Historically, cities across the world have been designed to fit the needs of able-bodied men, or a neutral, often male, user. Yet, cities are experienced differently by men and women. Women and girls find their access to employment, education, care services and even leisure is constrained when urban mobility systems and public spaces are not safe and inclusive.
Across Indian cities, studies show that concerns about commuting safely during the late evening hours or beyond a particular radius are among the biggest barriers to girls and women going to school, college and work. For instance, a 2020 study in Bengaluru showed that only 2% of women commuters surveyed made journeys after 9 pm. Barriers to mobility can thus thwart women’s long-term aspirations, eroding their financial independence and agency. The threat of sexual harassment deters women from stepping out. For instance, a 2017 study in Delhi showed that women were willing to travel for 27 minutes more each day to take a route that was perceived to be safer. It will thus be important to devise strategies to prevent and penalise sexual harassment in public spaces.
Typically, women travel shorter distances at off-peak hours, and make chained trips, frequently changing between transport modes to complete multiple tasks, balancing domestic errands and employment. Systems are, therefore, needed to collect and analyse gender-disaggregated data to understand women’s mobility patterns and design public transport services accordingly.
It was after the Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation, working with the World Bank, conducted a detailed study of mobility patterns on suburban trains, that it identified women’s safety as a key priority and devised solutions to make platforms, stations, and trains safer for women. These activities sought to do more than just introduce women-only trains — the Ladies Specials — by addressing the fundamental design of the infrastructure to make it more women-friendly.
Hiring more female staff can make travel safer. In Kochi, for instance, 80% of the metro staff are women, working as station managers, train drivers, ticket vendors, and cleaning staff. Similar initiatives can be taken by other bus and rail agencies to enhance safety.
What’s more, since deep-rooted social norms restrict women’s movement outside their homes, local communities need to be brought on board as partners to help shift the norms around women’s mobility. A number of community-based organisations have been working across cities such as Delhi, Gurugram, and Pune to sensitise communities; they also provide gender sensitisation training for frontline public transport workers.
Under the Nirbhaya Fund, the Centre provides valuable resources to states and central ministries to implement solutions for enhancing women’s safety. Since 2015, eight cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Lucknow) have used these funds to identify hotspots for crime, enhance police capacity for investigating crimes against women and establish one-stop centres for violence survivors.
Moving a step further, the Greater Chennai Corporation established a Gender and Policy Lab, which will support the government of Tamil Nadu in implementing projects under the Nirbhaya Fund to create safer public spaces in the city. An assessment to understand gender differences in mobility was carried out, alongside a safety audit, in Tondiarpet in north Chennai. Installation of CCTV cameras and panic buttons in city buses is also underway, with Chennai’s Metropolitan Transport Corporation establishing a command-and-control centre to monitor incidents of harassment.
Our experience in Chennai and Mumbai, and other cities globally, shows that addressing gender concerns in urban mobility and public spaces requires long-term commitment from multiple stakeholders, with solutions aimed at addressing deep-rooted issues.
Drawing lessons from international best practices and project experiences in India, the World Bank has developed a toolkit for the Indian context, which both government and private agencies can use to make cities safer and more inclusive of women.
The toolkit outlines a four-pillar approach: First, assess the ground situation to understand gender-disaggregated mobility patterns and undertake safety audits; second, strengthen policies with a focus on fare policies and grievance redressal for sexual harassment; third, build capacity and raise awareness both within government agencies and through partnerships with community-based organisations; and fourth, improve infrastructure and services with a special emphasis on women’s safety and inclusion.
Making cities safer can ensure that women and girls have choices — they can choose to stay longer in the office, go to better educational institutions, and even have a wider array of entrepreneurship opportunities — all of which will help increase female labour force participation and, in turn, boost economic performance in India.
Auguste Tano Kouamé is the World Bank's Country Director for India. Gerald Paul Ollivier is the Lead Transport Specialist, World Bank.
This Opinion piece first appeared in Hindustan Times on March 8, 2023.