Transport Needs More Women Voices. Here’s Why.
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Women wait for the bus in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo by Galo Naranjo/Flickr

Nearly 60 percent of women in Britain feel unsafe walking alone in their cities. Seventy percent of women who use public transport in Mexico City have experienced gender-based violence. In too many cases, using public transport in cities is an exercise in calculated risk for half the population – if it even addresses their mobility needs in the first place.

To make transport safer, more accessible and more useful for everyone, more women need to be in the driver’s seat. Sometimes literally: in the European Union and United States, women make up just 18 percent and 15 percent of transport workers, respectively.

This International Women’s Day, the Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI), launched in 2016 by the German government, released its inaugural edition of “Remarkable Women in Transport.” The series aims to highlight women experts and leaders in sustainable mobility from around the world. In a sector dominated by men, these women are overhauling urban transit systems, advancing sustainable solutions, speaking up for social equity and lighting a path for more women to shape transport that works for everyone.

Three of TUMI’s remarkable women are WRI’s very own Claudia Adriazola-Steil, Anna Bray Sharpin and Sarika Panda Bhatt. Below are some of their insights as women working at the forefront of sustainable transport:

Claudia Adriazola-Steil, Deputy Director, Urban Mobility

Why does transport in particular need women in leadership roles?

Access to transport means access to economic opportunities, and women are still lagging behind. To have more inclusive mobility systems, we need to work for a better gender balance in the transport sector. We need women who can contribute their different perspectives, concerns and needs to ensure that mobility accommodates the demands of all citizens. The transport sector still suffers from gendered stereotypes, so empowering female leaders and acknowledging their contributions are crucial steps to creating a better, more equal society.

How do you see the issue of gender interacting with your work on road safety and public health?

In traffic, women are more risk-averse than men, and this impacts road safety. Most fatalities are among men, who tend to travel at more dangerous speeds. Take Bogotá for example, where there have been multiple studies on the demographics of road crashes. While motorcycles account for only 5 percent of trips, they represent 25 percent of annual fatalities. The typical motorcycle rider is a low-income man. A low-income woman, on the other hand, is more likely to commute by bus. That means less chance of a crash for her, but also spending four to six hours a day traveling in some cases. Similarly, in a traffic crash, if the bus driver is female the probabilities of having injuries or fatalities is about 60 percent lower than if the bus driver is male. Also, male drivers are the ones who have the highest risk of being involved in a fatal crash. Men make 59 percent of daily trips as car drivers and are involved in 90 percent of traffic fatalities, meaning that having a more inclusive transportation system would be safer for everyone.

Anna Bray Sharpin, Transportation Associate, Road Safety & Health

How can better representation of women help cities achieve more sustainable mobility?

Experience across many sectors shows that the more diverse the planning team, the more successful the project. Multiple perspectives bring more solutions to the table and make blind spots easier to see. For this reason, all levels of city mobility planning and decision-making should include not only a better gender balance but a more diverse range of voices in general. This can help generate sustainable mobility planning that accounts for a broader range of distinct needs, improving access – to jobs, to education, to health, to each other – across the board.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges in achieving gender-responsive transport planning?

Achieving change in mobility systems is already a major challenge. There are a lot of misconceptions and fears around making changes like redistributing street space or lowering speed limits. Adding gender to the discussion can sometimes feel like an added complication. However, just as a fairer distribution of street space and appropriate speed limits can improve safety for all road users, policies that target safe and accessible mobility options for women and girls can improve the quality of urban mobility in general. So, in the long run, everyone benefits.

Another challenge is the lack of data on gender-based mobility needs and experiences, which makes it difficult for some cities to know where to begin. But while data can help develop policies, cities don’t need to wait until perfect data to make basic changes that improve transport accessibility and safety in ways that make public spaces safer not only for women, but for all people using them. Such interventions include improved street lighting, at-level crossings in place of pedestrian bridges, and efforts to mitigate harassment, especially on public transport.

Sarika Panda Bhatt, Head, Integrated Transport & Road Safety, WRI India

What is the role of women in advocacy for sustainable mobility?

Mobility solutions in our cities are designed for the male and able-bodied, resulting in a lot of emphasis on personal, motorized mobility. Women tend to bring a more holistic perspective to planning and consider the needs of everyone, including children, elders and the disabled. These considerations tend to lead to more sustainable mobility. Therefore, to see more walking, cycling and transit use in our cities, we need more women in planning and advocacy around sustainable transport.

What challenges have you personally faced as a woman working in transport?

The mobility sector in India, as in other developing countries, is dominated by men. Female participation is minimal, whether it be in planning, design, construction, operations or maintenance. My first challenge was to make my voice heard, and then to establish my credibility. It was tough, but eventually I was able to carve out a space for myself.

What progress have you seen on this issue? What solutions or approaches do you think are most effective?

In the last few years, I have seen many more women come into the mobility sector. This is a welcome shift. If women start mobilizing women, we will see much more participation, and, with more women at the helm, we will surely see more equitable and sustainable mobility for all.

Hillary Smith is an intern on the communications team for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.