COVID-19 could help Latin America accelerate toward more inclusive transport

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Commuters traveling on a public bus in Quito, Ecuador during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: World Bank/Flickr
Photo: World Bank/Flickr


This interview was originally published in Spanish by El País on September 15, 2020.


For Makhtar Diop, in a post COVID-19 reality, transport has the opportunity to expand its role in social and economic inclusion in Latin America, especially with the empowerment of women.


When COVID-19 is over and we look back in time, public transportation will stand out as one of the sectors hardest impacted by the pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic in February, between 60% and 90% Latin Americans are not using buses, subways or trains because of the confinement and social distancing measures.

In a post pandemic reality, transport has the potential to expand its social and economic inclusion roles, including with the empowerment of women, and making it more sustainable, safer and affordable, according to Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s Vice President for Infrastructure.

Diop, a Senegalese national but with part of his heart in Latin America after living in Brazil for four years, speaks in this interview about the opportunities and challenges the region faces in its public transportation system for the world to come, and specifically how rebuilding after COVID is an opportunity to make this sector more inclusive for women.


El País: We know COVID-19 is having severe negative health and economic impacts on Latin America and the Caribbean, does infrastructure have a role in responding to this crisis?

Makhtar Diop: Yes, a very important role. The pandemic had profound effects on infrastructure services, making its social and economic impacts even worse. Poor people are not able to go to their jobs, attend school and reach health facilities when they need it most. The energy sector was also strongly affected, with consumption per capita plunging below the 2017 global average, and people and businesses struggling to pay their bills. Rethinking infrastructure services is key to recover from COVID-19, specially in Latin America, a region that still invests relatively little in it compared to the rest of the world. Private sector investment could play a bigger role in Latin America, under the right conditions. There is much that the region can do to achieve this. We must also recognize that responding to the pandemic has fiscal limitations. This is why we feel high-quality investments in infrastructure sectors, such as transport, must be a part of COVID-19 recovery packages.


EP: One of the most visible effects of COVID-19 is our cities’ empty streets. Are Latin America’s public transport systems ready to address old challenges and the ones brought by the pandemic?

MD: Since February, 60% to 90% less people are using public transport in the region, mostly because they are afraid of contracting the virus in a bus, train or plane. This is costing public transport operators about US$ 380 to US$400 million in total per month and has already bankrupted some.

COVID-19 has exposed many of transport’s vulnerabilities, but it is also an opportunity to tackle problems and make the systems more resistant. To achieve this, transport needs to be a central part of COVID-19 fiscal stimulus packages in Latin America and the Caribbean. Well-planned projects can address longstanding constraints to boost GDP while keeping indebtedness under control and promoting a green and inclusive recovery. For instance, regional rural road maintenance projects alone could generate 200,000 to 500,000 direct annualized jobs for every US$1 billion spent.

Today, many LAC countries’ transport systems have poor access, low service quality, high costs, and lack of safety, particularly for women and girls. Gender has a cross-cutting role to play: by making transport more accessible to women, we are increasing its quality, and making it more inclusive and safer for all.


EP: You have mentioned inclusive mobility as one of the key challenges that LAC is facing, and that gender is particularly important for this. What is the real panorama of women’s access to transport in Latin America?

MD: There has been significant progress, but public transport in the region still largely treats women and men the same, although their needs are very different. If this is not taken into account, transport systems can become hostile environments for women. Six in ten women in major LAC cities say they have been physically harassed in transport. A recent Bank study of Rio’s suburban train system showed that women would be willing to pay more to use female-only cars. Perversely, however, gender-segregated cars can also increase the stigma and risk of harassment: Almost a quarter of male commuters say that women would be partly responsible for being harassed if they do not use the reserved cars. The toll of harassment on women is a global phenomenon: in New Delhi, India, female students admitted to top colleges are willing to choose lower-quality ones just to have a safer commute.

We must also remember that it is also not just about harassment. Women traditionally need to negotiate transport while pregnant, accompanied by small children, or carrying heavy groceries. They generally have to walk more or take informal modes of transport because of a lack of alternatives. This situation is even more challenging for low-income women that have many vulnerabilities such as living in remote areas with unreliable services and deserted streets with little lighting. Unfortunately, all of this contributes to a vicious circle of disadvantage that forces them into part-time, low-wage jobs nearer home, or the total avoidance of travel at all, making it less likely to get an income-generating job.


EP: How can we offer a more secure way for women in Latin America to use the public transportation?

MD: The most important way is to include women from the beginning in the design and implementation of transport systems. In fact, hearing from the needs of 50% of the population is essential to design systems that are inclusive and safe for all. Together with UN Women, we are launching an e-learning course that will increase the capacity of transport officials to make gender a part of the design and management of transport projects.

Another important part is the use of technology. Latin America has been a pioneer of using technology to increase women’s safety. In Mexico City, for example, a World Bank project introduced an app that immediately connects women to the police and survivor services. It also trains users on how to intervene as bystanders. In Quito, the “Bajale al Acoso” initiative is a similar rapid response text message system. Many cities such as Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Rio and São Paulo also have awareness campaigns and training initiatives to involve the community.


EP: What do you think has to change to give women more opportunities through a safer and more accessible transport system in the region?

MD: The solution requires that women play a pivotal role in designing transport systems, but also that they are a representative share of transport workers and decision makers. We also need to have good data and a clear notion of the problem.

Empowering women makes eminent economic sense. It is estimated that if women had the same participation as men in labor markets, some US$28 trillion could be added to the world’s economy by 2025. In the developing countries, the lack of adequate transport for women is the greatest obstacle for that according to the International Labour Organization. Women are almost 17% less likely to work outside the home because of it. A combination of structural factors, including harassment but also women’s disproportionate role in household responsibilities locks women into jobs nearer home. We saw this in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for example, where although women spend as much time commuting as men, their range is much more limited, resulting in less access to opportunities.

With the COVID-19 crisis, many LAC countries and cities are rethinking their transportation systems to make them more inclusive for everyone, including women. We recently published an important report that sheds light on the complexities low-income Latin American women face every day in their commutes, which can help cities “build back better”: “Why does she move – A study of women’s mobility in LAC Cities.” Recovering from COVID-19 must bring gender into the picture and address the different challenges women face in public transport. Quality investments that promote gender inclusion will increase job opportunities for women and men, and stimulate green growth. I am sure LAC will continue to lead the way in this effort.


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