a greater share of their disposable income on public transport than men and that high transport prices can make services particularly prohibitive for women when it comes to reaching their workplaces and as a result women tend to work closer to home beyond a fixed cost threshold.[iii] In Pakistan, about 28% of women in villages with road access had prenatal consultations compared to only 14% in villages without road access; while 58% of all births in villages with road access were assisted by skilled attendants compared with 39% for women without road access. Additionally, it is estimated that 75% of maternal deaths could be prevented through timely access to essential health care.[iv] Transport and road infrastructure play a key role in accessing that care. Yet, in many cases, considerable time is spent by women and their families waiting for transportation and emergency travel to reach a health facility often has to be undertaken on foot or by local forms of ‘non-motorized transport’. I am still haunted by a National Geographic article on the death of a pregnant woman in childbirth in a remote part of Africa while she waited for a doctor to travel six hours to reach her. India is no stranger to maternal mortality. Latest figures indicate that 56,000 mothers die annually while 309,000 babies die within the first 24 hours of being born in India every year.[v] Not all the deaths are related to access to healthcare and transport but a significant number are. More recently, Gendered Innovations, a Stanford University project devoted to gender analysis, in a new line of study called "Transportation: Reconceptualizing Data Collection[vi] looked at the bias in public transport systems against women. The researchers argue that regular transit surveys obscure the quality of the data they collect, that trips by caregivers, serial trips (which women make more often than men) aren't sufficiently defined; and that aggregated ridership figures, particularly by race, create incomplete pictures of the riding public. Traditional public transportation surveys of transit fail to properly represent the significance of women riders who bear the bulk of the "care" load. If data were reorganized to emphasize this "mobility of care," a different picture would emerge. These ‘gendered’ numbers, the researchers conclude, should encourage metro transit systems to redesign facilities to accommodate the transport needs of women and older people. Countries like Sweden have incorporated findings like this into their transport planning systems for over a decade now.  These include prioritizing routes, including more women decision makers in the development of the transit routes as well as new design features to make transportation safer. These include designated waiting areas, transparent bus shelters, emergency intercoms and surveillance mechanisms, and alternative services and routes, such as request-stop programs that allow nighttime users to disembark from the bus at locations closer to their final destination. I am not aware of detailed Gendered Transport Studies available in India. The closest that I got to a gendered or nuanced response is a design response guideline to transport by the Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure Planning and Engineering Center (UTTIPEC ).[vii]  It is a little more humane than traditional transport plans that currently populate town planner’s offices in India today but is still just a guideline. Coincidentally, it was developed by a woman planner. Perhaps, that’s what we need to start making changes in the way we build transport infrastructure across the country- change the leadership of transportation boards — positions that tend to be held typically by men. The unbalanced hierarchy almost certainly perpetuates gender disparities in transport policy and practice. The recent violence against women on our transportation systems is reason enough to ask for changes transportation policy, especially for more nuanced and gendered plans.  

About: Shreya Pillai

Shreya Pillai is an urban planner and social policy analyst. Deeply connected to her Indian roots, she currently lives and works in the United States. She loves people watching, dogs and beautiful prose and good company.

3 comments to Rethinking Gender Equity in Transport Planning

  • Madhav Badami

    Shreya Pillai:

    Thanks very much for your article on gender equity in urban transport planning.

    You may wish to look at a Master’s research report on gender equity in urban transport and public transit — titled “Women’s safety in urban planning, urban design and public transportation planning: Insights from a non-profit international development approach” — that I co-supervised in the School of Urban Planning at McGill University a couple of years ago. Here’s the link to the report:


    Best wishes,

    Madhav Badami, McGill University

  • Shreya

    thanks for the link to the thesis, Madhav. The article was highly enlightening. I seem to keep stumbling upon more and more valuable work done on the gender and transport issue and am beginning to feel more hopeful that urban policy and planning will catch up in time.

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