Published on Sustainable Cities

How to create women-friendly public transport in cities in India

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Passengers waiting for the metro Passengers waiting for the metro

Almost two decades ago, the City of Vienna, Austria, established a Women’s Office. Its role was to look into gender-responsive urban planning, and ensure that the 4Rs – representation, resources, reality, and rights – were actually achieved in Vienna’s public spaces. Over time, this became the Gender Mainstreaming Office.

The result? As of 2022, Vienna has implemented over 60 projects with gender mainstreaming, improving street lighting, widening the pavements, setting special timings when just women can use the parks, creating additional seating for women in public transport, public spaces, apartment complexes, and social housing estates that were designed by and for women, and improving the safety of shortcuts and alleyways by adding mirrors.

Drawing on these global ideas, in India, it is crucial to ensure that urban mobility systems and public spaces are designed to be safe, inclusive, and gender-responsive.  This is an essential element for achieving a new, self-reliant India - Atmanirbhar Bharat - and facilitating a shift from women’s development to women-led development. And authorities across megacities like Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, and others are making efforts in this direction – be it by establishing specialized gender labs for policy making, undertaking safety audits, or investing in dedicated bus services.

Indian women looking at the camera.
Group of women in Aurangabad, India. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

So, how can city authorities go further in the design of transport infrastructure and services to address mobility needs across genders, while improving safety and inclusivity?

An obvious but highly effective intervention is ensuring adequate and well-positioned streetlighting. City authorities, urban planners, urban local bodies, public transport agencies, and other service providers can analyze where lighting gaps occur. Providing adequate lighting on streets and at bus and metro stations can improve safety, especially on routes frequented by women and persons of minority genders. 

Improving walking and cycling tracks to ease first and last-mile connectivity particularly benefits women, as they are bigger users of non-motorized transport. Building continuous, shaded, wider footpaths with minimal encroachment, alongside dedicated cycling lanes and parking spaces, as well as providing incentives for women to use shared cycling services are all potential interventions.

Studies across cities show that given their need to balance household and work responsibilities, women typically combine tasks necessitating several short trips across multiple modes, i.e., trip chaining, rather than a unimodal, long trip from origin to destination. Planning public transport systems so that users can easily switch, say from a bus to a metro, or rickshaw, thus benefits women. This will require coordination between different agencies to have combined information displays, common fare cards, and integrated schedules. In Vytilla, Kochi, for instance, a multi-modal mobility hub is being developed so that city and intercity buses, metro, and riverboats can intersect in one place. Drop-off zones for auto-rickshaws and intermediate public transport are also planned to enhance last-mile connectivity.

Procurement rules may be set to ensure that new fleets of buses have lower handlebars, wider gangways, space for strollers, access ramps, storage space, as well as emergency buttons, and even closed-circuit television cameras (CCTVs).

Services can also be increased during off-peak hours or on routes frequented by women. And guidelines can be created for preferential boarding for women, such as designating one of the doors for women’s priority access. In Mumbai, the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) launched a “ladies-first” bus service, where women passengers are given priority in boarding. 

Request stops, allowing women to disembark from buses at a location other than a bus stop may be started. One successful example is the Telangana State Transport Corporation, which recently directed bus drivers and conductors to allow women to disembark anywhere along the bus route after 7:30pm within the Greater Hyderabad Zone, to reduce the last mile walk between the bus stop and their homes.

Ideally, stations, terminals, depots, and rest stops, apart from being well-lit and providing adequate shelter, would also include separate toilets for women, feeding rooms, and designated seating areas. They could also display passenger information, route maps, and helplines/emergency numbers in different languages.

Standard checklists can be drawn up for public facilities to be classified as “gender-inclusive.” For instance, as part of its women-friendly city project, Seoul produced manuals with a clear list of requirements for restrooms, parking lots, walkways, parks, etc. Excellent facilities were awarded a “women-friendly facility mark.”

Shops within terminals and depots can be awarded to women and persons of minority genders on a preferential basis, or quotas can be applied (e.g., 50% of shops to be auctioned to female vendors) to increase “eyes-on-the-street,” and the feeling of safety.

The use of gender-inclusive signages – where the flashing green and red signals for walkers depict a woman - is another novel way of promoting the feeling of inclusion. Cities across the world, including Mumbai, Melbourne, and Geneva, have experimented with gender-inclusive signages at traffic lights – contributing to increasing conversations for breaking gender stereotypes around women’s presence in public spaces.

Women are amongst the biggest users of public and non-motorized transport across Indian cities.  On average, 45% women walk, and 22% take the bus when commuting to work compared to 27% and 14% of men, respectively (Census 2011). In such a scenario, urban mobility infrastructure and services designed with a gender lens can enable women and girls to access a wider array of choices about their future – preventing dropouts from school or college, taking up a job, or attending a skill training program. Gender-responsive public transport and public spaces, thus, have macroeconomic benefits.

Building on international and domestic good practices, the World Bank’s Toolkit on Enabling Gender Responsive Urban Mobility and Public Spaces in India provides several intervention options for gender mainstreaming to strengthen urban mobility infrastructure and services. It provides a detailed “how-to” guide with templates, case studies, and implementation actions to ensure that we build mobility systems that enable accessibility for all.  


This post benefited from the contribution of Gerald Ollivier, Lead Transport Specialist, World Bank.



Sarah Natasha

Consultant, Transport, SAR

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