Balancing gender in shared mobility: How safe is it for women to travel sustainably?


Authors: Laura Babío, Lorenzo Lorefice POLIS Network

Contemporary society is facing issues such as the climate emergency, gender equality and the protection of civil rights, all of which are quite different from each other, but have in common an idea of progress that is no longer focused on mere economic development, but able to accommodate the real needs of all individuals, no category excluded, by providing them with fair living conditions while preserving the environment in which we all live.

Enhancing accessibility for everyone is one of the 17 goals aiming to “end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for everyone by 2030”[1] set by the United Nation in 2015 during the New York Summit for all cities in the world. More specifically, the fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) is to attain gender equality, for which some progress has been made over time but there is still a long way to go. As a matter of fact, although it is not something that strikes the eye directly, cities are planned according to a patriarchal logic that tends to not consider the needs of women that arise from this issue. The reasons related to this phenomenon are culturally and historically shaped: almost all professions during the 20th century were dominated by men, from medicine to architecture. According to this, planning approaches tended to favour white males and manage urban space according to the public use of men, while relegating women to the private and family sphere[2].

Statistics reports also show that a very low percentage of women are active as workers in the transport sector. Although usually, these reports focus on the personnel “on board” of the means of transport, there is also an incredibly low representation of women in the decision-making processes and in high-level positions, affecting the urban planning of the city and slowing down the achievement of a more efficient and sustainable public transport and shared mobility network for everyone.

In cities, women are more likely to use sustainable modes (walking, cycling and public transport) than men, who have a higher tendency towards motorised mobility reflecting also in their higher use of car sharing and other shared services. However, the same study shows how women increasingly prefer to drive a car when there is a child under 14 years old in the household, while with men there is hardly any difference in mode choice with or without a child. [3] Each person has different priorities due to their specific situations and experiences (Law, 1999) and, according to these priorities, they have their preferences for one or more modes of transport. These preferences are highly influenced by cultural and social inequalities: for what concerns car sharing, roots can be found in the higher likelihood of men having a driving license than women or the fact that in heterosexual couples it is often the male partner who takes the driver seat. The preference of women for walking, cycling and public transport also lies in the flexibility they offer, allowing women to accommodate several (caregiving) tasks in one trip. Nevertheless, research shows that the crucial criteria for women to decide on a mode of transport are safety-related, which is also one important reason why fewer women use bicycles and e-scooters than men.

For the purposes of better understanding, it is useful to provide an example that can show in a practical way the concerns women are forced to cope with. The Australian Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) published an article about a social media post that went viral asking women this hypothetical question: What would you do if there were no men on earth for 24 hours? Most of the answers were about being able to dress how they want and walk around at night without fear of possible violence[4]. The reactions make clear that sexual violence and gender-based safety on the streets are issues that still need to be faced. Women’s perspective conveys the idea of a patriarchal society, where urban planning has not been designed to make both genders feel comfortable. Poor lighting in some streets, parks, bus stops, limited surveillance of some areas through security cameras, together with the absence of tracking for some taxis and public transport are real examples showing that safety for women is not guaranteed in many cases and, in the worst ones is absent.

The aforementioned disparities are not reflected in the data collection process, thus perpetuating several patriarchal dynamics that should be overcome once and for all. Even for what concerns data collection, there is a lack of data granularity and very often biases are reproduced in surveys, overlooking female associated phenomena such as caregiving-related trips or trip-chaining, according to which journeys do not only involve a point of departure and arrival but several stops in between. Trip-chaining is a demonstrated gendered experience - while men tend to travel the home-work route without any stop in the middle, women in response to the gendered division of labour have many more stops in between that involve errands such as grocery shopping or taking children to school[5]. The Oslo Data Science Team understood this gender gap in data and, together with the Institute of Transport Economics (TOI), carried out a study exploring how gender affects bike sharing in Oslo. The data gathered showed that women used bikes in the outskirts areas with a high female employment rate, contrary to the city centre where men were overrepresented. Oslo City Bike used its data to adapt its operational model and provide more bikes and parking spots where women tend to start/end their trips more often. The data was also shared with other stakeholders involved in city planning so they can use the knowledge to improve accessibility. [6]

Tackling harassment will most likely need to be done by combining multiple measures such as the use of technology like phone apps to report harassment and identify particular hot spots, focusing on security improvements and enforcement mechanisms and the use of public awareness campaigns to raise attention on the issue. Transport for London sexual harassment campaign provides a great example of how a transport operator can facilitate and encourage reporting via different channels. [7]

Measures addressing gender issues in transport

In order to cope with all these challenges, many stakeholders have proposed several measures and tried to get them incorporated into government policies to build a more gender-neutral system that considers women’s needs. One of the first steps towards the realisation of this goal could be the greater involvement of women in the decision-making process of specific new policies or implementations. By doing so, the ideas of women, which represent half of the world population, will be taken into account, leading to a structural revolution in the transport system. For instance, in Delhi (India) an application called ‘MySafetyPin’ has been designed to allow women to leave feedback on the areas they have been in by ranking distinct safety-related parameters, such as brightness or visibility. By sharing this information with local authorities, women's participation is guaranteed, and the competent authorities know how to act to make the reported places better and safer. Although this application is a good method for enhancing women's involvement and understanding how and where to act in order to improve safety in neighbourhoods, it shows some shortcomings in usability and visibility that limit its use – such issues could be solved with higher support and incentives from public authorities.

In the UK, something comparable happened with gender auditing policy. Gender auditing allows local authorities to assess whether urban space and public transport are equipped with whatever items are needed to ensure the safeguarding of all people. Even though this initiative was launched by the UK Department of Transport in 2000, a later study (2005) by the Equal Opportunities Commission showed that municipalities often did not implement the policy while take-up was not monitored. As we can see, without the support of public authorities at all levels, well-elaborated measures and initiatives are difficult to integrate and normalize in everyday practice.

In addition to the safety of urban spaces, the gender-neutral policy should also include the safety of transport, such as the metro, where it is more difficult to intervene promptly if abuse occurs. In many countries of the world, from Mexico to Japan, several carriages on metro trains and buses have been specifically allocated for this purpose. The creation of specific cars for women and children allows these categories to travel safely, without fear of any kind of harassment or abuse. Despite the good purpose of this implementation, some doubts arise about the success of this measure, since the consequences could lead to other negative aspects. First, the segregation of any kind of category, specifically from a visual point of view, could contribute to perpetuating an ideal of diversification between men and women, or whatever categories we are talking about when the main objective is to ensure equality of genders and good coexistence between them. Secondly, what message could be conveyed by a woman who chooses not to sit in the safe carriage at three o'clock in the morning? The choice not to sit in a safe car does not justify any kind of violence and discrimination, but safety should be a basic premise everywhere, without leaving locations less protected than others. Furthermore, segregating wagons would make society fit into the binary category of gender, implicitly assuming that there are only two ones, male and female. This would contribute to the discrimination of non-binary people or people whose gender identity does not correspond to the gender they identify with. Perhaps, the idea of moving away from this binary conception, even though it is very interiorized in our way of thinking, could be one of the considered solutions as it would allow each individual to feel comfortable with themselves publicly in any place, at any time. Despite the pros and cons of this measure, it is also true that the protection of women must be safeguarded, so if the above-mentioned implementation reduces the possibility of harassment on public transport, it is right that it should be implemented, as it is right to leave a little food for thought with the aim of further improving the strategies to be carried out.

What is happening in the field of shared mobility?

Some private companies are taking action to increase road safety through training courses in order to raise awareness of safe e-scooter use. For example, the mobility operator TIER, teamed up with AA's DriveTech, to launch the first e-scooter theory test to assess people’s level of safety awareness by offering them a free ride on a TIER e-scooter[8]. In this way, people will be taught how to safely ride e-scooter, further incentivising women to use shared mobility as they will feel more confident in doing it.

Another initiative that has promoted night-time safety for women is located in Bolzano (Italy), also developed in other countries such as the UK or India, which is about the creation of so-called Pink Taxis, i.e., women-only transport services. This implementation would mean a step forward in gender equality, as it would prevent the risk of abuse and harassment at night, increasing the safety of the trip. Such initiatives often include women drivers, which is also used by companies as a measure to recruit women who would otherwise not sign up to drive although it is a complex issue since fewer drivers serving a large population could potentially decrease driver income and increase rider wait time. The complexity goes further as in the UK, Rosy and Pink Cabs, and Pink Ladies were women-only transport services that had to shut down due to regulatory issues[1], showing once again that the lack of support of public authorities' women-designed services often fail to thrive even when there is a need to cover.

One way to increase the female usage of bike sharing would be to put a bigger focus on e-bikes. A project carried out by ComoUK (2016) found out that e-bikes appear to help reassure women by providing battery assistance which delivers a boost with hills and to keep up with traffic flows.[2] E-bikes can undoubtedly encourage women to cycle - giving them confidence in their ability to do difficult longer, hilly trips or carry children and possibly the value of one way bike share in supporting complex trip chaining journeys.

To close the gender equality gap in the micromobility sector, the operator VOI joined forces with the non-profit organization Women in Transport to understand women’s perception of e-scooters and to address the identified challenges. Such initiatives and studies carried out by mobility operators can truly help to close the gender gap and make shared mobility a truly inclusive and equal mode of transport. [11]

Policy Recommendations

The examples mentioned showed that all private initiatives need public support in order to succeed and get established. Cities should cooperate with private companies to launch new solutions aiming at fostering safety and female gender inclusiveness. Moreover, the support of public authorities would be instrumental for the normalization of public intervention in funding and fostering implementations coming from the private sector. Mainstreaming these processes could help turn inclusive implementation from a wonderful initiative into a rule for every sustainable government policy.

So, by looking at the ways this gap has been addressed, awareness-raising campaigns on the issue of gender neutrality in public transport should be carried out, as this topic has not yet achieved the attention it deserves. People need to know that discrimination, inequality, and gender-based violence have historical roots, and in order to challenge them, it is necessary both to act through practical initiatives, but also to change the patriarchal ingrained mindset through education in schools, campaigns against gender-based violence, listening and involving women as much as possible in data collection and in the decision-making process.

To increase the female usage of shared mobility, cities and regions need to invest in safe and segregated infrastructure, regulating the equal distribution of services around the territory and not only in the city centre. On their side, operators need to do more research on their users and accommodate the needs of women in their services, by offering training, making their vehicles safer and adding new services such as including the baby car seat option in a shared car.

Inclusiveness is one of the main pillars of an accessible, efficient, and sustainable transport system as it allows all categories of people to have a voice in the development process and be a part of it.

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