Making public transport inclusive

Better transportation will enable women to access city spaces easily and potentially pursue more career opportunities

Making public  transport inclusive


he way cities are designed in Pakistan suggests that male is the default gender. This is especially true of the public spaces, of which many are designed to cater to men alone. Women are apparently expected to stay at home.

What do women have to say about this? How do they feel when they go out? What would encourage them to take up more space in public?

We tried to find the answers by visiting the Saddar market in Lahore, which is known for its eateries and women’s clothing. We interviewed women of all ages and backgrounds about their experience of moving through the city.

Most of the interviewed women said they did not feel like going out, even if they did not have to worry about transport, family permission and domestic duties etc.

Common struggles

Most of the women said they needed a strong reason to leave the house. Shopping was one such reason.

Saddar, a shopping hub for women’s garments and ornaments, is regularly visited by female shoppers. This is one of the very few leisurely activities that bring Pakistani women to public spaces.

We asked the women about their experiences of moving through the market: what it was like to walk through the alleyways; where they would sit and relax during their trips; and what places they liked to loiter in. Most of them said they had never really thought about such things, nor did they really care. The market was not a place to sit leisurely in; they had a clear purpose in coming there and they planned their trips accordingly. They left right after. That was how they perceived all public spaces in the city unless they were accompanied by their families.

Women’s experience of the use of public spaces was tied mostly to their husbands and children. They went to parks for their children; to restaurants to eat with their family; and would mostly go out only when the children and husband were available, such as on weekends.

The idea of, for example, enjoying the weather alone or with friends was mostly foreign. Sitting down at a dhaaba for tea, or having gol gappay with some acquaintances, was a rare treat, a memory some of them would cherish for a long time.

What would they like to do if their children were busy and they had all the time in the world? Most of them were at a loss. They said they might catch up with TV dramas, or call a relative. Asked what they would like to do outdoors, they did not show much interest in the scenario.

Leaving the house was a hassle not worth dealing with. It would require the availability of transport; a family member to accompany them; the children and housework being taken care of; and permission from their parents, husband or in-laws. Even with all these things checked off, “dil nahin karta” (the idea is not exciting.)

They were used to their routines at home and did not like going out without their family in the first place. They did not see many women using public spaces differently.

Including women in policy-making is critical. If our policymakers, government officials, urban planners and database demographic are overwhelmingly male, the users of our cities will also be mostly male.

Public transport was a key barrier to women’s mobility. Moving through the city was at the very least an uncomfortable experience. When we brought up the idea of travelling alone, many said, “darr lagta hai” (“We’re scared to do so”). The fear makes them dependent on others, mostly male relatives, to get around.

Given the perception of the lack of safety and reliability of their current public transport options, they avoid non-essential travel. Several women expressed their satisfaction with the Metro Bus Service for various reasons. Some of them said it was unfortunate that the service was not available on more routes so that they had to use vans or rickshaws.

A few suggestions

Research has shown that women are more dependent on public transport than men. Therefore, to improve the mobility of women, reforms in the transportation sector are pivotal. Metro Bus and Pink Bus services were readily approved by most women owing to the sense of security passengers had with these services.

The Metro is considerable comfortable and safe by most travellers. Urban planners should come up with ideas to make existing modes of transport more gender-inclusive and accessible.

This also ties into supporting women’s education and professional growth. Since many women are responsible for care-giving at home, provision of affordable daycare facilities is a worthwhile solution to look into. On the topic of pursuing education, there was a lament. Most women considered education an essential part of life, very much worth investing in. However, many said that they could not pursue higher education mainly because of early marriages, not having a say in such decisions, or because of familial responsibilities that fell on them.

Often higher educational institutes were not nearby and the daily commute was a hassle. With better transportation options, women would not only be able to access city spaces but will be better able to pursue more career opportunities.

A key theme in our discussions was the importance of community. Being familiar with the streets and people brought a sense of comfort to most women. The women who liked Saddar had been coming to the market for years. They knew the shopkeepers and the people of the area.

Creating segregated spaces for women, such as in mosques and restaurants, would encourage some. It would also popularise the concept that women deserve this space as much as men, and allow them to create their own communities and connections outside of their homes.

Better lighting in public spaces, more benches to sit on, better walking spaces and improved sidewalks are a few of many ways to improve women’s experience in public spaces. To make our urban planning and policy-making approach more gender inclusive, we have to be more deliberate in how we plan our cities.

Including women in policy -making is critical. If our policymakers, government officials, urban planners and database demographic are overwhelmingly male, the users of our cities will be mostly male as well. Ensuring the participation of women in these processes will go a long way in solving many of the problems female citizens face in public spaces such as Saddar.

Safa Baig and Faaiz Gilani are co-founders of HamSukhan (, a community platform to connect, share ideas and grow collectively to navigate the society’s most pressing issues

Making public transport inclusive