It happened outside a plush mall in Gurgaon, a booming financial and industrial hub just southwest of the Indian capital.  A 21-year old woman, a newcomer to the city, hopped into a shared taxi after finishing her second day at work. “Only when the driver started taking me through deserted streets did I realize that this was his personal car and not a shared taxi,” she tells me of that night two years ago. “He took me to a lonely place, hit me, threatened me, and raped me. I wish I knew it wasn’t a cab. I wish there was a safe way to travel.”

Every 51 minutes, a woman faces harassment or assault in India’s public spaces, according to a 2011 report by the National Crime Records Bureau. Staggering numbers of reported and unreported cases of violence and harassment make transportation difficult and dangerous for women and girls, especially after dark.

A recent case in which a 25-year-old woman was raped by her Uber driver has meanwhile raised questions about the promise of enhanced safety in radio taxis. The Delhi metro meanwhile runs only until 11 p.m.—it’s not an option for late-night travelers—and public buses at night recall the brutal 2012 Delhi gang-rape and murder of a 21-year old physiotherapist.

So should safety issues simply keep women and girls indoors—or does their vulnerability in public spaces highlight a desperate need for gender considerations in designing and planning public transport?

New Framework

“We began talking about the issues of gender in urban planning in 2005 and today, 10 years later, the government is accepting its importance,” says Kalpana Vishwanath, an activist with Jagori, an Indian nonprofit that works on women’s safety issues. “In the early days, it was an uphill task to even convince the government that there was any gender dimension to urban planning, design, and governance.”

Yet India isn’t the only country that has historically overlooked the critical need of mainstreaming gender in public transport—apart from a few odd localized projects. Far from it.

One World Bank Group report, Mainstreaming Gender in Road Transport, highlights the differences between men and women in travel patterns in relation to trip purpose, frequency, and distance of travel. It finds that women make more and more complex trips than men.

These differences stem from differences in the social and economic roles of men and women. For women, transport provides access to various resources and opportunities, such as jobs, childcare, education, and health facilities, whereas men as far more likely to rely on private vehicles. Yet women’s safety is most often overlooked.

The Colombian capital Bogota, for example, was named the most unsafe city for women to use transportation in a recent Thomson Reuters Foundation poll. The survey, across 15 capital cities and New York, polled 6,550 women and found three Latin American capitals—Bogota, Mexico City, and Lima—“least safe,” followed by Delhi.

A World Bank study in Lima revealed similar findings, noting that while for men in the Peruvian capital, speed was decisive factor in choice of transport, for women personal security and protection from harassment mattered most.

Experts say that, along with new laws, women must be consulted on transport planning through participatory approaches such as focus groups.

A World Bank-supported project in the Liaoning Province, China, carried out an extensive, inclusive process leading to a drastic change in project design. Consultations with women’s groups led to investment on secondary road rehabilitations and street lighting rather than construction of more ring roads alone.

Design Is Key

Dimly lit roads, dark and empty bus stations, or a lonely nighttime walk across a deserted car park is a nightmare for most women. Safety audits across urban areas are becoming popular in an attempt to map safer areas.

In India, the nonprofit Jagori started safety audits in 2007: Through its smartphone app, Safetipin, Jagori has conducted audits in seven cities in India and plans to expand the project to Bogota and Jakarta. HarassMap runs a similar initiative across various cities in Egypt.

Caren Grown, Senior Director for Gender at the World Bank Group, stresses the need to include gender considerations at every phase of transport and infrastructure projects.

“Planning also needs to take into account that the steps are not too high for women, that there is sufficient space for safe sidewalks, that handrails are available, that there is last-mile connectivity,” she says.

Ha Nguyen, a freelance writer shuttling between Hanoi and Washington, prefers her own transport in Vietnam and like most young women rides a scooter to work, as public transport mostly doesn’t offer a “last-mile” solution.

A World Bank Survey found similar results: More women walk and use bikes than men in Vietnam.

“The public transport system in Hanoi isn’t good. I used to take the bus a long time ago during my undergraduate days. I faced the usual harassment then. Young boys would call out names and say words like ‘yummy’ and try to touch [women] in a crowd. I’ve rarely taken a public transport since then,” Ha says.

Women-Only Transport

Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, became the most recent city to introduce women-only buses in a bid to reduce sexual harassment. A 2013 World Bank report on gender and public transport in Nepal found 96 percent women prefer to sit or stand next to another woman in public transport, while 33 percent decided on a mode of transport based on personal security. While for many, women-only transport ensures safe public transit, others view segregation as reinforcing inequality.

In Mexico City, “There are subway cars for women and children only, but these spaces are not enough. The traveling population is very huge. Also special vehicles are not a permanent solution. There has to be more awareness towards respect for women,” says Rosario Carmona, a Mexican journalist.

Mexico, along with Japan, Brazil, Egypt, Russia, India, Dubai, and Iran, also has women-only subways, but many of their cities, like Delhi, still report high rates of harassment in public transport.

Julie Babinard, senior transport specialist at the World Bank Group, sees women-only carriages as a short-term fix and not a panacea.

“Emerging interest in women-only initiatives should be seen as an opportunity for improving security in cities, but not as a silver bullet for dealing with gender-based violence in transportation and urban settings,” she says.

Economic Growth

Transport relates intrinsically to whether women work outside the home—and that has a direct impact on efforts to tackle poverty and boost inclusive growth.

According to a national survey, only 11 percent of adult women in Saudi Arabia are employed: One reason is that most cannot afford drivers and Saudi law has long banned women from driving themselves.

Closing gender gaps in the world of work could yield enormous dividends for development. A Goldman Sachs study finds narrowing the gender gap in employment could push per capita income in emerging markets up to 14 percent higher by 2020.

Safe roads and transportation rank as a top priority globally. UN-led polling as part of consultations on what targets will succeed the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals, “better transport and roads” was listed in the top 10 by more than 7 million men and women who voted.

The message is getting through. In Washington this week, for example, the US National Academy of Sciences convenes the world’s largest meeting of transportation experts, with a number of gender-related sessions on the agenda.

For its part, the World Bank Group is providing Brazil with a US$500 million Development Policy Loan for a major infrastructure project to update Rio’s urban transport system. The project, which takes gender-based violence considerations into account, will ensure all stations have women’s restrooms and improved lighting. A similar initiative, with a US$205 million loan, is under way in Ecuador.

The need to factor gender considerations into all aspects of transport and infrastructure is urgent—and long overdue. The benefits to women and girls, their families, their prospects and communities are clear. Keeping them front and center should be a top priority.

This article is published in collaboration with The World Bank’s Voices Perspectives on Development Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Priyali Sur is a writer at The World Bank

Image: Passengers travel in a women-only bus in Kathmandu January 6, 2015.  REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar.