Travel Fatigue: Women’s Tiring Experiences with Public Transport

Using public transport can leave women exhausted in nearly every way. A new gender-sensitive analysis of travel in three African cities reveals the nuances that make mobility more difficult for women.

Study after study has revealed a disparity between how men and women use and experience public transport. From questions of safety to the types of trips undertaken and reasons for travel, there is a clear gender divide when it comes to transport.

To better understand this gender mobility gap, researchers set out across three African cities to gather both quantitative and qualitative data that might explain the barriers women face when using public transport. Only through a mix of such data can a clearer picture be developed of how exactly the systems that work for one gender can prove a hindrance to another.

Gender just one aspect influencing transport experience

Decoding women’s transport experiences: A study of Nairobi, Lagos, and Gauteng from WhereIsMyTransport compiles the results of this five-month research project aimed at illuminating which obstacles women faced through a more nuanced lens. While past studies have often relied solely on surveys which focused on gender disaggregation, researchers took a broader, gender-sensitive approach to data collection that allowed researchers to zoom in on other aspects that might impact women’s public transportation experiences. After all, gender is only one demographic factor driving women’s choices. Other aspects of their lives, such as their ages, their professional distinctions (i.e., students, stay-at-home mothers, and sexworkers), and their socio-economic classes may play a decisive role in their choices.

“Our aim with this study was to move the conversation away from women as a homogenous group,” the report clarifies. Using a methodology that combined digital and in-person questionnaires with in-person group workshops and ride-alongs to observe different individuals during their daily commutes, researchers were able to ascertain not only what obstacles existed but also how these hinder or impact individual travel choices.

Through this anonymized qualitative data, researchers could show both commonalities as well as identify areas where differentiation was key. Among the similarities revealed across age groups and geography, for example, was the frequent comment that the stress of using public transport brought women fatigue. At the same time, a student who shared her travel experiences in Nairobi portrayed a vastly different decision-making matrix than a working mother in Gauteng. Though they both noted concerns about safety and sexual harassment as well as affordability, the former prioritized low costs whereas the latter chose to use an Uber to get to her destination more quickly.

This variance in commuting patterns can prove useful to those who are in search of potential solutions to women’s concerns. As the report says, the depth of this data is more comprehensive than quantitative data alone. “From an urban or transport planning perspective, the kind of data collected for this study should be a prerequisite for any Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan or National Urban Mobility Plan.” To that end, these more individualized approaches to data collection provided researchers with interesting insights in each of the three cities.


Social status and stigma play an outsized role in the decision-making process in Kenya. “Being time-poor or money-rich is an important variable in the transport mode decision-making process of different income groups,” researchers write, noting that professional women may be less likely to use a matatu due to its reputation as loud, old, or disruptive. Yet informal tradeworkers might prefer that mode of transport as they work longer hours and travel outside of peak rush times, making the trip less expensive. While affordability is one factor in decision-making, women also reported a discrepancy between their desire to pay fares digitally using a Kenya-wide payment app and the acceptance of such payments by drivers, who preferred cash only. What these women see as a step towards enhanced security has provoked problems for them when rejected by the drivers. All the same, women noted that although they found touts—those who sell the transport tickets—to be aggressive and disrespectful, there was some level of trust invested in them.


Women in the Nigerian metropolis use public transport for several different reasons: work, childcare and school runs, groceries, family, healthcare, religious activities, and entertainment. Although the vast majority (90%) noted that they travel alone, those with children all said they were responsible for ensuring their children’s commute to school went smoothly. In a city with multiple forms of transport available, ranging from BRT, kekes, danfos, motorbikes, and ride-hailing apps, women make their transport choices primarily according to questions of safety and affordability. Highly-publicized incidences of violence against women, such as the killing of one woman using BRT, led some to reconsider their preferred mode of transport or take extra precautionary measures. While these particular safety issues influenced their responses on questionnaires, data showed that the perception of danger contradicted where the actual dangers lay, namely the pedestrian route taken to and from public transport. At the same time that these safety issues affect women by age group differently, with the oldest demographic the least directly affected, they have led to a near universal dissatisfaction with public transport. Interview partners who feel frustrated by the lack of safety and affordability all agreed on one thing: greater regulation is necessary in Lagos.


In Gauteng, the South African province that includes Johannesburg, minibus taxis comprise the main mode of public transport available. As such, women reported relying on them heavily for their choice of travel despite high levels of dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction stems in large part from the quality of both vehicle and of driver: unroadworthy taxis, drivers who speed, drink, or act in a violent way. All these factors left women feeling frustrated by their experiences. Additionally, where for some minibuses can be viewed as one of the only affordable options available, in workshops women reported that the cost was too high and often variable, with drivers quoting a range of prices. Interestingly enough, drivers were seen as a pain point for commuters across all demographics, yet the data showed that when it came to issues of sexual harassment, fellow passengers posed a bigger problem than the drivers themselves.

Similar concerns with locally driven solutions

Although the results in all three cities revealed similar concerns about drivers as well as women’s worries about verbal sexual harassment and other safety issues, what that looked like in each place and for each demographic was highly variable. As these commonalities can be explored further on a broader level, the workshops in each city revealed potential solutions that could vary based on the geographic location and situation. What appears to have been a solution in Nairobi — the digital payment app — may not resolve the issues women face in Gauteng, where drivers vary their price based on the person. Still understanding the experiences behind the data is useful for resolving the obstacles that women face on the individual level. This can, in turn, hopefully provide planners with the information they need to address how best to alleviate such burdens and close the gender mobility gap sooner.

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