In most people’s eyes, a car, a bus, a train, or a motorcycle are simply forms of transport. But they can also be seen as part of a wider transport and mobility ecosystem that helps and sometimes hinders the activities and transactions that make up our everyday lives. From this perspective, transport systems can play a significant role in excluding certain individuals or groups of people.
As we celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8, it allows us to reflect on how our transport systems affect women and men differently. Until recently, we considered transport as gender-neutral – that is, not treating or serving men and women differently. However, since the 1990s, many studies show that women’s access to transport is vastly different from men’s. In some countries, women are not allowed to ride bicycles or purchase their own vehicles. Women’s transport needs may also be different. In some cases, women make short and frequent trips throughout the day using multiple modes or combine work trips with domestic and caregiving tasks. These differences depend partly on what activities and work women are involved in and how they organize their time around them.
Meanwhile, many aspects of public transport affect women’s decisions to use it. Accessibility, safety and security, affordability, and convenience are key attributes women consider before choosing a public transport mode. In many cities, women and girls think twice before riding public transport during rush hour due to the potential worry of sexual harassment and groping. A 2019 survey of almost 10,000 women and girls in India found that less than 10 per cent felt completely safe on public transport.
Some transport authorities have introduced designated seats for women in public transport vehicles. However, these initiatives require enforcement if they are to boost women’s confidence. Recently, a powerful TV ad on Nepal’s national television showed a young woman demanding a woman-designated seat from a male passenger. Other initiatives include providing women-only buses and coaches in transit systems. Such programs are operating in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and Pakistan. These initiatives have provided short-term assurance of safety and protection from harassment. But many argue that segregation is not a long-term solution. Instead, all commuters need to behave with civility and respect.
We need to also think about women as transport operators. More women are starting to work in passenger and freight transport, although still much less than men. The majority of electric tempo drivers in Kathmandu are women seeking state support to improve their routes and facilities. Meanwhile, in Surat, India, city authorities support women in learning how to drive and access loans to purchase their autorickshaws under the “Pink Auto Rickshaw Service.” There is also plenty of symbolic news from airlines – long-haul flights handled by an entire crew of women. We even see women only crew in some public buses.
While these examples are exemplary, governments in the Asia-Pacific region need to address inequalities in access to transport between women and men. We need more women in transport policy-making positions to challenge gender biases at each stage of transport planning and development. The first step in addressing gender concerns in public transport projects is to undertake a gender analysis. We need to document women’s needs and concerns and how such projects may impact them differently from men. This can be addressed only through collaboration among all stakeholders at the local, city, provincial and national level, the private sector, and local community.
The next step is to advocate for gender-targeted initiatives by making public transport safer, more accessible, and convenient for women. There is a rich body of literature on gender and transport, with guidelines developed by various organizations for transport policymakers. Applying these guidelines may require hands-on training and discussions between public transport authorities, government policymakers, and community groups to adapt them to different socio-cultural contexts.
As policymakers enter the post-COVID-19 period, pressure is mounting to address many of the social and economic inequities brought into the spotlight by the pandemic. The inadequacy of public transport systems in many Asia and Pacific cities to accommodate different users’ diverse needs is one such issue. Building on the ESCAP Legislative Committee on Transport advice, strengthening the social dimensions of transport and gender will feature prominently in the next five-year transport programme for the Asia-Pacific region (2022-2026).
ESCAP is also planning to establish a Transport Research and Education Network to strengthen collaboration with transport institutes and researchers for sustainable and inclusive transport development and enhance evidence-based policy-making. Towards this end, the ESCAP Transport Bulletin’s next issue will focus on the theme “Gender and Social Dimensions of Transport”. Interested authors are invited to view the Call for Papers and contribute.