Gender inequalities cut across societies, but they have a particularly profound impact on women’s access to public transport. Here’s how to address gender in transport projects – and increase use by everyone.

By Maja Roginska and Moa Westman

Transport alone can’t solve gender equality issues, but improving women’s mobility can enable them to seize economic opportunities, boost economic development and build more equal and more resilient societies.

Women and girls spend 12.5 billion hours on unpaid care duties every day, worth $10.8 trillion a year, according to Oxfam. We could move a lot closer to gender equality by reducing the amount of unpaid work women do and strengthening women’s participation in the labour market. A whopping $28 trillion could be added to the global economy by 2025 if women and men played similar roles in labor markets. In the European Union, an estimated 10.5 million jobs could be created by 2050 from improvements in gender equality.

Here’s how to do it.

Different travel patterns

Women across the world spend more time traveling than men – up to four times more – even though men travel greater distances. Women tend to use slower modes of transport and have more stops on their journey. In rural areas, for example, women and their families spend considerable time waiting for transport to travel to health facilities. Poor roads, too few vehicles and high transport costs impede women’s access to emergency obstetric and postnatal care, which has a major impact on their health. But it’s not just in the developing world. Inequalities impede women’s access to transport in the European Union as well.

Women typically have more complex mobility patterns.  Men tend to have triangular mobility patterns – home, work, activity – while women’s travel spiders out in different directions. Women, or any caregiver, make shorter, more frequent trips dispersed throughout the day. In London, for instance, women are 80% more likely than men to make stops on their journey to and from work. Women also tend to travel more during off-peak hours.

Unpaid work is a key driver of gender inequality, in and outside the European Union.

The main cause is the unpaid work women do. In the developed world, unpaid work includes shopping, running errands or escorting children and the elderly. In the developing world, unpaid work can be all those things, plus in rural areas it often includes carrying firewood and fetching water.

Unpaid work is a key driver of gender inequality, in and outside the European Union. Women’s higher level of unpaid work leads to persistent gaps in labour force participation, activity rates and wages. Even though gender roles and the distribution of carework is slowly changing, even in the most equal countries women still carry out a majority of unpaid tasks.   

That work affects women’s mobility. In Spain, women’s unpaid work accounts for one-quarter of public transport use. While the figures are probably similar in other EU countries, because this type of data is rarely collected, we don’t know for sure.  But transport networks weren’t built with unpaid work in mind. Many transport networks were based on a linear model that links people’s homes with their places of work. Providing access to neighbouring areas with day care centres, schools and supermarkets wasn’t an immediate priority. That linear conception can make women’s daily commutes, with their many stops, unduly arduous and unnecessarily time-consuming.

Security is key for women and men

The risk of harassment, sexual attack or general violence while using public transport is real for many women and can impede their mobility, particularly at certain times. Transport surveys in different parts of the world illustrate how prevalent the problem is.

It’s not only about women. Men experience harassment and violence as well. In New York City, 32% of men also said they had been sexually harassed in the subway. In Jakarta, two-thirds of women and one-third of men reported to have been sexually molested on public transport.

In Jakarta, two-thirds of women and one-third of men reported to have been sexually molested on public transport

Security concerns spill over to a woman’s entire family, perpetuating gender inequality through generations. Security issues result in women deciding not to travel at all, or they circumvent the danger by changing their route or means of transport, which leads to inconvenience, discomfort and increased costs. In some contexts, security concerns also translate into an unwillingness of families to allow their daughters to travel freely. These barriers are greatest for poor women, as they rely more on public transport for jobs, health care and education.

Public-transport harassment in Bhopal, India

In a survey, 40% of women interviewed reported said they were regularly harassed while using public transport, including city buses, mini buses and microvans. Only 12% of respondents said they were never harassed, while 88% reported that they had been harassed at least once while using public transport.

The survey also queried drivers and conductors. Almost all the drivers and conductors interviewed said that harassment was not an issue in Bhopal. If harassment occurred, 30% of drivers and conductors believed that women were partly to blame.

Designing for gender equality

It goes without saying that infrastructure should be inclusive of and accessible to all people, including those who may be excluded on the basis of disability, geography, income, age or other socio-economic characteristics. Persistent gender-based inequalities, sexual violence and social norms impede women’s access to transport across socio-economic groups. Women account for half the population. Transport projects should be designed with their needs in mind.

How can an urban planner find out what those needs are? First, they should collect and analyse data on how different genders use existing transport services and what their travel patterns are. A broad swath of the community – pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and public transport users – should be consulted. These gatherings are an opportunity to ask basic questions: “Are current services adequate, affordable?” “Are they  safe to use?” “Do women have personal security concerns?”

When mapping out potential projects, planners should strive to provide:

One of the best ways to tackle inequality in public transport is to employ more female staff. A more balanced workforce would help the transport sector better address women’s needs. In India, for example, it is common to reserve a percentage of job openings for women. A European Investment Bank project to renovate the Bangalore metro reserved 33% of job openings for women. Out of the 282 female employees, 118 are employed as drivers or station controllers. Women who are not able to work the night shift are being scheduled for morning and day shifts. A daycare is also being provided for employees working at two stations.

A more diverse transport workforce would increase the pool of talent, and help tackle the challenge of ageing. One-third of transport workers are over 50. More diverse leadership improves companies’ financial performance, according to a 2018 report the consulting firm McKinsey. Companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity among executives were 21% more likely to have above average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.

Considering gender when designing transport isn’t about favouring women. It’s about ensuring that transport solutions respond to the needs of both genders. Camera surveillance reduces the risk of violence for men and women, and encourages public transport use. Addressing the travel needs of unpaid work helps any caregiver, not just female ones.

Equal access to transport improves everyone’s opportunities, which benefits societies and economies as a whole.

Maja Roginska is a senior transport economist at the European Investment Bank, and Moa Westman is a gender specialist.