Travelling against all odds

The recent abduction of a Snapdeal employee while she was returning home by a "shared autorickshaw" and many such similar incidents of harassment or abduction of women on roads and in various modes of public transport raise serious questions about gender sensitivity of urban transport decision-makers.

Public transport in Indian cities is unsafe for women. Yet women have no choice but to travel by these modes or, well, "not travel at all". According to the 2011 Census, of the 22 million women who are engaged in economic activities in urban areas, 35 per cent do not travel for work, implying that they choose an economic activity that allows them to work from home. Compare this with men - 20 per cent of the 94 million male workers in Indian cities do not travel for work.

While there may be several socio-economic and cultural factors that explain this, the choices available for travelling and experiences during travel definitely have some role in the decision of nearly one-third of women workforce to choose not to travel for work. Not surprisingly, India's urban areas have one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world; 19 per cent in 2009-10 vs 76 per cent for males.

Of those who travel to work, 80 per cent women travel on foot or by public and intermediate public transport — buses, trains, autorickshaws, tempos, etc.; share of these modes among male workers is much lower (50 per cent). Access to personal modes of mobility, i.e. cars, motorised two-wheelers and cycles, as could be expected, is much higher in case of males as compared to females.

What these numbers indicate is that when it comes to traveling to work, women clearly are on the backfoot. They are making travel choices that can in no way be termed as "safe". There have been many cases of eve-teasing, harassment, abduction, and even rape of working women in urban India while using these modes of transport.

Most Indian cities have inadequate public transport systems, which means travelling in crowded conditions during peak hours. Additionally, the walk or ride from public transport stops is unsafe due to poorly-lit streets and lack of adequate walking infrastructure.

In fact, research has shown that the access and egress trips from public transport stops are more unsafe than the in-vehicle travel. Despite investing millions of rupees in a massive Metro rail infrastructure in Delhi, authorities haven't done much to make travel to Metro stations safe, convenient and affordable, making the last-mile connectivity a major concern area as far as women's safety is concerned.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise if more women decide to switch to cars and two-wheelers as and when they can afford it. The recent trend of increasing usage of cars and motorised two-wheelers among women indicate that this phenomenon has already started to take place in Indian cities.

More and more women want to have their personal modes of mobility as they give them an opportunity to travel without fear, be independent and feel empowered.

Though major investments/policy decisions are being taken to decide the future of mobility in Indian cities, it's a future that does not seem to be sensitive to the mobility needs of women.

The recently-released National Urban Transport Policy (2014) simply makes a passing reference to security of women in public transport systems. That's about it. None of the urban transport projects are evaluated for their impact on mobility of women.

Very few cities have taken initiatives to run special services or make special provisions for women in public transport systems, but none seem to be even recognising women as a key stakeholder in urban transport systems.

If we are really serious about making Indian cities smart, sustainable and inclusive, we need to ensure that the insensitivity towards women's mobility diminishes. Rather than focusing on just high-tech and capital intensive solutions for mobility, we have to accord equal or perhaps more importance to land use planning, urban design and infrastructure interventions along with soft solutions that have been found to improve women's safety.

As a long-term strategy, cities need to switch to a gender sensitive urban development and public transport planning that delivers urban and public transport systems that are responsive to mobility needs and constraints of women.

As a short-term/urgent strategy, cities need to experiment with simple interventions that have been found to improve women's safety. Well-lit public transport stops and streets along with increased economic activities have been found to significantly improve women's safety during their access and egress trips to/from public transport.

Furthermore, emergency services along sidewalks, like panic buttons, security helplines and presence of security personnel around public transport stops have been found to work. There are several other solutions, like "request stop" availability on buses that allow women to get off at places closer to their destination, women-only buses/coaches, in-vehicle security systems, and gender-sensitisation programmes for transport operators that help. These are all simple and easy to implement interventions that require more "will" rather than "money" to be implemented.