Why it is Key to Include Gender Equality in Transport Design

A Women Travels by Bus in India. Photo by Benoit Colin/EMBARQ/Flickr

A 1996 iconic study from Vienna, Austria explored why there were fewer girls (above age nine) in public parks as compared to the number of boys. The researchers concluded that the boys were more assertive in their use of the park, and girls generally lost out in this competition for limited space. Following the study, in 1999, the city began a park re-design project, and the results were striking. By adding more access paths and landscaping to divide large open spaces into smaller sections, groups of boys and girls were able to create zones for themselves without competing. The city’s girls returned to the parks.

In the last two decades, Vienna has conducted over 60 pilot projects – across public transport, housing and footpaths – to incorporate equal access for men and women in design. Today, gender mainstreaming is core to Vienna’s planning strategy.

Gender mainstreaming, as defined by the United Nations Economic and Social Council, refers to a strategy for making women’s, as well as men’s, concerns and experiences integral dimensions of policies and programs in all political, economic and social spheres. Gender mainstreaming is essential to ensure that women and men benefit equally from a certain system and inequality is not perpetuated.

Gender Mainstreaming in Transportation

Transportation planning and design are commonly regarded as “gender neutral.” It is assumed that transport projects equally benefit both men and women and that there are no significant differences between travel needs and patterns of either gender. Investments are therefore oriented towards hard infrastructure and planning towards benefiting different social groups.

On the contrary, how women experience mobility is very different from men. This is deeply rooted in community-driven gender roles with economic, social and livelihood influences.

Designing for Mobility Needs and Travel Patterns

Mobility needs of women tend to be heterogeneous. While men use transport services largely to work and back, women combine domestic and caregiving tasks with work trips. This phenomenon is referred to as “trip chaining,” where trips are short, multimodal and frequent. Trip chaining is especially common among women in low- and middle-income economies. This is corroborated by a study conducted in Bhopal by World Resources Institute (WRI) India, which revealed that more than 50 percent of the 2000-odd women interviewed undertake chained trips.

Trip chaining requires women to juggle different tasks. Women are therefore more starved for time and are likely to avoid employment opportunities because of poor transportation design. As a result, making mobility accessible to women is crucial. For example, in an attempt to promote basic education, the National Literacy Mission adopted the idea of cycling for women in Pudukkottai – a district in Tamil Nadu. The campaign gave easy access to loans for women to purchase cycles. With access to improved mobility, about 40 percent of women admitted to being able to accomplish more than they could before. Women could also access employment at longer distances, jobs that they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

Women tend to spend more time than men on caregiving tasks like tending to children, the elderly, etc. The Bhopal study shows that more than 30 percent of women travel with dependents, as opposed to less than 16 percent of men. It is common for planners to conduct transportation planning surveys to understand travel patterns and needs so that infrastructure can be planned to suit those requirements. The survey combines all types of paid employment into a single category, while caregiving tasks are spread across different categories. Professor Ines Sánchez de Madariaga, from the Spanish government, suggests that caregiving tasks become more evident if grouped under “mobility of care,” and therefore a more crucial input to transport design. London transport planners implemented several innovations using data from mobility of care like step-free access to trains, subways and buses to accommodate baby carriages, luggage and wheel chairs and level access platforms to trains.

Designing delivery systems around commuter needs can also improve accessibility of transport services for women. In India, bus aggregator services are growing. Within these models, commuters use smart phones to summon and book a seat on private shuttles.

WRI India conducted a survey in Hyderabad to understand if such models impact the perception and experience of personal safety and accessibility. Women that used public transport before shifting to bus aggregator services stated that getting a seat, punctuality and travel time were crucial in their decision of which mode of transport to use. A majority of women said that the time required to take aggregated buses was less than their previous mode of transport; many reported a half-hour reduction. Furthermore, an overwhelming number of women said that aggregated shuttles are faster, more punctual and better in assuring a seat than public counterparts.

Designing for Safety

Women have varying security concerns from men, and designing for personal safety is crucial for women to execute economic and social functions. Transport users are predominantly male, and women commuters are less comfortable with overcrowding. Getting an assured seat and having mechanisms to report distress institute a sense of increased personal safety, according to the women surveyed in Hyderabad.

Design and methods of access and pedestrian infrastructure should also incorporate gender considerations. In Hyderabad, women reported that they feel most vulnerable to theft or harassment on access routes and boarding points of buses and trains.

Walking trips are more common among women than men. In a Delhi slum, among people engaged in informal jobs, a study reported that 52 percent of women walked to work as opposed to just 26 percent of men. A similar finding in Vienna, by the gender mainstreaming approach, led to improved lighting along sidewalks.

Designing through Inclusive Planning

Under-representation of women in the transport sector leads to a low visibility of women’s perspectives, and the differences in transport needs and patterns do not become apparent. Higher participation of women in the planning and design process is therefore increasingly necessary. A commitment to gender mainstreaming must include gender awareness and capacity-building programs for policy and decision makers to completely understand and appreciate gender-related issues.

Transport design is generally responsive to the needs of the larger commuter base. The design process must be informed by gender disaggregated data for requirements that are equally important for men and women. For example, a survey in Spain revealed that more than 30 percent of commuters use public transport for employment. Sex disaggregated data exhibits that of the 30 percent, more women use public transit than men for employment.

Finally, it is important to have more women participate in operational functions of transport systems like drivers, station attendees, supervisors, etc. Some cities also include female participation in allied services that revolve around transport infrastructure. For instance, the city corporation in Dhaka, Bangladesh, introduced a program where 15 percent of vendor area around the bus rapid transit corridors was reserved for women.

Transport design is sensitive to income groups, but little attention is given to gender considerations. While there are mechanisms like reserved seating facilities for women in public transport systems, gender mainstreaming in the design process can address larger gender issues and open avenues for women to participate in the workforce, improve their standing in society and benefit the economy.

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