Routes to equality

November 19, 2023

Research shows that women are more reliant on public transport for mobility

Routes to equality


oarding the Elizabeth line from Paddington, London, late in the day, I find it fascinating how most of the train is occupied by women returning home from a long day at their offices. Back home, one would hardly see women commuting to work on public transport. If they did, there would be a gender-based division.

While the world worries about the stagnation and decline in the female labour participation rate from 50.9 percent to 47.7 percent over the past twenty-five years, Pakistan has seen a steady increase. However, even with the improvement, their share still stands at 23.3 percent. There is a stark 57.7 percent difference between the participation rates of men and women and a clear need to bridge the gap.

Low workforce participation can be due to several reasons, ranging from household commitments, lack of education, safety concerns, transport issues and societal and cultural norms. Most of these issues require long-term societal changes with a comprehensive approach. Nevertheless, improved transportation translates into improved women’s mobility and opportunities to seek employment. Questions regarding transportation would revolve around affordability, accessibility, safety, approachability and whether it aligns with societal norms.

Research has shown that women are more reliant on public transportation for mobility. The provision of quality transport leads to more women joining the workforce. In Pakistan, this can be seen with the creation of Metro bus and train systems in Lahore. According to data from a survey by the International Growth Centre, the Metro bus led to more women commuting via public transportation in comparison to the pre-project era.

Many women Metro users said they had previously walked to their destinations. It was observed that households near Metro stations saw an increase in their household incomes, indicating that the improved mobility led to an improvement in economic conditions. Women were able to venture to other areas without transportation constraints and apply for opportunities that were previously considered too far away from their homes. Furthermore, the level of education among the passengers rose, proving that with better public transport, educated, employed personnel opt for public transportation rather than private vehicles.

Although these government-run facilities are cheaper than other options, mainly because of subsidies, surveys show that people would be willing to pay more for them. Why is that? Passengers, especially women, waiting at a typical bus stop would not know when the next bus would arrive and were stressful. Some women also reported street harassment.

With the Metro, the schedules are known, and the stations afford protection from street harassment. Gender segregation makes it both culturally acceptable and secure.

With the Metro, the schedules are known and the stations afford protection from street harassment. Gender segregation makes it both culturally acceptable and more secure. 

Among the alternatives to public transport, private vans remain the most popular option. Apart from rash driving and poor maintenance of vehicles, these pose several societal and cultural issues so that many women refuse to accept these as a suitable means of transportation.

Typically, vans lack gender segregation. There have also been complaints about harassment by fare collectors and drivers. These reasons contribute to the opinion of most men, strongly discouraging women in their household from using vans for a commute. Gender segregation in Metro or any other quality mode of transportation provides them a sense of security.

Public transportation upgrades are useless without a mechanism to facilitate access. Available data on people’s commuting patterns to bus stations reveal that a significant proportion of passengers walk to the stations. Therefore, considering women especially, there is a need to enhance the appeal to public transport by facilitating an easier commute, which can only be possible if cities are to transform into walk-friendly urban spaces.

Walking is frequently a challenge as most cities do not support pedestrians. Roads are often expanded at the expense of sidewalks. In many cases, footpaths are non-existent. When they are there, many bikers use them as an extra lane to bypass traffic. Such conditions make public transportation unsuitable for women facing security concerns, and societal and cultural issues.

Governments have a pivotal role in facilitating women to become a part of the labour force by attempting to curb at least the transportation-related constraints. Therefore, the network of public transportation in cities needs to be expanded to cover more areas and making it accessible to more women.

While implementing new projects may be costly and unfeasible, governments can regulate private transporters to facilitate upgrades. Gender-segregated services like Pink Buses and women-empowering projects like Women-on-Wheels should be encouraged, depending on the target population and location.

A rebuttal on women-only transportation comes in the form of failure to address the root cause of harassment-related issues. Segregation to avoid interaction with the other gender is not a sustainable solution as it fails to create an inclusive and integrated society.

There is no clear-cut solution to the mobility issue. Gender experts and women specialising in urban planning need to be on board with planning committees to assist in formulation of strategies. For long-term impact, a shift is required in the societal attitudes. Men and women should be educated and encouraged to coexist.

For policymakers, bringing more women into the workforce requires a multifaceted approach that challenges harmful norms, fosters education and ensures a safe and inclusive environment. Overall, women’s right to mobility needs to be acknowledged. Women’s absence from the workforce depicts an under-utilisation of resources and a denial of equal opportunities for women.

The writer is the co-founder of a community-based learning platform called HamSukhanHe is currently pursuing a master’s degree in urban economic development at the University College, London

Routes to equality