Evidence from both developed and developing countries is showing that men and women have different patterns in traveling and accessing public spaces.
Women typically walk longer distances than men and make frequent, shorter trips with more stops to combine multiple tasks. Men, by contrast, tend to follow more direct and linear patterns. Females engage in more non-work-related travel than males and are more likely to be accompanied by children or elderly relatives. They are also more reliant on public transport.
Yet in most countries, transport infrastructure and services cater primarily to the needs of commuters who travel straight from their home to the central business district and back—an approach that largely overlooks the mobility needs and travel patterns of women.
A persistent gender bias
For a long time, transport planning and design have paid little attention to gender. Public investments in transport are often made to meet the travel needs of adult men. For example, public investment in the lighting of bus stops is often ignored, even though many women regard it as a pre-condition to using public transport at night (instead of relying on a car).
The reason goes back to the decision-making process: how and by whom policy and investment decisions in transport are being made. Decisions are often made solely on efficiency (cost-benefit) considerations and tend to ignore or underestimate other key considerations, such as equitable access. Making public decisions based on a single goal is much easier than trying to reconcile multiple ones (e.g., equitable access and efficiency).
Additionally, the planning is rarely informed by data and evidence on gender-based mobility needs and experiences, a problem that is further reinforced by a predominantly male employee base.
The benefits of gender-informed policy
For example, it is estimated that an additional 20+ million women would work in the transport industry if the sector achieved gender parity in employment. And of course, a more diverse transport workforce would go a long way in addressing the gender bias described above.
Additionally, women have more sustainable mobility habits (e.g., use of public transport, cycling, and walking). Preserving these habits by making the right investment choices (e.g., adequate sidewalks and bicycle lanes) will be critical to ensure a low-carbon future.
"Without a solid commitment to gender mainstreaming, institutional strengthening, and gender budgeting in transport, progress toward the SDGs will inevitably suffer"
Strengthening the evidence basis
A key constraint is the lack of evidence and data to demonstrate how gender impacts transport. The World Bank’s IeConnect for Impact program seeks to close this gap. A recent thematic review on women’s access to public transport takes stock of what we know from the literature and highlights key program results. This exercise looked into several important issues, including how women’s safety in public spaces impacts their mobility:
- In Rio de Janeiro, high-frequency crowdsourced data was used to quantify the economic cost of harassment in public transport. The results show that women value safe spaces, but also indicate that creating "safe spaces" reserved for women (e.g. women-only train cars, designated waiting areas on platforms, etc.) can sometimes normalize harassment outside those spaces. They reinforce norms that see women outside those bounds as provocative and assign harassment to the victim. The results demonstrate the importance of policies that directly address the violence and its perpetrators.
- In Dar es Salaam, a new app was developed to measure instances of gender-based violence that women experience, witness, or perceive during their daily commute around the city. Scoping data indicates that over 59% of women interviewed experienced some form of violence at least once in the past six months while commuting.
- In Delhi, a study quantified the economic consequences of the lack of travel safety by combining student-level survey data, a mapping of potential travel routes to colleges, and crowdsourced safety data from a mobile application safety data to study. Importantly, the study revealed that many women choose lower quality colleges than equally able men because of the fear of harassment.
Taking action to close the gender gap
Over the last few years, various groups and initiatives have emerged to improve our understanding of the gender dimension of transport, and elaborate policies to remedy the long-standing gender bias in transport policymaking (e.g., the Sustainable Mobility for All gender working group, the World Bank Transport Global Practice Gender Task Force, and the International Transport Forum (ITF) Gender Working group).
Sustainable Mobility for All established the first of these groups in 2018 by bringing together 18 international organizations and companies with a common interest in exploring the transport-gender nexus. The outcome of this initial work was a compilation of gender-responsive policy instruments from around the world. More recently, the group proposed a plan to pilot the application of these measures to the South African context.
In 2022, SuM4All will explore practical ways to enhance the role of women in the sector, with a strong focus on real-world examples and empirical case studies. If you are interested, we invite you to share your knowledge with other organizations and help us advance this important agenda.
Strong, courageous, innovative women have helped to transform the way we think about and use transport. Let’s make sure that we continue.
The ieConnect for Impact gender thematic review “Understanding the Constraints to Women’s Use of Public Transport in Developing Countries” by Girija Borker will be published soon (contact: ieConnectforimpact@worldbank.org)
The authors would like to thank Emiye Deneke, Isabella Rolz, Sveta Milusheva, and Alice Mary Mortlock for their support to the preparation of this blog post and their contribution to the gender agenda in transport.