Thinking about women and public transport planning

Written by : Hannah Schultz, Consultant at Pegasys 

As a woman, I’ve received many safety tips for travelling: from the sensible (“always check your driveway before you pull up at night” and “always travel with your windows up”) to the paranoid (“if you hear someone walking behind you at night, cross the road. If the person crosses the road after you, run”) to the truly bizarre (“drive with a blow-up doll with a baseball cap next to you at night”). As a result, many women structure the way they travel around this kind of advice.

Travelling as a woman means that I have to monitor the way in which I interact with fellow travellers. For instance, men spread their legs on the train and get into my personal space, but I have to carefully moderate my interactions to ensure that I’m friendly enough but not so friendly that I give the wrong kind of message. Every time someone seems like they may be threatening, I do a complicated calculation based on their potential to hurt me, the proximity and trustworthiness of the nearest source of help and keeping an eye out for an exit strategy.

This being said, as a middle-class woman in South Africa I have economic privilege that cushions my travel experience. I own a car, which makes doing chores or transporting elderly relatives much easier (South African time use data shows that women spend almost 2.2 times more time than men on household chores). My neighbourhood has pavements and friendly security guards which means I don’t think twice about going for a run or walking to visit a friend. I can travel wearing a mini-skirt anytime I want to. When I go out at night, I can Uber home rather than having to find a public transport option.

Most women in South Africa do not have the same privileges as I do. We know that women in South Africa spend more time on domestic chores than men, be it shopping, collecting firewood or water, taking children to school, taking care of elderly relatives or doing household chores (we know that the lack of domestic appliances and electricity increases the burden of household chores). We also know that women are often responsible for care work, such as looking after children or caring for frail or disabled relatives. Women who are single mothers are often forced to hold down two jobs in order to support the family, and therefore often travel during odd hours, where safety is an issue.

Public transport systems (like other forms of urban design) tend to be designed around the needs and experiences of working men. Needs and experiences that are different from those of women. For example, whilst security is a concern for men, it doesn’t permeate their lives. In contrast, women worry continuously about safety. Women travel on the ‘rape clock’, making constant calculations about the risks to their safety.

Although transport planners try to ensure that public transport is safe, they often ignore safety on the routes that commuters must take to get to transit points, such as bus stations, as well as in public spaces such as public toilets. In these spaces, women must deal with the policing of their bodies and appearances by passing men – whether through shouts and whistles, or physical interference. In 2008 , a women was attacked and virtually stripped by a group of me who felt that her skirt was too short . This is not an isolated incident. Harassment of women in public spaces is an on-going problem.

In addition, however, public transport planners often don’t take the care-giving role of women into consideration, often under-counting the number of trips that care-givers need to take due to the simple fact that care-taking as a category isn’t included in transit surveys. Thus planners tend to ignore the side-trips that women during, or separate from, their commuting, in order to, for example, fetch children or visit an ill relative. As part of their care-giving activities, women tend to travel in off-peak hours where public transport services run less frequently.

International studies have found that women tend to choose cheaper modes of transport than men because they earn less or are carrying out non-remunerated household work and as a result, their journey times are longer. A journey is more than just the time spent in the taxi, bus or car. Public transport planners talk about the travel chain outlining how we get from one point to another. Each point in the travel chain involves a decision and implications for women.

Figure 1: The travel chain


We are a far cry from gender sensitive public transport in South Africa, but, as more new transport systems are developed, there is an opportunity to improve the situation. Whilst the Integrated Rapid Transport (IRT) systems being implemented in South Africa may not be designed specifically with gender in mind, they do have some in-built features that make them gender sensitive: they are integrated with other transport systems, have good security on the buses, are designed for wheelchair access which also facilitates easy access for women (and men) pushing prams, are affordable and have information about routes readily available. There are also regular and reliable off-peak services, and mechanisms for feedback should enable women to demand improvements as needed. While this begins to accommodate the needs of women using public transport more still needs to be. For example, security presence in the system is to be commended, but women will only be safe when the whole travel chain is secured – when walking to the bus stop does not pose safety risks to women. It is hoped that South Africa will build on the gains made by the IRPTN systems to build public transport systems that truly meet the needs of women.

Additional reading

  • Gender and Public Transport: Smart and Affordable

#public transport, #gender, #IRPTN, #unpaid labour, #rapeclock, #South Africa #travel chai

Twitter: @HannahS54589860

Date:  July 2015

Written by Admin on 16 July 2015