Safe Public Transport System Makes Cities More Accessible for Women


“In Delhi nothing is safe… not an auto, bus, not even the metro!”

These were opinions voiced by young, professional women in Delhi last year during a discussion organised by JAGORI, a women’s training, documentation and resource centre in the city. Of course, the recent announcement by Delhi Metro – that one coach on all its trains will be reserved for women has been greeted with obvious relief by women commuters.

Indeed, in a recent survey of over 5,000 persons conducted across Delhi by JAGORI and New Concept for the Government of Delhi, over half of the women respondents reported that public transport was the most unsafe ‘place’ for women in the national capital. The survey was released in July this year. Forty per cent said that waiting for public transport was equally risky. Yet, using public transport is not optional for most women, whether in Delhi or elsewhere. A safe and women-friendly public transport system – not only the various modes of public transport like buses, metro, auto-rickshaws and taxis but also associated infrastructure such as bus stops and metro stations, pavements and other waiting areas – is , therefore, central to improving women’s safety, and enhancing their access to their city.

In New York City, a web-based survey conducted in 2007 on the city’s subway (metro) system revealed that over 70 per cent of the respondents had been sexually harassed or assaulted in the subway. Most incidents took place during morning or evening rush hour, when compartments are particularly crowded. Less than four per cent of the victims reported the incident to the police or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Responses to this problem included increasing police presence on the subway system, and launching a campaign to educate commuters about the risk of sexual harassment, preventive measures, steps that victims can take, and the importance of reporting such incidents.

Other cities have also made improvements in their public transport. In March this year, the Greater London Authority unveiled a strategy titled ‘The Way Forward: Taking action to end violence against women and girls’. Improved service provision and making London’s transport network safer for women are central to this strategy, which is the city’s first ever comprehensive effort to tackle violence against women and girls. Along with increasing the number of Safer Transport Teams, the city is running awareness campaigns on planning journeys home and advising against using illegal minicabs. It will work closely with the police and Transport for London (TfL) to make the pan-London Cab Enforcement Unit (CEU) more effective. Then, increasing women’s perception of safety on public transport and their confidence in travelling, as well as improving the reporting of sexual offences experienced, are also part of this strategy.

In the developing world, Mexico City leads the way in improving public transportation infrastructure. One of the first cities to designate women-only entrances as well as subway compartments during rush hours, the city also launched the Athena program – women only buses – in 2008. Currently, there are 67 Athena buses covering 23 of the 91 routes across the city. Easily identified by large letters in pink saying, “Exclusive Service for Women”, these buses run from 6 am to 9 pm. Pregnant women, elderly people and those with disabilities travel free.

These examples show that improving the public transport system from the viewpoint of women’s safety does not require overly complicated or expensive solutions. What it does need is political will, a long-term vision, and sustained efforts, which combine improvements in infrastructure and services with sensitisation, capacity-building, as well as strong punitive measures.

Senior officials from the transport department in Delhi acknowledge that lack of safety is a huge deterrent for people wishing to use public transport. In 2003, the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) had committed itself to improving the safety of women passengers through actions such as clear display of helpline numbers both within and outside buses, instructions to drivers and conductors to report any incidents of eve-teasing or molestation, and permitting women to board from the front door.

However, no training was imparted to bus drivers and conductors, and DTC buses continued to be extremely unsafe for women. To address this gap, JAGORI initiated a series of sensitisation campaigns among drivers and conductors five years ago, as part of its Safe Delhi project. Since then, a women passenger helpline has been launched, advocacy material developed, and a number of workshops on ‘gender and safety in buses’ conducted with DTC instructors, bus drivers and conductors. It is hoped that through such training sessions, the staff of DTC (predominantly men) will gain insights into their own values and behaviour, break their silence on harassment of women, and help in providing better service to women commuters.

A number of other efforts have also recently been initiated like Biometric identification and police verification of all drivers of public service vehicles, renewable every three years, has been made mandatory. The Global Positioning System (GPS) system has been extended to 500 blueline (private) buses, in addition to DTC vehicles. CCTV installation has begun on major transport interchanges.

While these are important steps, they need to be mainstreamed and accompanied by appropriate governance reforms. Installation of CCTV cameras can serve as a deterrent to perpetrators of violence and sexual harassment, but basic infrastructure improvements at bus stops, metro stations and subways, such as enhanced lighting, electronic signage, audio announcements, convex mirrors to remove blind corners, and permitting hawking platforms, can be equally useful.

In addition, clear written and audio announcements of helpline numbers and electronic messaging on women’s safety inside buses and at bus stops, can build confidence among women. A review of bus stops in terms of location, lighting and amenities, should be conducted. Identification of intermediate stopping points for night-time bus services can be yet another easy but important step.

In Delhi, for autos and taxis, simple measures such as making the display of drivers’ identification, service standards and helpline numbers mandatory, can go a long way in deterring crime against women. Eventually, linking all auto-rickshaws and taxis registered in Delhi to a GPS system and a central control room can be a win-win solution for all – auto-drivers will generate more business, the transport control room will be able to monitor their movements, and passengers’ safety will be enhanced.

Introduction of a night-time radio-taxi service for women, monitored by the Delhi Police, or, alternatively, auditing and certification of existing radio taxi operators from women’s safety perspective can be a useful intervention. Ten women taxi drivers have recently been inducted into the fleet of taxis hired for the Commonwealth Games, an initiative that must be scaled up.

As more and more women step out of the confines of their homes in Delhi and other cities, their safety in public spaces is emerging as a major concern for policymakers as well as the civil society. An extensive, reliable and safe public transport system can make a city more accessible and inclusive for women, including those working in the formal or informal sectors, students, housewives, the poor, or the disabled and will expand their choices on where they can live, study, work or spend their leisure time.

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