Women protesting against harassment in buses (Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Mobility for women in cities has been transformed by technology-enabled sharing.

“I hailed a taxi late at night for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). He asked me where I would go from CST, and offered again and again to drop me home, despite repeated rejections of his offer. He sounded drunk. I was scared that he wouldn’t drop me at the station, and try to take me home instead.”

— Aishwaria Iyer, lawyer, Mumbai (October 2016)

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According to a 2014 study by Thompson Reuters Foundation, sexual harassment on public transport is an increasing concern in cities across the globe. On a list of 16 most unsafe cities for women to travel by public transport, New Delhi was ranked fourth; most women categorised the city as least safe in terms of safety at night, and both verbal and physical abuse. The situation cannot be much better in other Indian cities. The same report also highlights that 5.5 million (55 lakh) women enter the workforce each year in India and more than 50 per cent express high concerns about the safety of their commute.

One may ask, why transport and gender? According to a report by Dr Deike Peters under the aegis of UN-HABITAT, one has to recognise that women’s travel patterns differ from men’s and these differences are characterised by deep and persistent inequalities. Within any given urban setting, women have less access to both private and public means of transport, while at the same time assuming a higher share of their household’s travel burden and making more trips associated with reproductive and caretaking responsibilities.

Women wade through a crowded bus (Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) Women wade through a crowded bus (Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Census data for 2011 also shows that among those who travel to work, a larger share (30 per cent) of women use public transport — particularly buses — than men (25 per cent). With rapid socio-economic changes over the past few decades, transport experts today agree that there is a need for greater gender sensitivity in transport planning, analysis and practice. The unsafe situation in Indian cities is bound to have serious implications for urban welfare, as women who fear traveling alone are less likely to take advantage of jobs or educational opportunities, thus limiting the economic potential of the entire city.

Mobility in cities, especially for women, has been transformed by technology-enabled shared mobility companies operating in the taxi, auto-rickshaw, ride-share, car pool and other such service areas. The arrival of cab aggregator companies such as Uber and Ola has disrupted the traditional brick-and-mortar models of transportation and the very basic idea of mobility where one can now imagine a door-to-door service (unlike in the case of a bus or a metro which would still require a commute from the bus stop or station to the final destination). More and more women — especially the younger ones — are now confident about stepping out in the night without male company.

Of course, despite the immense popularity of cab-hailing apps among women, safety concerns continue to worry many users. Cab aggregator platforms, however, have been improving their safety features with a number of during-ride as well as before- and after-ride tools. For instance, profiling the drivers carefully, and sharing of ETA (expected time of arrival).

In a positive step towards ensuring safety, Delhi Police, in collaboration with Uber, recently launched the Himmat app (accessible to women riders on the Uber platform), where registered users can alert the police in case of emergencies. Regarding the new app, Sanjay Baniwal, Special Commissioner Police, Women Safety, said, “Through this partnership with Uber, we believe more women riders in Delhi will be sensitised about the availability of this assistance at hand. In addition to the emergency button in the Uber app, riders will now have one more touch point to access the police helpline in case of an emergency,”. All-women cab services is another trend that is now spreading across cities as women passengers tend to feel safer with a woman driver.

Talking about the role of technology and initiatives such as the Himmat app, an Uber spokesperson said: “Unfortunately, none of the current public transport options are safe, including taxis. Therefore, technology-led solutions to overcome safety challenges are vital to make mega-cities like Delhi safe for women. And Uber in India has consistently developed solutions that makes mobility safer for women. Through these initiatives, we believe more women riders in Delhi will be sensitised about the availability of this assistance at hand. The combination of access to the Himmat app through Uber, along with the panic button, is a big step towards strengthening the safety net available to lakhs of women riders.”

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Current policy discourse hardly takes into account the gendered pattern of travel. The existing approach for securing women’s safety in public transport is limited to segregation-based measures – such as separate coaches and seats – and surveillance-based measures such as installation of CCTV cameras. Such limited and ad hoc measures do not allow for an understanding of women’s needs through disaggregated data, building of institutional capacity or comprehensive guidelines.

According to a study done in the city of Bhopal by research organisation WRI India, a holistic approach to women’s safety in public transportation needs to move beyond its current piecemeal approach towards understanding specific needs and challenges of women through collection of disaggregated data and stakeholder consultations to design a safe-journey and other related infrastructure. The report puts forward solutions under four different categories to address the issue in a holistic manner: service planning and operations, enforcement/ grievance system, infrastructure and institutional capacity.

With many cities growing at unprecedented rates, it is high time that our policy makers and other stakeholders involved address issues like women’s transport safety quickly and efficiently. With rapid improvement in mobile and internet penetration in the last few years, technology can be a useful aid (through GPS tracking, panic button etc) even though it might not be enough. What is needed is gender mainstreaming of our transport legislations and programmes at every level. The same also applies to the new age app-based cab providers. Given the fact that they have the power of technology at their disposal, such companies should now participate in a more collaborative process with policymakers so that the cities can utilise the power of public transport to connect all residents with education and job opportunities, strengthening the economy and the greater community.

This article is a part of our special series on urban mobility.

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