Beyond Borders: Gender and Urban Mobility in India

26.10.188 min read

‘Beyond Borders’ is our new series of articles where we explore how the world is changing from an inclusive perspective. Whether we’re looking into new technologies or sustainable practices, ‘Beyond Borders’ showcases innovations and cultural shifts happening across the world.

With this series, we aim to challenge perspectives on how we go about tackling global challenges and invite cultural nuance and diversity into the conversation.

First up: a 4-part story on redefining urban mobility on a local scale in South Africa, India, the US and Brazil.

Welcome to Part 2, where we talk to the World Resources Institute’s Jyot Chadha about the challenges and opportunities in India’s gendered urban mobility landscape.

Part 2:  The Trio of Gender, Transport and Safety in India

“As a woman, knowing when I can get transport and what I’ll do to get to my final destination allows me to be more in control.”

Jyot Chadha leads the New Sustainable Mobility practice at the World Resources Institute’s Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. Her team works on a high level to increase urban mobility, most often in emerging and developing countries. For Chadha, India is a focus area—where, despite recent initiatives by the government to innovate urban mobility, the dynamics of transportation remain significantly gendered. “The highest instance of harassment against women on public transport happen when they’re actually waiting for transport at a stop,” explains Chadha. “There are larger cultural shifts that need to happen for sure—but how can we recognise this and then think about minimising the time people have to spend waiting for the bus?”

According to Chadha, public transportation in India is, overall, unreliable. She says that congestion significantly delays bus schedules—and if your bus is delayed, you don’t really have a way of being updated. “We have huge issues in terms of people waiting for 15-30 minutes without knowing when their bus is actually going to come,” she explains. For all commuters, those delays are annoying—but for women, they can prove detrimental. Indeed, a recent research report identified that about 80 percent of Indian women have been harassed at a bus stop. And it’s not at all lost on Indian women that in between 2007 and 2016, crimes against women have skyrocketed by 83 percent—the most high-profile and violent of which happened on public transport. As a result, Indian women’s concerns about urban transport overwhelmingly have to do with safety—so much so that a study of over 4,000 women at Delhi University found that women would be up for paying almost 300 dollars more than men for safer travel that decreased the chance of harassment.

Today, one in five Indians don’t have that extra 300 dollars—and even if they did, the implementation of safe travel routes remains an open question mark. On the bright side, the Indian government recently announced the Green Urban Mobility Scheme: in between 2018 and 2023, around 70,000 crore will be invested into sustainable transport. (That’s over 9 billion euro.) But despite this, critics say that urban transport investments remain largely “gender blind” and don’t consider safety a crucial enough aspect of sustainable transportation.

So, how are women in India navigating a potentially dangerous transportation ecosystem? In 2017, a report released by India’s Institute for Transportation & Development Policy and Supporting Safer Cities identified unsafe transportation as a key barrier to Indian women’s integration in the workplace. To paraphrase, many women are simply avoiding public transport—which also means they’re taking lower-paying jobs to stay closer to home. This is significant not only for women’s quality of life on its own, but for India’s economy. In urban India, women’s labour force participation is only at 15.5 per cent—and actually dropped by 19.2 million people between 2005 and 2012. That loss is costing India a big chunk of money: if more women were to work across the country, the country could reap a substantial reward—to the tune of a whopping 770 billion increase to India’s GDP by 2025.

But there is progress. Over the past eight years or so, India has rolled out initiatives like an all-woman police station in Gurgaon, anti-leering training for taxi drivers, and reserved seats for women on buses. And in 2018, Pune began to send out Tejaswini buses—women’s-only buses operated by female drivers and conductors during peak hours. Outside of transport, there’s even a compulsory ‘gender sensitisation’ programme that’s been implemented in all of India’s schools. Initiatives like these reflect a cultural motivation—to make women feel safer through transportation itself, but also by challenging the existing gender dynamics between men and women. “Poor gender dynamics are an entrenched problem in India—it’s not only a problem of provision of transport,” adds Chadha. “Why is that the case, and how do we start to tackle that?”

These are all pretty recent initiatives, however. It may take years to make public transportation in India safer for women on a massive scale. But Chadha stresses that public transport is far from the only option available: she sees the urban mobility landscape in India as “very shared and active” and full of diverse options. Many people walk and cycle, and many others take form of shared mobility—which includes everything from trains to metros to shared rickshaws and taxis. With all these options, surely some must be present a safer alternative for women than the bus, right?

The problem is that this diversity doesn’t translate to ease of accessibility for all demographics. “In all of these areas, there are a number of obstacles in terms of having a safe, efficient, comfortable and equitable journey,” says Chadha. Take the auto-rickshaw, for example. Although it’s been one of the most common for-hire vehicles in Indian cities for decades, its drivers have a serious reputation of ripping people off—whether that’s through refusing rides are jacking up rates. “People have different needs. The same person has different desires at different times of the day depending on situations they’re in—or even the weather,” says Chadha. “Looking at an ecosystem as a whole, how do we give people lots of different choices and make the experience of moving from one part of the city to another integrated and seamless? Cities need to recognise that human beings are not taking the bus and then the train for the fun of it, but to get to their destination.”

Chadha also explains that part of the issue that’s making it so difficult to implement a well-oiled transportation system in India has to do with the country’s scale of the ‘last mile’—the final bit of transport you need to go through to get to your destination. “A lot of the time, what’s called ‘last mile’ in a city like London or New York will be a kilometre or less. In India, it can be up to 10 kilometres,” she explains. “That requires an additional connection point. In the past, that fuelled this big ecosystem of rickshaws and taxis, but what we’re seeing today is that this space of looking at last mile options has completely opened up. The big change is that now there are enterprises trying to provide these services, not just micro-entrepreneurs.”

Indeed, the landscape of transportation options in India has been transforming in tandem with an increase in internet connectivity. Over the past decade or so, India has grown to become the second-largest mobile market on the planet; in response, on-demand and app-based taxi services have flourished. There’s Indian ride-hailing company Ola Share, for example, which operates in over 100 Indian cities; Uber has vehicles in 20. There’s tech-integrated buses and motorbikes – like rBus, Shuttl or ZipGo – where you book seats in air-conditioned buses via an app. There’s app-based motorbikes, like Rapido in Bangalore and Delhi, where you can book your bike outside of a train station to take you to your next destination. And there’s even start-ups which are directly addressing the last mile issue: take Gurugram’s SmartE, which – in partnership with Delhi Metro Rail Corporation – has deployed about 1000 electric three wheelers outside of more than 10 metro stations. (As of April 2018, about 60,000 people a month have been using these services.)

Clearly, there’s an appetite for smart, shared transportation innovation in India. So, why is ‘the last mile’ still an issue—and why isn’t transport becoming safer for women? According to Chadha, it most often has to do with a discrepancy between public policy and transportation entrepreneurship. For example, in between 2016 and 2017, dozens of bike taxi startups popped up but ultimately failed due to ‘operational and regulatory hurdles’. And Chadha says that right now, mobility innovations may operate on a city-by-city basis – primarily as pilot projects – but haven’t managed to fit into a legal framework that would enable a rollout across the country. “The challenge is that our policymakers think of transport providers and solutions in the context of how things used to be,” says Chadha. “They’re trying to retrofit new models into that old structure. It’s like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.”

And besides: tech-based ride-sharing initiatives like Uber require you to have a smartphone—something that’s rapidly on the rise in India, but still out of reach for many in the country. What this means is that although the transportation options are out there, fragmented and unreliable public transportation is still the primary option for many people—which, as we’ve seen, can be particularly harmful to women.

But maybe the fix doesn’t have to come entirely from the government and policy makers. Could other forms of smart transportation innovation help close the barrier between safety and transportation for women? “I don’t think that the digitisation of transport can solve the issue of safety for women on its own,” says Chadha. “But I think it holds promise in starting to try to address some of the pain points. SafetiPin is a good example of how that unfolds.” Founded in 2013, the app crowdsources perceptions of safety across different points in a given city. Based on those insights, SafetiPin generates maps of areas where people feel unsafe for a variety of reasons—like if the area is poorly lit, or if there’s a significant gender imbalance in play. “This kind of initiative helps the government say, ‘how can we intervene’?”, explains Chadha. “If the gender balance is poor in an area, maybe we can add more food vendors there so that families will visit and therefore even out the gender balance. Understanding what the changes we can bring about are on this granular, deeper or more meaningful way are very important. They can be offered by some of these new technologies.”

Ultimately, Chadha stresses that solving the issue of safety for women on public transport is part of a bigger task: to implement functioning and accessible transportation for all in the face of a rapidly increasing urban landscape. “The number of people moving to cities is gigantic. We have never seen this scale, ever,” says Chadha. By 2050, India will likely be home to 1.5 billion people, making it the most populated country in the world. Over the last 30 years, its urban population has doubled. “For the first time, we are asking ourselves: how do we move people in a way that is efficient without ignoring the negative externalities of transport?”

In Chadha’s mind, one thing is for sure, though. To increase urban mobility responsibly in a densifying environment while eradicating serious issues like women’s vulnerability on transport, India shouldn’t look exclusively look at new apps or tech solutions. Instead, it should revisit the infrastructures and transportation cultures that are already there. “The future of India is not moving towards more developed countries’ system of private cars but to remain active and shared. And sure, our mobility may not all be app-based – and most of it isn’t – but it’s always been shared auto-rickshaws, shared taxis, minivans, shared buses,” she says. “Now, the challenge is making sure that what’s active and shared is accessible—to be used with dignity, ease and efficiency for everyone.”