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Live From Transforming Transportation 2018: Confronting Gender Issues, “Leapfrogging” in Africa

WRI’s Ani Dasgupta and the World Bank’s Jose Luis Irigoyen close out Transforming Transportation 2018. Photo Credit: Valeria Gelman/WRI

Beyond the technological revolution underway in transport today, gender was an underlying theme of Transforming Transportation this year.

Transport is not gender neutral, not matter where you are, said a chorus of experts during the opening panel on day two. “Gender is often a more robust determinant of modal choice than age or income,” said Mary Crass of the International Transport Forum.

That both men and women feel uncomfortable on public transport is a problem for the sector generally, but women face a much worse experience in many places, said Buenos Aires Secretary of Transport Juan Jose Méndez. Some 50 percent of men in Argentina’s largest city feel unsafe using public transit; among women, it’s more than 70 percent. Sixty-five percent of women in Mexico City say they have been harassed, according to the World Bank’s Karla Dominguez Gonzalez.

“We don’t understand the spectrum of abuse,” said Elsa Marie D’Silva, who left her job to found the Red Dot Foundation after the brutal 2012 gang rape and murder of a woman on a private bus in Delhi.

People often think of sexual assault only as rape and ignore the verbal and nonverbal interactions that can also be debilitating, D’Silva said. Groping, leering, stalking and similar interactions add up and can discourage women from using certain modes of transport or going out at all. “When a woman loses her access to public space, you are limiting her access to opportunities and her civil rights,” D’Silva said.

There’s a data gap around these problems that new, open-source reporting and mapping initiatives are helping to close. The Red Dot Foundation, for example, provides a way for women in India, Kenya, Cameroon and Nepal to anonymously report incidents and then analyzes the data to pinpoint hotspots of abuse. As more data becomes available, more incidents will come to light, warned the Brookings Institution’s Katherine Sierra.

But the gap remains wide and the transport sector has a special responsibility to face gender issues, Sierra said. Beyond the experience of individual commuters, construction projects of all kinds are targets for sexploitation, and transport projects are among the largest. She pointed to the “neutron bomb” that went off at the World Bank following investigations into a project in Uganda that revealed sexual assault and abuse by contractors. “It’s our job to report and face the incidents,” she said.

Following the data gap – or perhaps preceding it – there’s a perception gap. Even though there tend to be more female public transit users than men, most of the decision-makers in charge of policy, planning and operations are men, said Crass, who simply don’t have the same experiences and are less sensitive to the issues faced by women.

Just 23 percent of London’s public transit authority’s 28,000-member staff are women, said Lilli Matson, head of transport planning. Across European public transit agencies generally, the number drops to 18 percent, said Mohamed Mezghani, secretary-general of the Union Internationale des Transports Publics.

“Gender balance isn’t just a moral imperative; there is an economic case,” said Olurinu Jose, director of business systems at the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority. As one of the authority’s first female managers, Jose said she had to convince her boss of the value of reaching out to women as employees, but he soon saw the benefits. Just 5 of the 300 drivers for Nigeria’s first bus-rapid transit (BRT) system were women, Jose said, but she noted to him that more women drivers would lead to fewer accidents and fewer strikes. His main question was whether anyone would apply.

“Efficient and reliable transport gives women more opportunities,” acknowledged Amadou Saidou Ba, president of the Executive Council of Urban Transport in Dakar, pledging accessibility and safety in the city’s new BRT pilot project.

African leaders from across the continent talked about efforts to expand transport infrastructure to keep pace with rapidly growing cities and economies. Over the next 12 years, an estimated 350 million people will be added to African cities.

It’s important for people to see the value in public transport to reduce congestion and pollution, and that means improving accessibility and safety for everyone, said Ba. “We cannot spend our lives building roads. Not everyone can have a private car.”

Ronald Lwakatare, CEO of Dar es Salaam Rapid Transit, or DART, said they have focused on BRT because it’s easier to construct, low cost, more inclusive and can accommodate existing bus companies. DART includes accessible entrances and level boarding for the disabled, pedestrian walkways, and special seats for the elderly and expecting mothers. Lagos and Dar es Salaam are both expanding bus-rapid transit systems as well, with more than 20 kilometers of corridors each so far.

These are encouraging steps, but there’s still a tremendous way to go, said Marianne Vanderschuren of the University of Cape Town. Even in Cape Town, which has more developed public transit, the average distance to the nearest station from any given point is 1.3 kilometers, much further than Europe and even the United States (800 meters).

In large cities like Lagos, Dar Es Salaam, Kigali and Kampala, the cost of daily commuting can be prohibitive for poor households, accounting for more than 40 percent of monthly budgets.

Speaking to a room of global transport of experts and government officials from across the continent, Vanderschuren noted the special responsibilities of the people gathered. “It’s important for everyone to be advocates and use our knowledge to improve the situation in Africa,” she said. “We are responsible for developing new methodologies and assisting governments.”

Poor connectivity is expensive, inefficient and dangerous. Road-related injuries are the third leading cause of death in Africa, said the World Bank’s Tatiana Peralta Quiros. Over the next decade, the number of people killed from road-related causes will be equivalent to a major world war, said the World Bank’s Soames Job, with scarce resources or attention paid. (For more on road safety, see WRI and the World Bank’s “Sustainable and Safe” report.)

Aiming to help build capacity and cultivate a community of practice to “leapfrog” transport development in Africa, nine organizations, including five universities, announced a new memorandum of understanding for joint research. Joining the World Bank and WRI, was the World Conference on Transport Research Society, Africa Transport Policy Program, University of Nairobi, University of Da es Salam, University of Johannesburg, University of Dakar and Institut National Polytechnique de Yamoussoukro.

Even as much of the of the focus at Transforming Transportation this year has been on how technology is changing the industry – introducing new players, new business models and disrupting the status quo – there were just as many reminders that the biggest challenges remain old ones.

“Technology alone cannot solve the transport question, or countries like mine will be left behind,” said Amadou Saidou Ba.

Closing out the conference alongside the World Bank’s Jose Luis Irigoyen, WRI Ross Center Global Director Ani Dasgupta noted the connection between democratization and sustainability made by many over the two days. “The idea that building sustainable cities and building equal cities are one and the same was something that really resonated with me and I hope it did with you.”

“We will do it together,” said Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank. “No organization, country [or] institution faced with this dramatic transformation can do it on its own. But we can do it together.”

Schuyler Null is the Communications Associate for the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Talia Rubnitz is the Communications Assistant for the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.