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Improving women’s mobility: it’s not just about the quality of buses

Karla Dominguez Gonzalez's picture
A young woman waits at a bus terminal in Brazil. Photo: WRI Brasil/Flickr
The global transport conversation increasingly recognizes that men and women have different mobility patterns, and that this reality should be reflected into the design of transport projects. In general, women engage in more non-work-related travel such as to run household errands and are more likely to travel with children and elders. Therefore, but not exclusively because of that, they travel shorter distances and within a more restricted geographical area; make more (multi-stop) trips, and rely more on public transport. Women also travel at lower speeds and spend a higher percentage of income in transport than men, limiting their access to certain employment areas. There are exceptions, however, as studies have shown that in some cities, like Mumbai, women follow mobility patterns that more closely resemble men’s, making longer trips during peak hours, directly from point to point.
 
Key variables like affordability, availability, and accessibility play a big part in this phenomenon. But are there other factors shaping women’s decision to travel in the first place? Current evidence on women’s mobility has focused on diagnosing differences in travel behavior or on characteristics of transport systems that affect women and men’s mobility differently. Less attention has been given to individual, social, cultural and relational factors shaping women’s travel behaviors and decisions. The desire to dig deeper on this motivated a forthcoming study on Women’s mobility in LAC cities, prepared under the auspices of the Umbrella Facility for Gender Equality.

The study recognizes women shall not be seen as an homogenous group and explores factors shaping women’s mobility in low income contexts in urban Latin America, and how these can impact their access to economic opportunities. The study focuses largely on women’s ability to make choices related to their transportation and in accordance to their preferences—a notion that social scientists often refer to as “agency.” In that context, when looking at constraints to women’s mobility, we consider two dimensions: instrumental aspects (such as affordability and availability of transport options); and less tangible, psychological and sociocultural factors such as aspirations and self-esteem.
 
The study draws on 16 focus group discussions and 204 semi-structured interviews with women, men and key informants in three  Latin  American  metropolitan  regions: Buenos  Aires, Argentina;  Lima, Peru, and Rio  de  Janeiro,  Brazil. Our research also builds on preliminary work conducted in Mexico City, which made it clear that looking at the quality of transport infrastructure and services alone is not enough if we are to gain a deeper understanding of women’s mobility constraints. In discussing the factors that shaped their decision to travel, a first group of women were willing to use public transport but faced affordability constraints and/or were deterred by the quality of services (instrumental constraints). However, a second group of women had access to public transport but was reluctant to use it because of their fear of the unknown and concerns about traveling long distances by themselves. While standard transport interventions (e.g. increased supply of transport options) might address the constraints of the first group, that would not have been the case for the second group.

Research question and methodology
 
The report addresses a series of critical questions: Besides instrumental constraints, what are the psychological and sociocultural factors that influence women’s decision to move? How do these mobility limitations influence women’s access to opportunities, both economic and social? What does this mean for development more broadly?
 
The interactions between mobility and access to economic opportunities are complex, as they are influenced by spatial distribution of jobs and residencies and transport supply. These are the basic factors in influencing people’s decision to travel. To capture these elements, the work established a cross-comparison between “high physical accessibility” and “low physical accessibility” communities to job opportunities. Accessibility was calculated as the number of jobs that were accessible in the city within sixty minutes using public transport. The researchers collected data from women and men who live in these high and low accessibility areas. However, to capture additional factors such as agency, social norms, and gender roles and their influence on mobility, they conducted focus groups and semi-structured interviews with women and men in both communities.
 
The analysis relied mostly on open-ended questions, as those are more likely to bring out a wide range of insights that may not have been anticipated by the researchers and identify perceptions from the interviewees about different issues by permitting them to respond in their own words. This was complemented by interviews with other key stakeholders from the government, community leaders, representatives from transport agencies, and academia. These many layers of analyses allowed for a rich description of the external and internal factors influencing women’s mobility.
 
Next steps
 
Data collection has been finalized, and the team is currently conducting the comparative analysis between the three targeted cities. Preliminary analysis highlights the significance of factors sometimes overlooked on mobility decisions such as: gender norms and social perceptions related to women’s mobility (e.g. in the communities we worked with, men would sometimes accuse women of looking for other partners when traveling longer distances); division of household and family duties; family shocks; practical support from family members and neighbors (care activities), and the potential increase on personal security through new technological based alternatives (e.g. Uber or 99). The research also identified strategies used by women in their attempts to surpass some of these challenges, including finding “commuting partners” to feel safer during on their journey to work.
 
The team is finalizing the joint report with practical recommendations that will allow transport planners to bring gender considerations their projects and enhance women’s freedom to move.
 
If you have examples of how gender issues may have influenced your own transport decisions, please don’t hesitate to share your stories in the comments section!