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Safe Public Transit for Women and Girls

Last edited: October 30, 2010

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 What Is Safe Public Transit For Women And Girls?

Safe public transit for women and girls is reliable, easy to use, and flexible. Women do not simply go directly from place A to place B in a day (e.g. home to the work place). Rather, as primary caregivers and members of the informal and formal labour force, women’s movement through the city criss-crosses and zigzags – one trip could involve multiple places and destinations for diverse purposes. As a result, women’s movement through the city has been described as trip-chaining. This means that women tend to combine the various activities that they must complete in a day, for example, domestic and care-taking responsibilities as well as wage- earning trips. In public transit, it is very common that women have to get off at multiple destinations, pay multiple fares, and travel during off peak hours (Peters, 2002, 7). Ultimately, “women in urban areas tend to take a greater number of shorter trips to dispersed locations at more varied times. “These trips are more expensive in terms of time and money” (Kunieda and Gauthier, 2003, 6). Safe public transit for women and girls accounts for and accommodates the reality of the travel patterns of women and girls.

What must be recognized is that these trips also have the potential to be less safe since many women must walk through, or wait in, unsafe areas in order to access public transit. Moreover, at odd times of day and in isolated places, public transit may be unreliable (by necessity many women must travel through the city very early in the morning and late at night) (Peters, 2002, 7). For example, in the city of Bogotá, Colombia, between 6:00 am and 12:00 pm, women are proportionally more likely to be victims of robbery than men.  This is a critical time of day because it is when people go to work. It is a time when robberies occur on principal transit routes in TransMilenio (Bogota’s light rail system).  From 6:00 pm to 12:00 am, women are once again the group most affected by robberies.  These are women that leave work or school at late hours and they are robbed on their way home as they pass through areas that are dark and desolate (Alcaldía de Bogotá, Colombia, 2007).

In the course of a day, women in rural areas often have to travel long distances – by foot, by non-motorized modes of transport and/or by public transit – whether they are collecting firewood or commuting to urban communities. Yet “most public transportation - both urban and rural - is routed and scheduled to serve commuting trips to work, principally those of men, not women's multiple roles as mothers, producers and entrepreneurs that require off peak travel to a multitude of destinations” (World Bank, 2006). Thus, the needs of the "typical" male household are prioritized by urban transport planners and policy makers (Peters, 2002, 6), while women’s tendency to combine trips is not considered in the majority of community and transport plans and designs (Peters, 1998, 1). Thus, even though in reality a complex diversity of different household structures exist, public transit continues to cater to this outdated ideal of the middle-aged, male breadwinner who goes from the home to his place of employment in the morning and back again in the early evening.

On the whole, safe cities for women programme partners should advocate for a wide spectrum of transportation solutions that address safety needs and concerns, as well as environmental and socio-economic issues. Therefore, initiatives encouraging safe public transit for women and girls should not be limited to improving motorized forms of transport. That is, well-maintained footpaths, pedestrian streets, well-lit sidewalks, bicycle lanes and locking areas, and community bicycle-share programmes are all integral ways of making cities safe for women and girls, as well as making them more friendly and liveable in general. In concert with these efforts, public transit systems in particular must be planned and designed to accommodate women’s specific needs in terms of the routes they travel, the times of day they depend on public transit, the places they wait for public transit, and the places they get dropped off by public transit.

For all of these reasons, safe public transit for women and girls must be based on the recognition of women’s and girls’ distinct roles, needs and experiences. In order for women to be able to exercise their right to freedom of movement in cities, public transportation systems should address existing mobility barriers (Peters, 1999). There is a pressing need for locally-adapted gender-sensitive transport strategies that combat the bias towards men’s needs in terms of variables such as route trajectories and frequencies (Peters, 2002, 3). The distinct needs of old and young people, the disabled, and other vulnerable groups also need to be considered in public transportation planning.


Case Study: Findings and Considerations for Transport Planners in Western Europe and North America

Poorly considered land-use zoning policy separates residential areas from employment locations, with a greater impact on women’s mobility.

Women make more complex journeys than men, often travelling to childcare, school, work, and shops. More than twice as many women as men are responsible for escorting children to school.

Seventy-five per cent of bus journeys are undertaken by women

Only thirty per cent of women have access to the use of a car during the daytime

Poor public transport and lack of caring facilities and shopping outlets near employment locations restrict women’s access to the labour market.

Women feel less safe than men being out alone after dark, especially in the inner city, or social housing complexes.

Source: Greed, C. 2007.  A Place for Everyone? Gender Equality and Urban Planning. Oxfam/RTPI: page 1. Available in English.    
Gender-Responsive Public Transportation Examples of strategies that create safe, gender-based public transportation include:

Bus routes that cater to women’s schedules and the places they travel to;

Request stop” programmes that allow women to get off closer to their destinations late at night and early in the morning;

Subway station design features that prioritize the prevention of violence, as well as accommodate those who have experienced violence;

Women-only buses and subway cars in those cities where overcrowding is synonymous with the sexual, physical and verbal harassment and abuse of women;

Provision of bike lanes so that women have alternative, flexible transit options;

Affordable public transit;

Well-lit, clearly visible, emergency services-equipped sidewalks and pathways so that women can walk to and from public transit, as well as to and from their destinations.

For public transit to be safe for women and girls, planning bodies must incorporate a gender perspective at all levels and stages of the planning and design process. Ensuring safe public transit for women and girls does not simply mean establishing initiatives exclusively targeted at women and girls (see the example of “women-only” programmes in the Programme Implementation section). Rather, a gender perspective must be a crosscutting feature of all decisions made in relation to public transit. Gender mainstreaming is essential. Public transportation can mainstream gender by ensuring the following factors:
  • Awareness-raising and training for staff gender and transport.
  • Recruitment, training and promotion of women in all aspects of transport.
  • Participation of female and male transport users of all ages in project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
  • Gender-related transport needs and constraints addressed in project design, implementation and evaluation.
  • Gender-sensitive organizational policies, strategies and operational guidelines.
Source: The World Bank. 2006. ‘Mainstreaming Gender in Transport’ in Gender and Transport Resource Guide: Part 1.4. The World Bank. Available in English.    


Why Is Safe Public Transit For Women And Girls Important?

Safe public transit designed from a gender perspective is an essential component of safe cities for women and girls. Buses, bus stops, subway cars, subway platforms, taxis, streetcars, and trains are like other public spaces - they are not experienced the same way by men and women. Moreover, public transportation includes spaces where diverse forms of gender-based violence against women occur on a daily basis, including sexual abuse, harassment, groping, the use of vulgar language, intimidation and assault. For these reasons, safe public transportation systems are a precondition for women’s and girls’ ability to exercise their right to freedom of movement and their right to use and enjoy the city and its public spaces. If women cannot travel through the city safely everyday, free from all forms of violence, then the city is not safe for women and girls. All people, whether living in cities or rural areas, need mobility as part of their daily life; this includes the ability to move between home, work, services, and leisure. A study by the World Bank in Peru concluded that while personal security is women’s number one concern with respect to using public transit, speed is men’s first priority. The same study points out that, “In order to cope with [lack of personal safety], [women] develop a series of strategies, ranging from refraining from traveling on certain routes, or at night alone, to carrying pins while traveling on the bus in order to keep molesters away” (Gómez, 2000, 2).

Safe public transit for women and girls is important because it allows women and girls to move around the city freely, without fear. In the absence of action on this issue, women are forced to adopt different defensive strategies such as wearing only “appropriate” clothing when travelling on public transit, travelling in groups, only boarding train cars and buses that are not full, ignoring verbal and sexual harassment, protesting loudly in order to get help, carrying pins and/or needles as a means of defence, standing against a window or at the back of the bus, subway car or streetcar, avoiding taking taxis alone, and avoiding travelling in vehicles occupied solely by men (Kunieda and Gauthier, 2003, 14). These defensive strategies add extra burden to women’s days, and deny them their right to freely access their city.

See the safe public transit section in programme implementation.