Far too often, public transport leaves women on the roadside

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Public transport is the life and blood of Lima, Peru’s sprawling capital city. Some 70% of residents rely on mass transit, often combining several different modes to reach their destination. These include the first operational line of the Metro system, the Bus Rapid Transit service (known as the “Metropolitano”), its various feeder lines and runners, the formal bus system, and informal transport.

But despite the variety of public transport options, moving from A to B is no simple task when you live in Lima. Rapid population growth has put huge strain on infrastructure and services, including transport. In fact, a recent survey has shown that getting around was the second most pressing concern for local residents.

The layout of the city doesn’t help. Most work and leisure opportunities are concentrated in just a few areas of the sprawling metropolis, while a third of the population lives in informal settlements far from the center.

As a result, “limeños” spend a considerable amount of time moving across the city every day to commute to work, take their children to school, or run errands.


The many barriers to women’s mobility

Women are disproportionately affected by the shortcomings of public transport in Lima, in large part because the system was never designed with a gender perspective in mind. This leaves a significant gap: research has shown that women have different mobility needs, influenced considerably by the social roles imposed on them. Since they are typically responsible for most of the household work and family care, their journeys are usually shorter and greater in number. They often prioritize the safety, quality, and flexibility of the trip, rather than the cost or time spent. The deficiencies of a congested and unsafe public transport network significantly impact their ability to make decisions about their mobility and, ultimately, limit their access to better job opportunities.

To address these issues, the World Bank has recently completed a qualitative study on gender and mobility in three Latin American cities: Buenos Aires, Lima, and Rio de Janeiro. In each city, two low-income areas were selected, one with high accessibility and one with low accessibility. Here, accessibility refers to job opportunities that can be accessed within 60 minutes for each origin-destination. The study highlights that women’s mobility is undermined by the interaction of four main barriers:

  • Individual barriers refer to women’s belief of making independent decisions on their mobility. The study showed that decisions around their mobility are constrained by exposure to risk, social constraints, and fear. For instance, women expressed more fear of road accidents and using bicycles.
  • Family/relational constraints play an important part as well. Traditional gender roles still prevail in most households, causing women to turn to lower-paying jobs while caring for family members and taking on the majority of domestic tasks. This translates into a greater number of journeys per day and higher use of informal transport.
  • The community and local environment can present their own challenges, especially when the risk of robbery, harassment, poor infrastructure that put women at a higher risk, and other personal safety considerations deter women from getting around.
  • Transport systems themselves may pose additional safety and security concerns for female users. The location of stops or the alignment of routes, for instance, can put women at risk while they walk to, wait for, or travel on a bus. Moreover, given the lack of available transport options at certain times of the day, they are more vulnerable to the usage of informal services.


Finding the right solutions

The study proposes a series of recommendations to address these challenges and improve women’s public transport experience. These include: enhancing safety through better design, particularly when it comes to the lighting and location of transit stops; at night, letting users get off the bus as close to their home as possible rather than sticking to designated stops; deploying panic buttons and other practical tools for preventing or responding to inappropriate behavior on vehicles; creating cheaper and more efficient ways to connect between modes of transport and promoting bystander interventions. Other recommendations are more long-term, and aim at addressing gender social norms.

But as promising as they sound, these approaches can only work if women are involved through every step of planning and implementation. No one is better positioned to identify the most pressing issues faced by female transport users and come up with relevant solutions.

In Lima, things are certainly moving in the right direction. The establishment of the Urban Transport Authority for Lima and Callao (ATU), in particular, will greatly facilitate the integration of mass transit operations, fares, infrastructure, and operations. As these efforts continue, our team is excited to work with local counterparts toward the creation of a safe, efficient, and inclusive public transport system. This is especially relevant in the current COVID-19 context, as the public transport system looks to ensure passenger safety and mitigate risks. Together, we will work towards a system that improves lives, connects people to opportunities, and adequately responds to the mobility needs of all users, including women.


Irene Portabales González

Urban Transport Specialist, World Bank

Giselle Marie Bello

Social Development Analyst, Gender Based-Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean

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