Overcoming barriers to women’s mobility

Authors:Krishna DesaiShirish MahendruAndrea Bluemel

The original article was published by Krishna Desai on LinkedIn.


The SDG 5 and 11 of the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by United Nations Member States, aims at “Achieving Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls”; and “Make Cities and Human Settlements Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable,” respectively. Achieving these goals requires development of public transportation systems which are safe for women and caters to their needs. However, issues of harassment in transportation system and public spaces and inconvenient transport services make women feel vulnerable while travelling. These issues often result in restricted mobility and missed employment opportunities. The root cause of these issues is also the difference between women and men’s travel pattern, which is generally not captured.

An analysis of the Census 2011 travel data, which captures the work trips of all individuals shows that 43% of the women travelling for work use bus service or walk to their destination as compared to 32% of travelling men. Analysis of the travel pattern have shown major differences between travel lengths for men and women. Proportion of women travelling distances more than 5 km is lower than that of men. In addition, proportion of women travelling by bus is more than other PT modes such as trains. (Census 2011). One should note that this data is only for work trips and does not capture trips generally undertaken by women such as care or social trips.

Work Trips in India, 2011

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Source: Census 2011

While this purports the need for a gender-sensitive transportation systems, the approach to planning in India uses standardized mobility solutions for both genders. Gender disaggregated data is rarely collected and analysed for transportation planning and operations. This has resulted in a gender-neutral transportation systems. Further, under-representation of women in technical jobs and at decision making level of the sector is echoed in the infrastructure systems as well, which lacks women’s perspective.

Need for safe transportation systems

India’s female labor force participation lags behind several other countries, including many African and Asian countries. COVID-19 has further negatively impacted the employment. The female to male labor force participation ratio is 34.5% in India, most of the other countries are found to have a more favorable female participation, as shown in the below figure.

Ratio of female labour force participation rates(%), 2017

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Source: World Bank

According to the Periodic Labor Force Survey 2017-18, the female labour participation has declined from 33.1% in 2011-12 to 25.3% in 2017-18, that is a decline of 7.8%. One of the reasons for this decline, is India’s shift from agriculture based economy to service-oriented economy. While women earlier were involved in the family’s agricultural activities. Now they are more confined to the domestic care responsibilities. NITI Ayog reports that globally, women invests three time more unpaid care work than men. However, in India, women spend 9.8 times more time than men on unpaid work.

Time spent on unpaid care work in a day

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Over the years, there has been focus on women equality and empowerment, towards which several policies and schemes at national and state level have been initiated towards female literacy, employment and safety. Few of the notable policies and schemes are as given below:

  1. Formation of National Commission in 1990 with an objective to investigate, examine, monitor, research and review women’s rights, laws and violations.
  2. National Policy for Women, 2001 which focussed on women empowerment in various sectors, collection of      gender-disaggregated     data at national and state level, and awareness generation programs.
  3. Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme to prevent      gender-based     sex selective elimination and ensure survival and education of girl child.
  4. Support to Training and Employment Program for Women (STEP) to provide skills that give employability to women.
  5. Formation of Nirbhaya Fund with a total corpus of Rs 3000 crore, under the Ministry of Women and Child Department, towards projects to improve      the safety and security of women.

While the Government of India is focusing on the educational and economic upliftment of women through the introduction of such schemes. There is a need to have an equal push from the states and cities to acknowledge the need to provide safe and secure transportation systems which can facilitate women to take up educational and employment opportunities. Transport is often identified as one of the barriers to women’s participation in the labour force, in addition to domestic duties, childcare responsibilities and cultural norms. A survey conducted in Mumbai in 2019 revealed that 31% of surveyed women reported commuting as a barrier to working. (Closing the gap: gender, transport and employment in Mumbai). A survey conducted in two cities of Kerala revealed that around 93% of the surveyed women restricted their mobility due to fear of harassment. This article documents women’s barriers in the transport sector, and suggestions to overcome the same.

 Challenges faced by the women of Kerala

The technical cooperation project Integrated Sustainable Urban Transport Systems for Smart Cities (SMART-SUT) of GIZ has supported the Transport Department, Government of Kerala in undertaking focus group discussions (FGDs) and perception surveys to understand the challenges women face while travelling in transportation systems.

The perception survey, focused on women’s perception towards 1) safety in public transport journey, 2) infrastructure, 3) travel patterns, and 4) priorities for improving safety in PT journey. The survey captured around 1200 female in the cities of Kochi, Trivandrum and Kozhikode. The key findings of the perception survey are as given below:

●       90% of respondents use public transport

●       ~80% of the respondents walk to the bus stop

●       Usage of private buses was observed to be high in Kochi and Kozhikode- stressing the need for regulated and safe private bus transport

●       63% of respondents avoid travelling by themselves at night

●       82% respondents prefer not to travel after 7- limiting employment opportunities

●       68% of female respondents experienced sexual harassment, those in age group between 18-24 found most vulnerable (74% of respondents)

●       76%- would use PT if it is safer, 66% of whom have access to personal vehicle

●       82% feel safe in PT journey at daytime, but less than 20% at nighttime

The key barriers to women’s mobility which resulted in restricted mobility and the fear of travelling at night were found to be:

  1. Absence of women’s perspective in infrastructure design and preparation of Development Plan and Mobility Plan- which is mainly due to the underrepresentation of women in transport sector (at all levels)
  2. Lack of data on women’s travel pattern for the transportation systems and first and last mile- one can’t plan for a women friendly system without information on their travel pattern
  3. Poor information and communication system about the transportation services and the services in place for women safety
  4. Lack of sensitivity amongst the front line workers and public towards women’s issues and vulnerability

How other cities are making travel safer for women


Assessment of qualitative and quantitative data has been used by various cities to develop women-centric transportation systems. Transport for London (TfL) takes up the below mentioned steps for ensuring providing customer centric services.

  1. Big data analytics to plan their transportation systems: Data generated from oyster cards, contactless cards/ mobile tickets, feed information for analyzing patterns and trends for further action. Big data analytics is used for mapping customer journeys, managing unexpected events, and providing personalized travel information.
  2. Comprehensive perception survey to understand barriers faced by various communities: Understanding diverse communities (UDC) survey to capture different travel patterns, behavior and attitudes towards issues such as accessibility, fares, personal safety, security and customer satisfaction. The data and insights supports TfL in taking evidence based approach to decision making.
  3. Actions such as improving accessibility to bus stops, reduction in fares for low-income groups, deployment of safer transport teams across selected stations, improving street lights on certain stretches and promoting safer routes to and from transport hubs have been initiated with the assessment of these datasets.
  4. Release of annual workforce monitoring report, to analyze the workforce diversity at different levels, and formulate strategies to reach the desired levels.
  5. Initiating campaigns such as Project Guardian, Report it to Stop it which focused on creating awareness on zero tolerance towards harassment and helpline numbers for reporting complains.
  6. Gender sensitization of all front line staff.

Capital Region Urban Transport, Bhubaneswar

Capital Region Urban Transport (CRUT), of Bhubaneswar, is now able to categorize the tickets sold through the electronic ticketing machines (ETMs) as male and female through minor reprogramming, enabling them to obtain disaggregated data of the tickets collected throughout the day. The ticketing data is generated, stored, and downloaded from the Automated Fare Collection System (AFCS). The gender-segregated data can be made available from the ETM transaction receipts and can be used for analyzing the travel pattern of female passengers across the city. Based on the purpose, additional data can be generated related to female boarding and alighting, trip-wise female ridership, route-wise ridership etc. Analysis of such data can be used for infrastructure development and for deploying special services which can be made sustainable.


Bogota with the help of the application My Safetipin undertook a safety audit of the bicycle track of the city considering the parameters 1) lighting, 2) openness, 3) visibility, 4) crowd, 5) security, 6) walk path, 7) availability of public transport and 8) gender diversity . Interventions such as street light improvement, bus stop relocation, repositioning of vending zones were undertaken considering the results of the safety audit. The information gathered was also used for a source for prioritizing local and municipal investments in infrastructure and preparation of master plans. Compulsory safety audits as part of street development tenders, combining safety audits with comprehensive mobility plans should be considered for mapping unsafe locations.

Outputs of disaggregated data analysis

A disaggregated analysis of data collected under the comprehensive mobility plans can generate indicators such as female mode share, trip attractors and generator points, trip rates, trip length, access to a private vehicle, trip purpose (including household and social work). GIS assessment of these indicators can prioritize improvements for the first and last mile most used by female passengers.

Examination of the harassment cases in transportation systems of few cities has shown a pattern in terms of location and time. Dissemination of such information can help women make an informed decision regarding their travel mode, route, and time. Such information can also be used to frame strategies to improve the safety of such identified locations. Data related to travel patterns, perception surveys, unsafe first and last mile locations, women participation in the transport sector, harassment cases have been analyzed by various cities to strategize actions to make women’s travel safe and comfortable. It should also be noted that planning of transportation systems considering these aspects ensures the safety of all and not just women.

Actions towards developing women friendly transportation systems

Different cities have taken up different approaches to make travel safer for women. These include initiatives to capture data on women’s travel pattern, perception towards various aspects and using these data points for planning of transportation systems, preparation of master plans and mobility plans. Collection and analysis of women’s travel pattern can help in planning for special bus services and also improve certain spaces which may seem unsafe and deserted to women. Street light improvement, bus stop improvements, deployment of patrols can be taken up using such information.

Many cities are also working towards including women in transport sector at all levels, which in the long run will help in inculcating women’s perspective in planning and implementation of transportation systems. Apart from this, gender sensitization of front line staff is also very important, as often they are the first responders in cases of harassment, and in many ways are responsible for women’s safety while travelling in a public transport system.

Awareness campaigns on zero tolerance towards harassment by police and transport agencies and simplifying the process of registering complains have also resulted in increasing awareness amongst women and public about the implications of women’s harassment.

As can be seen, the issue of  women’s safety is not the responsibility of one agency alone, but several agencies. A concerted effort will be required to make travel journey safer for women. However, one should also acknowledge that making travel safer for women makes it safe for everyone. Further, developing women friendly transport systems are not cost intensive, just requires more sensitivity towards the needs and requirements of women.

Click here to read more on the study undertaken in Kerala by SMART-SUT- Gender Sensitive Reforms in Kerala

About the Project: Integrated and Sustainable Urban Transport Systems for Smart Cities in India (SMART-SUT) is implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). The project objective is to improve planning and implementation of sustainable urban transport systems in selected Indian cities and states. The project is part of the Green Urban Mobility Partnership between Germany and India.

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