Challenges faced by women in Public Transport: A contemporary issue

In Asia, mass transit operations are predominantly run by profit-driven privately owned and publicly traded mass transit and real estate conglomerates.

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Public Transport & Women: Global Scenario 

Public transport is a shared passenger transport service which is available for use by the general public, as distinct from modes such as taxicab, carpooling or hired buses which are not shared by strangers without private arrangement. Public transport modes include buses, trolleybuses, trams, rapid transit (metro/ subways/ undergrounds etc.) and ferries.

Public transport between cities is dominated by airlines, coaches, and intercity rail. High-speed rail networks are being developed in many parts of the world. Most public transport runs to a scheduled timetable with the most frequent services running to a headway. Share taxi offers on-demand services in many parts of the world, and some services will wait until the vehicle is full before it starts. Paratransit is sometimes used in areas of low – demand and for people who need a door–to–door service. There are distinct differences in urban public transit between Asia, North America, and Europe. 

In Asia, mass transit operations are predominantly run by profit-driven privately owned and publicly traded mass transit and real estate conglomerates. In North America, mass transit operations are predominantly run by municipal transit authorities. In Europe, mass transit operations are predominantly run by outsourced private transport operators. Public transport services can be profit-driven by use of pay–by–the–distance fares or funded by Government subsidies in which flat rate fares are charged to each passenger. Services can be fully profitable through high ridership numbers and high farebox recovery ratios or can be regulated and possibly subsidised from local or national tax revenue. Fully subsidised, zero-fare (free) services operate in some towns and cities. 

The following are the main modes of transport system : 

  1. Airlines
  2. Railways
  3. Waterways
  4. Road transport system

An airline provides scheduled services with aircraft between airports. Air travel has high up to very high speeds, but incurs large waiting times prior and after travel, and is therefore often only feasible over longer distances or in areas where lack of ground infrastructure makes other modes of transport impossible. Bush airlines work more similar to bus stops, an aircraft waits for passengers and takes off when the aircraft is full of luggage. 

Passenger rail transport is the conveyance of passengers by means of wheeled vehicles specially designed to run on railways. Railways allow high capacity on short or long distance, but require track, signalling, infrastructure and stations to be built and maintained. Urban rail transit consists of trams, light rail, rapid transit, people movers, commuter rail, monorail suspension railways and funiculars. 

India has about 14,500 km of navigable waterways which comprises rivers, canals, backwaters, creeks, etc. Over 10 million metric tonnes of cargo corresponding to 09 million metric tonnes in FY 2019 was transported in FY-20 by Inland Water Transport (IWT). Its operations are currently restricted to a few streches in the Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly Rivers, The Brahmaputra, the Barak River, the rivers in Goa, the backwaters in Kerala, inland waters in Mumbai and the deltaic regions of the Godavari-Krishna rivers. Besides the organised operations by mechanised vessels, country boats of various capacities also operate in various rivers and canals. 

Road transport use buses on conventional roads to carry numerous passengers on shorter journeys. Buses operate with low capacity (i.e., compared with trams or trains), and can operate on conventional roads, with relatively inexpensive bus stops to serve passengers. Therefore buses are commonly used in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas, as well for shuttle services supplementing other means of transit in large cities. 

Bus rapid transit is an ambiguous term used for buses operating on dedicated right–of–way, much like a light rail. Trolleybuses are electric buses that employ overhead wires to get power for traction. Online Electric Vehicles are buses that run on a conventional battery, but are recharged frequently at certain points via underground wires. Coach services use coaches (long-distance buses) for suburb–to–CBD or longer–distance transportation. The vehicles are normally equipped with more comfortable seating, a separate luggage compartment, video and possibly also a toilet. They have higher standards than city buses but a limited stopping pattern. Public transport allows transport at an economy of scale not available through private transport.

The social role of public transport system: Women Safety

Advocates of public transport claim that investing in mass transit will ultimately reduce the total transport cost for the public. Time saved can also be significant, as less cars can translate to less congestion and faster speeds for remaining motorists. Transit-oriented development can both improve the usefulness and efficiency of the public transit system as well as a result in increased business for commercial developments. 

An important social role played by public transport is to ensure that all members of society are able to travel, not just those with a driving license and access to an automobile – which include groups such as the young, the old, the poor, those with medical conditions, and people banned from driving. Automobile dependency is a name given by policymakers to places where those without access to a private vehicle do not have access to independent mobility. 

Above that, public transportation opens to its users the possibility of meeting other people, as no concentration is diverted from interacting with fellow – travellers due to any steering activities. Adding to the above – said, public transport becomes a location of inter–social encounters across all boundaries of social, ethnic and other types of affiliation. In the contemporary world women no longer lag behind in terms of career they are keeping themselves shoulder to shoulder with opposite sex. However even today they are expected to do multitasking they have to take care of family and household even if they are working. 

Working women refer to those unpaid employment. They works as lawyer, nurse, doctor, teacher etc., women have to face problem by virtue of their sex. For centuries women have been subjected to exploitation and torture physically, mentally and sexually. There are innumerable challenges and problems faced by them both at home and workplace.

The women in modern world has a changing perspective. Many women are working outside their homes to support their families and using the local transport to reach destinations. Travelling becomes a painful experience for them because of stares from both the drivers and the passengers. Women feel unsafe while travelling by public transport. The World Health Organization estimates up to 69 percent of women have been physically hit or harmed by a male partner at some point in their lives, and approximately one in five women experiences rape or attempted rape during her lifetime. While the local transport system facilitates the people, especially women, it has many drawbacks that need serious attention. 

International status: The problem of violence against women is international in scope. A similar incident took place in neighbouring Nepal’s hilly region in May 2012, where a 21-year-old Buddhist nun was gang-raped in a public bus by five men, including the driver and his staff. Incidents of sexual harassment and assault in public transport are part of everyday life in Nepal, although, like India, most of them remain unreported. Nearly half of all Japanese women report at least one experience of being harassed on public transportation. The problem has also been reported in Hong Kong, Jakarta, and, not surprisingly, India, where nearly two-thirds of women reported having been the victims. Research conducted by one of the authors in Kathmandu, Nepal, found sexual harassment in public transport is experienced by the vast majority of women: Women in Islamabad have stressed on the need for a new women-public transport system, where they would not have to commute with men.

Safety Issues and Challenges for Women in Public Transport

Many people living in a metropolitan city may have at least one story to tell about having gone through some level of discomfort in a closed public space. While some of such stories fade away with time and are eventually forgotten, others remain ingrained in a person’s memory- sometimes resurfacing, voluntarily suppressed the next moment.

People, mostly women, face various levels of sexual harassment in public transportation which are rarely expressed and even if they are little or nothing is done about it. Incidents involving a person violating another’s personal space and freedom to travel with peace of mind has become a frequent topic of discussion.

Many such incidents pass without much noise or notice is given that public transports are crowded and with many unknown faces overfilling the cramped spaces. The discomfort and embarrassment, however, lingers on. The embarrassment which should have been felt by the perpetrator hits the wrong end. The withdrawal happens in a bid to avoid the attention of the crowd because we have for long been taught that even if we have been wronged, the shame is ours.

Hence, an obvious question arises do men feel the same level of discomfort and awkwardness when they are mistakenly or intentionally touched by a stranger in a public space, especially during a public commute, as women do?

Other common but not as a widely discussed issue that women face while using public transport is manspreading. Manspreading, a term which was initially coined by women on online forums expressing dissent over a peculiar habit exhibited by men, has now been formalised by Oxford Dictionary. The dictionary defines manspreading as the practice in which a man, especially on public transportation, takes a sitting position with his legs wide apart, in such a way as to encroach on an adjacent seats.

A man may not even realise the way he is seated or how it is bothering someone else. But a woman or any other passenger sitting next to a ‘manspreader’ will be discomforted by such clumsiness.

It is always best to speak out, react to inappropriate behaviour – whether molestation or manspreading – so that such behaviour doesn’t go unchecked. However, that is easier said than done. A victim under such circumstances may find it difficult to react for various reasons, the most common reason being the fear of being misunderstood. 

The viability of such a scenario is certainly questionable on the ground of possibility. But shouldn’t there be a better way to tackle the situation where respect for fellow travellers comes naturally without being asked for.

Because basic civic sense is not so common, responsible state mechanisms could perhaps formulate regulations to protect commuters from sexual harassment in public transportation. A decade or so ago, women and girls would not have spoken out for their reserved seats in public transportation. But now, especially after the campaign to enforce the provision of reserved seats on public vehicles stated by various Motor Vehicles and Transport Management Acts, the scenario has changed. It has to some extent safeguarded women and girls from the perpetrators of abuse.

There’s more that can be done. The solution lies inside the human mind and within human sensibility. The solution is multi-dimensional. Everyone has a role to play and a sentiment to understand. The main idea is to be open that it could happen to anyone and what we as individuals can do is speak out.

Most common concerns for women on public transport

Safety is the biggest concern for women using public and private transport in five of the world’s biggest commuter cities – London, New York, Cairo, Mexico City and Tokyo according to a global poll conducted by Thomson Reuters Foundation . In a poll over 1000 women following had been the findings :

  1. Security was the top concern cited by 52 percent of women.
  2. Time spent travelling was the second concern cited by 33 percent.
  3. Women in Mexico City were most worried about safety with nearly three in four fearing sexual harassment, abuse and violence.
  4. Cairo’s transport system was seen by women as the second most dangerous after Mexico City.
  5. Women in Tokyo felt most confident about their safety and also were most in favour of single-sex carriages.
  6. Time spent travelling was the top concern for women in New York with many saying this has swayed decisions over jobs.
  7. Women in London were most worried about cost with nearly three in four saying public transport was expensive.
  8. Women in London were most confident that other passengers would come to their help if they were being abused.
  9. Women in Tokyo were most confident other travellers would give up a seat for a pregnant or elderly women without being asked.
  10. More than half of women – 56 percent – said emergence of ride-hailing apps had improved their ability to get around

Various ways to improve women safety in Public Transport

According to the UN, women often ‘chain’ their activities by combining multiple stops and destinations within a single, longer trip as a result of their household and caretaking responsibilities. This makes it costlier for women to use public transport, since they may have to pay for numerous single-fare, one-way tickets throughout a chained trip. Additionally, women may be travelling with children, elderly parents, or groceries, adding complications and inconvenience if transport isn’t reliable, simple to use or physically accommodating. Finally, transport routes beyond the central commuter corridors may not be in service during off-peak hours, when women are most likely to need public transport to access their social and economic networks.

In many cases, women have more domestic responsibilities like taking care of children, running household errands, and maintaining familial and community ties. Public transport has the potential to make employment opportunities, healthcare resources, and education accessible to women. However, due to poor transport planning, women often do not have equal access to public transport, putting these resources out of reach and limiting financial autonomy. Furthermore, sexual harassment and violence in stations and vehicles remain persistent problems for cities around the world. When women continually feel unsafe and lack the ability to report incidents, public transport ceases to be an equitable and accessible form of mobility.

  1. Good design can go a long way in making public spaces more inclusive of women, but ensuring gender equity should also be a priority in the planning, procurement, operation, and evaluation of all modes of public transport. So how are cities changing to make safety and access a reality for women.
  2. London’s public transport operator, Transport for London (TfL) uses information technology to enhance women’s safety. For instance, the Technology Innovation Portal at TfL allows users to submit innovative technological ideas and solutions to meet key challenges, like women’s safety. In 2004, TfL created the Women’s Action Plan, which called for discounted fares as well as low-floor and step-free buses. TfL consulted 140 women’s advocacy groups in London and launched an annual Safer Travel at Night campaign in order to better understand their specific concerns. Today, TfL’s Women’s Action Plan and Gender Equality Scheme have been lauded by the Transportation Research Board as the most comprehensive efforts by transport operators to meet the distinct needs of women.
  3. Metropolitan Toronto Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC) is a collaborative relationship formed by various community-based women’s organisations, the Toronto Transit Commission, and the Toronto Police Department to conduct comprehensive safety audits of the city’s transport system. The partnership works to empower women in the community by developing research and policy recommendations based on its safety audits. Then, METRAC engages government actors to create safer neighbourhoods, schools, campuses, workplaces, institutions and public spaces. In the past, METRAC has successfully delivered designated transport waiting areas, well-lit parking garages, assault prevention programs, and better safety policies and practices in hospitals and other workplaces.
  4. Jagori, an Indian NGO, addresses issues of women’s safety in Delhi by focusing on the right to participate in equitable, democratic, and inclusive city life, free from violence and fear. Jagori emphasises the responsibility of local governance and urban planning circles to include women in their decision-making. Since its launch in 2004, Jagori’s Safe Delhi Campaign has conducted over 40 reviews with the help of the app Safetipin, which maps safety scores for public spaces and identifies ways areas of improvement that matter for women.

Women safety in public transport system in India

With growing urbanisation, the phenomenon of sexual violence in cities has become a serious issue. Sexual harassment has an effect on women’s mobility, accessibility and confidence. Lack of safety and security in public spaces and public transport affects women’s human rights and their ability to participate equally in the city.

Sexual harassment is unwanted sexual behaviour that includes physical harassment such as touching and groping, verbal harassment including commenting and whistling, and visual harassment such as staring and leering. There have been several studies conducted in India over the past few years that have explored the nature and extent of sexual violence that women and girls face in Indian cities, specifically in public spaces including public transport. 

A study conducted in Delhi in 2010, reported that over 90 per cent of women had faced some form of sexual harassment in the past year. The same study showed that 51 per cent of women faced harassment inside public transport, and another 42 per cent while waiting for public transport. Similar studies in Mumbai, Kerala, Guwahati and Bengaluru showed high levels of sexual harassment and everyday violence. In a study of two cities in Kerala by Sakhi in 2010, Kozhikode reported that 71 per cent of women respondents faced harassment while waiting for public transport while 69 per cent faced it while using public transport. 

Similarly, in Trivandrum, over 80 per cent faced sexual harassment while either waiting for or riding public transport. In Mumbai, a survey done by Akshara in 2013 also showed that 46 per cent of women reported facing sexual harassment inside buses and 17 per cent inside trains. In a study done by Safe Safar with UCL, London in Lucknow, 88 per cent of the respondents said that they had faced sexual comments while in public transport. 

A Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) survey among female commuters in 2013 found that two out of three commuters faced regular harassment. The 2014 Thomson Reuters Foundation survey on unsafe transport in capital cities around the world found Delhi to have the fourth most unsafe public transport among the cities surveyed after Bogota, Lima and Mexico. A 2008 National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) study showed that female employees in the IT sector across India depended heavily upon the transport provided by the company as it was considered safer than public transport.

While there are occurrences of gruesome and violent crimes, the defining characteristic of violence against women is its normalisation and ordinary and continuous nature. This forces us to examine violence within the frame of rights and its violations. ‘Although feeling unsafe is not confined to women, the fear that women feel in urban areas is quite particular. It is to do with physical and psychological honour. Although not all women have been raped or attacked; all have felt at some point that indescribable feeling of unease which ranges from merely feeling uncomfortable to paralysis. 

Further, there is high underreporting of violence against women in public spaces and of sexual harassment in public transport as it takes place during a journey making it more difficult to report the offence. It is sometimes difficult to identify the harasser in a crowded space and know whom to report to. In a metro train, it is possible to have a button, which directly links to the security at the next station where the woman can lodge her complaint as well as identify the harasser, but in most situations, women just move away from the harasser or at the most confront him and make a noise. Women and girls fear using public transport because of violence and the fear of violence. Crowded public transport is often a space where women face sexual harassment, because the crowd offers anonymity. This has led to interventions such as women only carriages in metro trains or women only buses. Consequences of the violence and insecurity that women face leads to forced immobility. Simultaneously, women and girls are subject to forced mobility when they have to undertake trips, which are often unsafe because of lack of services, such as water and sanitation

Safety in Public Transport: A social responsibility & growth indicator

The increase in women’s participation in the workforce has led to a pronounced effect on the economy across the world. In India, women and girls constitute 50 percent of the urban population. The Indian Census of 2011 was the first time mobility data was recorded in an official survey. According to the Census, women and girls comprise merely 19 percent of “other workers” and 84 percent of their trips are in the forms of public, intermediate public and non-motorised modes of transport. While 73 percent of trips by “other workers” in urban areas is through sustainable modes of transport, women and girls’ share is only 14 percent.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, if women played an equal role in the labour markets, USD 28 trillion could be added to the global economy by 2025. In this scenario, USD 2.9 trillion can be added to the annual GDP of India in 2025. Yet, in urban India, the workforce participation rate for females is 25.51 percent against 53.26 percent for males. A big reason could be that transport or mobility plans often do not take to consideration the needs of women and their safety, security, and comfort. Women decline employment opportunities that are far from their homes in favour of lower-paid, local opportunities. This is due to the dearth of reliable and affordable public transport solutions. Safe, comfortable, and convenient transport not only contributes to fulfilling women’s practical needs, including access to schools and markets but also contributes to their strategic empowerment by facilitating access to social and economic opportunities. Gender-based violence and harassment often result in forced immobility and duress when travelling.

Studies conducted in India by organisations like Jagori have demonstrated that women face harassment not only at night or in secluded spaces but also during the day. 

A 2020 study of over 5,000 men and women conducted in Delhi showed that women and girls faced high levels of sexual harassment in public transport, buses, and at roadsides. About one in three women worldwide have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to global estimates published by the World Health Organisation. As many as 51.4 percent of the women surveyed for the Jagori study reported that they were harassed while using public transport, while 49 percent of the men reported that they witnessed women being harassed. Women and girls fear using crowded public transport – this is a space where women often face sexual harassment as the crowd offers anonymity. This has led to interventions such as women-only carriages in metro trains or women-only buses. The consequences of the violence and insecurity faced by women, unfortunately, leads to forced immobility.

The transport needs of women and men vary, owing to their different social and economic roles and activities. The constraints experienced by women in accessing, using and paying for transport services are largely different from that of men. Transport can play a cardinal role in ameliorating the living conditions of women and therefore it is important to mainstream gender-related considerations into road transport projects to improve development effectiveness, sustainability, and to reduce gender inequality.

Several measures can be taken to improve gender inclusion in public transport.

  1. Gender policy dimensions for transport projects : It is imperative to enhance gender awareness needs at all levels of government to ensure that the national gender policy is incorporated in transport policies and planning. A multi-sectoral framework for addressing gender can be very effective and should be equipped with technical support from gender experts well versed with the transport sector. Data on user needs and access constraints must to be gender-disaggregated and collected through routine transport project monitoring and evaluation processes. In cases where data on routine measures is not gender disaggregated or unavailable, capacity building might be essential. The social and cultural context of gender differences that are affecting and affected by transport need to be analysed at household and community level. This can include the number of hours devoted to social, economic, and household-related tasks. The transport interventions designed to alleviate the transport burdens of women can be ineffective if this knowledge is not provided.
  2. Evaluating gender trip patterns and mobility constraints : Transport provides access to employment, childcare, and education to women. Women tend to make trips that are complex and higher in number in comparison to men, in urban as well as rural areas. This makes the trip more expensive for them as they have to pay numerous single-fare tickets during a chained trip. As women’s travel is characterised by trip chaining, the most predominant mode of travel for low-income women in developing countries is walking. The transportation costs can make transportation – especially public transport – fairly prohibitive, with women spending a higher share of their income on average than men. Designing options to improve the affordability of public transport could include the use or increase in subsidies in order to reduce fares or increase services and the provision of integrated fare. The right combination of fares and service quality has to be selected in order to address women’s needs and constraints adequately.
  3. Ensuring safe accessibility : The construction of exclusive sidewalks as components of the road and public transport improvement projects satisfy the travelling needs by increasing pedestrian accessibility and safety. It is imperative to incorporate design features that focus on safe pedestrian design such as bike parking facilities, speed bumps, traffic lights, and pedestrian safety islands. New and rehabilitated footpaths should be designed to separate vehicles and people. Also, there should be a distinction between the inclusion of pedestrian signals and footbridge connections wherever necessary. Intermediate means of transport (IMTs) such as rickshaws, bicycles, mopeds, and motorcycles can provide women with more flexible routes, schedules, and lower fares. Motorised two-wheeled transport is more affordable than cars and provides flexibility and convenience in crowded traffic conditions. There should be a physical separation between motorised and non-motorised road users as well as proper pedestrian crossing and traffic signage. Traffic calming measures (speed bumps, traffic lights, signs). public traffic safety education and safety equipment like helmets should be adopted.
  4. Addressing personal safety concerns : Safety design measures that can respond to women’s safety concerns include good lighting and landscaping at transit stops and along roadways to replace dark empty spaces with shops and public presence. The measures also involve surveillance cameras, emergency phones, panic/alarm buttons, and recruitment of uniformed and non-uniformed officers to patrol public buses and stops. Additionally, women-only services, improved security personnel present, and employment of female conductors and drivers on mass transit are steps to improve women’s safety. In India, women-only subways, buses and train cars have been introduced to combat sexual aggression and harassment. Women-only taxis have entered the market as well.

At present, women are particularly under-represented in India’s economy with respect to their potential. At 17 percent, India has a lower share of women’s contribution to GDP than the global average of 37 percent and the lowest among all regions in the world. Women perform 9.8 times the amount of unpaid care work in comparison to men. If that unpaid work were valued and compensated in the same process as paid work, it would contribute USD 0.3 trillion to India’s economic output. A fair proportion of this unpaid work may be performed willingly but it neither translates into wage-earning opportunities for women nor promotes their financial independence. 

Additionally, it may be noted that men and women use public transport in different ways because of their distinct social roles and economic activities. Since women’s reasons for travelling generally differ from men’s, the purpose, frequency, and distance of their trips are also different. Additionally, safety and perceived social status play a complex role in shaping women’s transport behaviour as they move between urban, suburban, and rural areas. Equitable access to public transport is about making the transport system work for women and meeting their needs for safe, efficient, sustainable mobility.

Urban transport should equitably serve all city residents, regardless of gender. Women don’t have genuine access to transport if transport systems aren’t designed to meet their distinct mobility needs and if public spaces aren’t safe or even perceived as safe. For truly sustainable, equitable cities, we need to make public transport work for women, too.



Metro Rail News is conducting a 2nd Edition InnoMetro 2022 on 28-30 April 2022, virtually focusing on Seamless Mobility. Join InnoMetro 2022 for a detailed discussion on the topic “Challenges faced by women in Public Transport: A contemporary issue”.

Join as a delegate: https://bit.ly/3uihjkd

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1 COMMENT

  1. In a recent paper (A study of sex-specificity in urban trip demand model results, Greater Paris Region, new findings included, and a proposal for their systematic doubling-up by sex, Publication AJD-186, Agora Jules Dupuit, Université de Montréal, 2020), Gaudry & Tremblin demonstrate that : (i) in classic travel demand models where mean transport time explains trip-making, one can show that treating men and women equally in unisex models implicitly discriminates against women because their marginal disutility of trip time is higher than that of men; (ii) in the most recent demand models where higher moments of trip time than the first (the mean) are also used to explain trip demand, there are significant differences between men and women in their valuations of all first four moments of trip time. Both results argue for a doubling-up of modeling by sex in order to give adequate treatment of each sex.

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