Moving towards equality in public transport by Libby Wilson

Transport is a unique vector for opportunity. Whether economic or social, the easier it is to get around, the more locals thrive. But for more than 50% of the world’s population, public transport still comes with serious baggage.


Ensuring women have access to inclusive and secure public transport is a growing priority for economists, policy makers, urban and transport planners alike. Institutions such as the World Bank and UN Women actively research and make recommendations on the relationship between gender and transportation. That’s because the consequences reach far beyond transport use: this isn’t simply about getting around with ease; it’s about equality and advancement.




The jury is still out on whether men and women are from different planets, but one thing is certain: they do have different travel habits. For example, women in Africa, Asia and Latin America are more likely to combine domestic and caregiving duties with travelling to work, moving between multiple destinations throughout the day. This can be quite complicated when you are reliant on public transport, which is the reality for most women, especially those from low-income backgrounds. Two-thirds of public transport passengers in France are women(1), over 50% in Latin America and the Caribbean(2) and 55% in the US(3). And in India, a whopping 84% of women’s journeys are by public, intermediate public and non-motorised modes of transport(4).


For women, limited access to transport, and the dubious level of safety while onboard, is the greatest obstacle to labour market entry, according to the International Labour Organization (Trends for Women 2017).


In France, according to FNAUT study on gender harassment in public rail transport, just 19% of women say their use of public transport is not influenced by harassment. “The lack of personal security, or the inability to use public transport without the fear of being victimised – whether on public transport, walking to or from a transit facility or stop, or waiting at a bus, transit stop, or station platform – can substantially decrease the attractiveness and thus the use of public transit”, notes a 2017 Global Mobility Report released by SuM4All (Sustainable Mobility for All), a World Bank-led initiative.




From stalking and unwanted comments or gestures, to groping and assault, women are at higher risk of experiencing violence. And it’s a global problem. A 2015 French report from France’s National Observatory of Crime and Criminal Justice found that 220,000 women had been sexually harassed on public transport in what was described as “a conservative estimate”.


In the Île-de-France region, for example, a study from FNAUT on gender harassment in public road transport and multimodal hubs shows that public transport (including rail stations) is the primary location for sexual assault against women, with 39% of attacks reported occurring there.


And journeys at off-peak times, like early morning or late at night, present a real safety issue. Minorities are often targets of gender and sexual harassment as well. In the UK, the number of LGBT victims on the road and rail networks has tripled over the past five years alone(5).




In an effort to reduce risk, many initiatives focus on improving the quality of transport infrastructure and operations: redesigning waiting areas, creating better lighting on access routes or improving schedules and punctuality at stops. For many women, getting around is a bit like a puzzle, and timing is critical to fit together their various daily trips. On-time transport minimises waiting time and reduces insecurity. In other words, it makes a real difference in people’s lives. For example, a report from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Latin America found that cutting down on tardiness and congestion also reduces the likelihood that a woman will be a victim of crime. Adapting off-peak offers, such as expanding evening and weekend services to avoid extended wait times in deserted or poorly lit stations, is also crucial.


In Quito, Ecuador, as part of UN Women’s Safe Cities Programme, officials found that 84% of women cited public transport as unsafe due to sexual violence. The city created a response plan to address the issue on every front: remodelling 43 of 44 trolley stops in line with new safety criteria, training 600 staff members to assist and respond to victims, a mobile app for reporting sexual harassment via text message, expansion of crime and violence monitoring, a communications campaign, school-based prevention initiatives, and more. In 2016, Quito declared the programme an “emblematic, special category project,” and committed to continuing it in the future.


Women-only compartments on buses and trains have even been introduced in countries like Japan, India, Brazil, Egypt and Mexico as well. But for some, this is only addressing the symptoms and not the problem and perpetuates perceptions of female vulnerability. Speaking about women-only buses in Papua New Guinea, Lizette Soria, UN Women’s Safe Public Transport Programme, said, “This is just a short-term strategy, because our long-term goal is to make public transport safer for everyone”.




There is good news: technology can intervene at various stages. In India, the Safetipin app allows women to easily consult safety scores for public spaces. And in Cairo, HarassMap creates crowd-sourced maps of harassment incidents. Citizens can report an incident or intervention – whether someone acted to stop the incident or supported the victim – via a dedicated website. The result functions much like Google Maps: each dot represents one report and additional details are available upon clicking. This easy-to-use overview helps users determine the safest routes. Once using public transport, geotracking and alert apps kick in. For example, Singapore’s “justshakeit” lets users simply shake their cell phone to send alerts to the police, family members, and their doctor. Under-reporting of harassment is an epidemic and technology is proving its force in this arena too. The root cause of under-reporting is difficulty identifying perpetrators and a lack of information about when, where and how to file a complaint. In 2012, London conducted a survey and found only one in ten passengers said they would report sexual harassment. So, transport authorities launched “Report it to Stop it” to give women more ways to report incidents: in person, by phone and even by text. Since this programme launched in 2014, British Transport Police in London have received 65,000 reports by text.




The most effective strategies look at issues holistically. That’s why policy makers are taking action to tackle harassment and improve women’s transport safety as part of a wider gender equality framework.


“It’s a combination of factors that we need to bring: technology can play an important role, as well as infrastructure and service system design, but it is also key to engage women and girls, involve the community at large, and design systems that will also lead to a change in behaviour because that’s part of the issue”said Pierre Guislain, Vice President of Private Sector, Infrastructure & Industrialization at the African Development Bank Group.


Incorporating women’s needs and perspectives is an important first step. In Toronto, Canada, active consultation and joint projects with women’s groups have proven effective. Thanks to a fruitful collaboration between transport authorities, police and community groups, comprehensive safety audits of the city’s transport systems were conducted, and various safety-related improvements delivered, from designated waiting areas to request-stop programmes on transport networks. Other organisations (see “Gender sensitisation training in Delhi” and “Australia: a more gender balanced workforce”) have introduced gender-sensitive training for drivers and increased the number of women in transport-related roles.




Improving public safety works best when the public is aware of the issues and transport personnel properly trained to combat them. Authorities and campaigning groups are getting the “stop harassment” message across using traditional means like posters, advertising and staff at safety kiosks, as well as via digital tools like Hyderabad police’s Hawk Eye app, which allows citizens to report sexual assaults. But social media plays a big role too. After all, one of the best ways to spark a reaction is to go viral. A campaign by UN Women and the Mexico City government to raise awareness of sexual harassment on subways grasped this: seats were shaped to look like a man’s body, including the penis. Needless to say, it sparked more than a few side stares and digital shares. The goal behind all these campaigns is empowering everyone to be part of changing attitudes and behaviour.


Promoting safe and sustainable transport doesn’t just benefit women. It creates more security for everyone. But it remains a collective challenge. Involving users, especially women, goes a long way in shaping services that improve access, reduce inequalities and create a better, safer experience for all.


(1) Gender Equality Initiatives in Transportation Policy, Yael Hasson and Marianna Plevoy, July 2011.

(2) InterAmerican Development Bank The Relationship between Gender and Transport, Isabel Granada, 2016.

(3) Demand for Public Transport in Germany and the USA: An Analysis of Rider Characteristics, Ralph Buehler and John Pucher, 2012.

(4) Census. B-28 “Other Workers” By Mode of Travel to Place of Work. New Delhi: Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India, 2011.

(5) British Transport Police data 2013-2018, obtained through Freedom of Information request.


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