Women to the Back: A New Study Sheds Light on Barriers to Women’s Mobility

Is public transport gender neutral? A new study compiling user data reveals that gender is a central, though not the only, component driving women’s mobility choices.

Public transit plays a key role in promoting social equity. Not only does reliable access to affordable public transport remove barriers due to income inequality, safe transit options allow women to more actively take part in their community. Without it, the probability of women’s participation in the workforce can drop by over 15 percent. Ensuring that safe and reliable public transport is accessible to everyone is therefore an essential aspect of sustainable mobility planning.

Though planners and other officials are aware that this discrepancy exists between how women and men use public transport, to date there has been a lack of gender-aggregated research and data on the topic. Without this data, it is more difficult to find adequate solutions for closing the gender gap.

A model means of data gathering

A group of researchers set out last year to fill in some of these missing blanks using three African metropolises as their geographic base. Their findings, collected in “Decoding women’s transport experiences: A study of Nairobi, Lagos, and Guateng,” not only offers guidance for making public transit more gender-sensitive, the methodologies used can serve as a framework for similar studies in future.

To identify the many variables that may be preventing women from making full use of public transport, the researchers developed a multi-pronged approach to information gathering that was adapted for each of the cities surveyed. After a thorough literature review, they worked with teams on-the-ground in each city who were intimately familiar with the region. They then began collecting data through workshops, conducting surveys, and partaking in ride-alongs. This approach can be seen as a model for data collection that is sensitive to women’s needs. By taking a nuanced view to the individual experience, the methodology provided results that will open readers’ eyes to the many different difficulties that women face while using public transport.

Women’s travel experiences not homogenous

Of the key findings researchers noted is that treating “women” as a homogenous group limits a greater understanding of how public transport is used. To address the gender gap, other aspects of a person’s identity need to be taken into consideration— from their income and class status, their geographical location and proximity to transport options, whether they have children who travel them, and other factors.

“It is not sufficient to disaggregate data to produce impactful insights on the gendered experience of public transport. Women are not a single homogeneous group and their needs and pain points will differ greatly depending on their age, occupation, household structure, and income levels,” the researchers write. That is why in each of the three locations (Nairobi, Lagos, Gauteng) six profiles of women transport users were created and surveyed in a mixed-method approach: stay-at-home mom, sex worker, street vendor, transport expert, student, and working professional.

Women who are younger, for example, are much more open about their experiences with sexual harassment during their commutes; older women, researchers noted, may have already taken measures to cope with such experiences. Others have adapted by wearing baggier clothing or changing modes of transport.

Safety and affordability impact travel choices

Researchers found, for example, that while women travel for similar reasons, among them to commute to work or school, they do so using different types of transport vehicles, with different prices, at different rates, and for different amounts of time. Women in each city expressed a low level of trust in drivers, though ride-hailing apps were deemed dangerous in Guateng and BRT was considered unsafe in Lagos. In Lagos, too, women tend to spend more time in transit than those in Guateng, the central-eastern South African province that is home to Johannesburg.

While nearly half the surveyed female residents of Guateng told researchers that one of their primary reasons for using public transport is for “religious purposes,” only 13 % of that same group cited school or childcare runs as a reason for taking it. In comparison, nearly half of those surveyed in Lagos used public transportation for school or childcare, while travel to and from religious services did not even register on the charts.

The reason for travel may seem to be innocuous but indeed, women reported selecting their means of transportation based on the reason for travel—entrusting private drivers but not ride-hailing app services for school runs, for example. There are also a variety of safety factors at work in this decision-making, including time of day traveled, lighting at bus shelters, or how crowded the means of transportation is expected to be.

Yet while safety remains a prevalent concern for women in all three cities, there is one more pressing common concern: the affordability of transit fares, especially when not standardized. Considering that a work or business commute was the most common reason cited for using public transport, ensuring those economic concerns are met would play an outsized role in closing the gender mobility gap.

Understanding these concerns and needs will go a long way toward finding better solutions to make public transit equitable for all. While “Decoding women’s transport experiences: A study of Nairobi, Lagos, and Gauteng,” does not offer solutions as part of its reporting, the data collected offers not only new insights into gendered mobility use, it can serve as a strong foundation for data gathering in future. Only with such data is it possible to build a sustainable public transport system accessible to all.

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